South African countertenor Christopher Ainslie makes his Central City Opera and North American debut in the title role in Amadigi di Gaula. Christopher now lives in London and has rapidly established himself as a leading interpreter of Baroque opera and oratorio in Great Britain and Europe.
This summer Central City Opera will have the opportunity to hear another Baroque opera which also means hearing a countertenor or two. Even having heard this voice type before, our readers are continually in shock and awe. Could you briefly explain when and how you came to discover you were a countertenor and what we should listen for in this unique voice type?
Despite the increased prominence of this voice with the revival of Baroque opera, the countertenor is still surprisingly little understood. And this is something I really enjoy – singing in a voice type whose technical and repertoire boundaries are still being actively explored. I came to sing countertenor through my experience growing up in a cathedral choir in Cape Town. After one’s career as a boy treble, most singers move to the alto ranks, where they find the range more or less comfortable – I found it very comfortable! I believe any man could train this part of his voice, but for some perhaps the vocal structure makes it easier than for others. My ‘other’ voice is a light baritone; David Daniels [another famous countertenor] was a tenor… it’s a choice to sing as a countertenor.
Technically speaking, the countertenor is not a falsetto, but rather a fully-supported use of the voice, with full vocal fold closure, and an exaggerated tilt to the larynx, which puts the voice into the higher register. Many singers do use the falsetto voice – a head voice, not fully connected to the body – and use forced air-pressure to create the higher register, which results in an airy or ‘hooty’ sound. (I think this might be where the misconception comes from, that the countertenor voice inherently has a shorter lifespan than other voices. If you blast enough air at any vocal structure, it won’t last long! But as the countertenor technique was being developed and explored, this is something that was often relied on, and thought to be the way that countertenors needed to sing.)
I believe the voice should be used technically just as any other voice type (perhaps most easily compared to a mezzo-soprano or alto), and that the standard expected of countertenors has for a long time been much too low! The mere fact that we can sing high is no longer enough, and people are now starting to expect us to match the technical standards of any other voice on stage – and rightly so. Things to listen for, I believe, are the absence of a ‘hooty’ or airy sound, and a sound that is connected to the body, i.e. not just a head voice. This does not necessarily mean a big sound – alas, far too often audiences seem to be impressed only by volume rather than vocal and expressive artistry – but a refined sound, with a healthy vibrato or “spin” like any other voice. On the whole, the things to look out for in a countertenor sound will be the same as those you look for in other voice types… beauty, colour, emotional and soulful expression and vocal artistry.
This summer you make your United States debut; what does this mean for a singer and what is your reaction to singing on a new continent, not to mention at 8,496 feet?
As for my United States opera debut, I am lucky to be based in the countries where much of the Baroque music we perform has its roots. And it is an incredible thrill to be part of the team bringing the opera for its United States premier. What a privilege and exciting prospect! I have sung in a few operas in the United Kingdom for the first time since the 1700s, and each time it is such a fortunate position to be in – to be presenting an opera for the first time, for all practical purposes; something nearly everyone listening will never have heard before. In a way this takes us back to what it might have been like in Baroque times, before the age of recording equipment, and this is something I find very exciting. As the countertenor becomes more accepted and well known, and as the repertoire grows – both by rediscovery of baroque works and by new composition – I hope this will help open the door to many of the wonderful stages in the United States, and I look forward to coming back again and again!
I have heard of the stunning beauty of the area surrounding Central City Opera, and also of the challenge of singing at such an altitude, and I look forward to both the beauty and the challenge!! As I prepare the role, I am trying to imagine being out of breath all the time… I hope this will help prepare me!
You began your career as a boy chorister and now you are a young singer whose career is really taking off. What advice do you have for other aspiring young artists?
Advice for up-and-coming young artists – I think it is fundamentally important that performers develop their styles based on what is important to them – not what “the industry” expects. Each singer’s gift is unique and as valid or special as any other, and I think it is really important to acknowledge where one’s performing spirit comes from and lies, and bring this to the stage. This variety of individuals on the stage is something so special…embrace your uniqueness!!
How do you approach creating a new character? Any special research you will do to create Amadigi?
Of course the pure vocal and memory work is a large chunk of preparing for a role, but with this comes a process of personalizing the role, which is crucial in creating a character. While I am learning the music, I develop my personal reasons for every utterance that the character makes. It may sound obvious, but nothing can be sung just because that’s what Mr. Händel wrote! In Händel’s day, the performers may have approached their roles in a different way. We aim to be true to the musical style, to the best of our knowledge, but the characterization of roles is a very different game to what it would have been (unless we go in for a pure baroque-gesture performance, but that’s not what this show is about!). For me it is about finding a direct link to my centre, and allowing this to come through in the music Händel wrote, and feeling how that is expressed in my physicality. Then I arrive at rehearsals, and the creative process together with the rest of the cast and musical and stage directors begins, and this is something I look forward to with great anticipation!!
The article is included in the 2011 Opera Insider (Festival Resource Guide) – pdf created by Central City Opera’s Education & Community Programs Department, and the interview was conducted by Deven Shaff, Coordinator of Education & Community Programs. Check out many more insider interviews and background on all of the main stage operas this summer.