Caveat: this article should be considered a work in progress and is under development, as all articles here are. I’m currently in the process of digging up the (badly needed) references and citations. Thanks for your patience.
Falsetto vs. Chest Voice: The Anatomical Difference
If you want to understand countertenors and the high male voice, you’ve got to understand the word “falsetto.”
There’s a lot of misunderstanding about the word and what it means, though. To a lot of people, any male voice singing high is a falsetto. Others, and they include supposedly knowledgeable people, may state with great and solemn authority that either men or women have no falsetto voice.
Neither is the case. Anatomically, a falsetto is something that all humans possess and that all humans have used at least a few times in our lives. It’s not simply a high voice, and it’s not specific to men or women.
All human larynges (“larynxes” if you prefer the everyday plural) can produce sound in a number of ways. The most common style and the one that’s used most often in singing is called “modal voice” and is used for normal talking.
In this method of producing sound, the vocal cords vibrate in their entirety. This creates feelings of vibration in the speaker’s chest, which has caused people to refer to it as chest voice. Thus “chest voice” and “modal voice” describe the same thing.
(picture of modal LS image)
However, this isn’t the only way that you can use your larynx. If you are singing and sustaining a lowish, comfortable note for you, try sliding slowly up the scale. After a time, you’ll find that your throat feels the need to “break” or “crack” into another way of producing sound. There will be an area of overlap of about an octave or so, a range in which your voice can go both ways. But past that break point, you’ll find that you can reach those higher notes much more easily. They’ll sound a little thin or flutey to you and be less loud, though.
(picture of falsetto LS image)
That is falsetto voice. It is also called “head voice,” chiefly because the sensation of resonance occurs in the head when a singer is using that style of sound production, as opposed to the modal voice, which creates vibrations in the chest.
When the larynx is producing sound using this method, the lion’s share of the vocal cords are held straight and do not vibrate. Only the very edges of the cords vibrate. Since less mass is moving, the vibrations can be faster and the larynx can generate higher frequencies than in chest voice, where the entire mass of the vocal cords are vibrating. Thus, people can reach higher notes using their falsetto. It’s analogous to why the thick, chunky strings on a piano produce the lowest notes, where as the far thinner strings at the other end produce much higher notes. On the whole, lighter, thinner bits held more tightly mean higher notes.
However, since only the thin, small edges of the vocal cords are vibrating in falsetto, the sound has less power and richness and often comes across as flutey or kazoo-like.
All humans with a healthy larynx can produce sound like this, without exception, men and women both. However, because men’s chest voices are normally so much lower and louder than their falsettos and feature much more richness, the difference between a male chest voice and falsetto is much more noticeable than the difference between a female chest voice and falsetto. Women, after all, can hit fairly high notes already in chest voice and thus have little need of falsetto, and when they transition from one to the other, it’s not as glaring.
Lastly, most men’s chest voices are lower than most women’s, but by using their falsetto voices, most men can manage to hit notes only accessible by women. (Some basso profundo men — think Barry White — may have falsettos that would push them only into the tenor range.) However, since the falsetto is less loud and rich (and often less nimble), such voices are still at a disadvantage compared to the female chest voice, or any chest voice.
That area of overlap where a singer can go both ways is called the passaggio and is the bane of most singers’ existence. Since the quality of sound changes so sharply across the passaggio, a singer can’t simply hop over it without creating a noticeable shift in their voice. One style of singing, yodeling, highlights the change in vocal color via hopping quickly back and forth across the passaggio multiple times. In most cases however, learning to navigate across the passaggio smoothly to keep this transition from sounding like a clunky gear shift takes a lot of training and effort for most singers, especially men, whose voices change much more noticeably when crossing it.
So in summary:
- Chest voice: Also called modal voice or how you use your larynx to speak normally. The entirety of the vocal cords are vibrating, and vibrations are felt in the singer or speaker’s chest. Because the entire mass of the vocal cords are vibrating, you hit lower notes when you use your larynx this way, and the sound is richer and louder.
- Falsetto: Also called head voice, which you might use to laugh or when expressing surprise or shock. Only the very edges of the vocal cords are vibrating, and there is little resonance felt by the singer or speaker in the chest. Because only the thin edges of the vocal cords are vibrating, you can reach much higher notes when using your larynx this way, but the sound is less rich and less loud.
