about ; inter-mezzo

some notes on the countertenor voice

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Written for "New @ New West" series

The countertenor voice is the subject of much controversy in academic and operatic circles. Even those in the countertenor camp are divided as to which is the 'definitive' countertenor voice - is it the English 'straight' tone, or the Continental 'throaty' tone.

These debates stem in part due to the fragmented history of the voice, with the last operatic countertenor dying out with the castratos by the end of the 18th century. Rigid social conventions subsequently saw the male high voice as a travesty of nature - a bias that continues today as many modern countertenors feel that they must somehow still sound like a man.

Outside of the English cathedral tradition, the voice was never heard of again until Alfred Deller's revival of the voice in 1960s. Vital to his success was subsuming previously ambiguous (vocally and sexually) classifications of male alto, mezzo, falsetto etc. under a more marketable name - the countertenor.

Countertenors have typically restricted themselves to Early Music. And each generation claims to have the monopoly on the 'original' and 'definitive' ornamentation, timbre, interpretation, etc. of the period.This paradoxically consigns and entrenches Early music as being a historical footnote instead of a relevant force, and elides how we are still indebted to their innovations.

I choose instead to use the voice productively to critique conventions by dispensing with 'standard' repertoire and performance, after the spirit of Brechtian alienation: where the illusion is not only created but its conventions are also exposed at the same time. The intention is to inspire some to reflect on why it is wrong for a man to perform that way? and why is it ok for a woman to sing those 'inappropriate' songs?

It is my hope my gen(d)re - fuck interventions will somehow lead to a greater general tolerance.

- Stephen Chen