- Passaggio: This is the area of transition that a singer must pass through when going from chest voice to falsetto or vice versa. Negotiating this gracefully is a significant challenge for singers, particularly for men, whose chest and falsetto voices can sound very different.
There are other ways that the larynx can produce sound, but these two are overwhelmingly what’s used in singing. These other ways of producing sound include things like creak voice, grunt voice, and whistle voice. The first two are used in some forms of contemporary music and are very tough on the vocal cords, and the last one is much more accessible to the small larynxes of equally small children (seemingly always outside one’s window at 8am on Saturday).
Overall though, when singing, it’s either chest voice or falsetto. All people can reach higher notes using their falsetto than they can using their chest voice, but some rare men’s chest voices are high enough to equal other men’s falsettos, so you can’t reliably judge whether a man is using his falsetto voice simply by how high he’s going. And while most men’s falsetto voices lack richness, power, and agility compared to any chest voice, some rare men’s falsettos are quite pleasant, although still at a relative disadvantage to a male (or female) chest voice.
Women also possess a falsetto voice, but since many women can already hit fairly high notes, falsetto is of far less use to women. The female falsetto is also not as distinctively different in sound quality from the female chest voice, and hence it’s less instantly noticeable when a woman shifts from one to the other; negotiating the passaggio is less clunky for women. However, it is there and can be detected; witness Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, who uses easily recognized yodeling in her group’s music.
Under the assumption that the change in vocal color between chest and falsetto voices in women is less noticeable, some voice specialists speculate that there are more than a few women who are natural contraltos currently singing soprano simply by using their falsetto exclusively; these would be the female equivalents of male falsettists. Since there is less of a glaring difference between the female falsetto and chest voice, it has gone unremarked. I’d like to find out more about this possibility before accepting it as fact, though. I can’t imagine a voice trainer so incompetent that he or she couldn’t tell whether one of their own students is in chest or falsetto voice.
The High Male Voice: History, Techniques, and Definitions
The word countertenor began to be used in medieval times, when women were forbidden to sing in church, although they did sing in secular settings and in convents, and even their banning from churches was quite patchy due to the fragmented politics of most areas. Women did sing in some few churches, in convents certainly, and on stage in many secular settings as well.
Typical church music of the time used balanced three- or four-part harmony vaguely analogous to modern barbershop; the harmonies were very different (barbershop uses a lot of dominant sixths and sevenths), but the general structure was the same: three or four voices, all of equal prominence, with the second one down holding the melody, and all working in exact synchrony, no call-and-response or lead singer-and-backup stuff.
In three-part church harmony (“polyphonic” or many-voice harmony), the three parts were as follows:
- The countertenor altus, which was voice that harmonized over the lead — and indeed, the term means “against and above” the tenor.
- The tenor, which was the voice in the middle that held the melody. This is where the word “tenor” comes from, since the word means “one who holds” in Latin.
- The countertenor bassus, which harmonized below the lead — “against and below” the tenor.
In time, the lowest part became known as simply “bassus” or basso, and countertenor altus part was capped with a “superius,” later called soprano, resulting in the four vocal parts familiar to us today of soprano, alto, tenor, and basso. (“Countertenor altus” became “countertenor” when sung by a man, and “alto” when sung by a woman, but occupied the same register space.) However, these were all words used to describe vocal parts in church singing, not individual singers.
Now, since there were few to no women singing in many churches at the time, the countertenor altus also needed to be sung by men, and there were a few ways it could be done. A chapelmaster could use:
- a young boy whose voice hadn’t dropped yet, which would mean one voice would be weaker than the rest, or
- an adult male falsettist, not as weak as a boy but still weak and a bit breathy, or
- a castrato, believed to be a guaranteed a way to get a high male voice, or
- a naturally high-voiced man, very rare and the most highly prized option even in medieval times.
As women were welcomed to sing in church, a fifth option arose: a woman singing the countertenor part. But most often, you could find a male without testosterone (either boy or castrato), or a falsettist, or a naturally high-voiced man. These were all in the pool that a chapelmaster would choose from to pick someone to sing the countertenor part. If the chapelmaster chose a boy, he might supplement him with a male falsettist singing behind him since the boy’s voice would otherwise be so much weaker than the other three adult voices.
And that was it. The countertenor altus (later countertenor) part could be sung by any of those people.
However, the first and second were weaker than ideal, and the fourth was exceptionally rare. The third, the castrato, was believed the simplest way to ensure a suitably strong high male voice when one was needed. (However, even this was not a 100% guarantee. Castration gave a boy a high voice, but not necessarily a beautiful one. Most grown men are baritones, but this does not make them all capable of singing Wotan. Nevertheless, the belief of the time was that castration and vocal training could take a poor boy and make him wealthy and famous beyond his — and his family’s — wildest dreams, and thus was the practice born and tolerated, although it was considered morally questionable even at the time.)
The High Male Voice in Opera and its Disappearance
During the early days of opera and for several centuries afterward, the high male voice reigned supreme, as did all high voices — and such voices were almost uniformly castrato voices. The aesthetic of the 1600s and 1700s was solo virtuosity and improvisation; high voices — men and women both — and the people who owned them were loved as extreme and otherworldly, and their owners were expected to dazzle through improvising wildly on a score only meant to be followed roughly. They were the vocal equivalent of rock’s guitar heroes, and the music was written to showcase them.
Arias in operas of the time were structured much like a classic 3-minute pop song: a main theme, a “middle-8,” and a return to the main theme with some flash and dazzle added this time. And there was a great deal of flash and dazzle in these arias, called “da capo” arias, meaning “from the top” and denoting the return to the main theme after the middle-8. Direct transcriptions of performances of the time show a vocal line brimming with trills, scales, grace notes, and all manner of other decoration.
In time however, this aesthetic changed, and composers began to insist that their music be performed as written. Previously, the soloists had used the composer’s work as means of expressing their own artistic ideas, but with this shift the composers began to subordinate the soloists as a means of bringing their own vision to life. Realism was also prized instead of over-the-top spectacle. It was a bit like the shift from the song-and-dance filled fantasy cinema of the 1930s to the grittier, more realistic look of the following decades.
And one of the casualties of this desire for increasing realism and less emphasis on the eye-popping soloist was the castrato voice. Of course, such things must be considered together with the papal banning of castration for musical reasons, but by the time the ban was in place (in the early 20th century!) the castrato voice had already been passé for some seventy years. The tenor, after two centuries in the shadows, became the most celebrated male voice and remained that way for the entire 20th century. (It’s worth noting though, that after assuming center stage, even the tenor’s range moved steadily upward. Many of the parts written for what was called a tenor voice in the Baroque era verge on what we would today consider baritone. The vacuum left by the absence of the high male voice is apparently sufficient even to pull all “normal” male registers upward in its absence.)
Thus, due to the 19th-century reaction against the extravagance of 17th and 18-century music — a reaction which continued through the entire 20th century as well — the castrato voice went entirely out of style. The devotion to individual singers that it had inspired, along with the desire for blazing decorative vocal lines, attached themselves to the highest of the female voices.
However, when the castrato went out of style, it took all other high male voices with it, including the natural high male voices that came as a gift of nature and not the barber’s knife. Due to the operatic world reacting against the castrati and the style of extravagant, on-the-spot virtuosity associated with them, even natural male altos had no place in the programs of most opera companies for over 150 years.
Over time, this absence became ossified. The belief that such voices belonged to the past became a belief that they could not exist in the present. Opera and classical music shunned them, and thus the only place where they have surfaced for the entire 20th century, with extremely limited exceptions, has been in the world of contemporary music. Parallels of course beg to be drawn between the glory days of the high male voice in the world of superstar-driven operatic extravagance, and how such voices found a home-away-from-home in the equally superstar-driven and extravagant world of pop and rock; the high male voice seems most at home in an over-the-top world of soloist worship. However, these musings are perhaps more within the sphere of sociology than music.
At any rate, such voices were effectively removed from the classical and operatic world for a century and a half and instead found their home in contemporary popular music. Because of this, any understanding of the natural high male voice must take the world of contemporary voice into account. For this reason, the following article will assume an awareness of and genuine respect for the great high male voices of popular music. It is senseless for the world of classical voice to systematically exclude an entire category of voice and then justify their ignorance of it by stating that it is not within their purview. It is equally senseless for the world of classical voice to banish this category of performer into a separate genre, and then refuse to acknowledge the wisdom and specialized knowledge of that genre when they finally become aware of it again.
Put plainly, male falsettists and natural altos have performed to great acclaim for decades within the world of contemporary popular music, and nearly not at all within the world of classical voice for roughly a century. This is not a voice type in which academic classical voice enthusiasts can necessarily claim greater expertise.
Countertenor Taxonomy: Part, Person, or Role & Questions of Vocal Technique
This century-and-a-half long absence has also introduced some misunderstandings in the world of opera and classical voice as well. There’s been a huge revival of interest in operas featuring very high males voices lately — operas of what’s called the Baroque period, (very) roughly the 17th and 18th centuries. However, during the 20th century, many of those old extremely high male roles, when they were sung at all, were stepped down an octave so a tenor or baritone could handle them. When they were sung at pitch, which was rarely, they were sung by female mezzos in male costume.
Nowdays, with the increasing popularity of grown men singing these roles at pitch, the task is to find ones who can. And of course, in the taxonomy-obsessed world of classical voice, the next question is what label to place on them. To make things more complicated, since the high male voice has been out of fashion for so long, the menagerie of classification schemes for it have fallen into disuse, and words that were once well understood to have a defined meaning are no longer quite so well understood.
For the reasons discussed above, the natural male alto is believed nonexistent in the classical world. Adding to that is the fact that falsettists are simply more common, and they’ve always been; every man has a falsetto voice, even if most of them sound like kazoos. And since most men are baritones, and most baritones’ falsettos land them in the alto range … the pool of possible good falsetto voices in the countertenor range is much larger than the pool of possible good high male chest voices. Compared to the Whitman’s Sampler of falsettists working in Baroque opera nowdays, there is one naturally high-voiced man, and he sits stratospherically above the female alto range, bills himself as a “male soprano,” and really does need to be considered separately.
For reasons that will be explained later, the word “countertenor” has been dusted off and put into use to refer to the men who are currently singing these roles. Couple that to the false belief that natural high male voices do not exist, alongside the very real fact that falsettists are more common, and what this amounts to is that all men currently referred to by this term are falsettists.
So to a lot of today’s classical and Baroque hardcores, “countertenor” has erroneously become a $10 word for “falsettist.” After all, it’s the only high male voice that today’s opera lovers have ever paid attention to for a century and a half, although not the only kind they’ve heard.
However, this range-versus-technique confusion presents us with multiple difficulties. First, it creates a massive taxonomic confusion that has extended even to the sopranist Phillippe Jaroussky being mislabeled a countertenor because he sings in a falsetto voice, despite doing so in the soprano range and hence not being “against and above” the tenor at all.
Second, restricting the term “countertenor” to falsettists-only leaves out the equally high male chest voices — which do exist but only outside of the classical world — who are capable of singing exactly the same operatic roles. Going the other way and broadening the term to include falsetto and chest voices is no better, since this would group two types of singer using two very different vocal techniques under the same term, which is a stretch.
This taxonomic clash causes a problem because classical voice definitions define not only people but roles, making it possible to match performer to part. For example, Mario Cavaradossi of “Tosca” is a lyric tenor role, sung by a lyric tenor. The dramatic soprano roles written by Wagner are sung by dramatic sopranos. With the same label on role and performer, it’s possible for an opera company director to match one to the other while he or she is planning the coming season.
Therefore, if King Bertarido of “Rodelinda” is a countertenor role, then he should be sung by a countertenor singer. Using a separate term to describe high male chest voices would create a collision between the terms when a man whose label reads “tenor” is auditioning for a countertenor role.
Again though, the techniques used to sing falsetto versus chest voice are quite different. Placing two such different vocalists under the same umbrella term because they can nonetheless sing the same roles is very clumsy. Another narrower term is needed to define a vocalist’s type of countertenor, one that will take the technique-based differences into account and yet still permit the classification of both types of voice as “countertenor” and hence viable for the roles of Tamerlano, Giulio Cesare or Tolomeo, and Unulfo or Bertarido.
At its heart, the conflict is caused by the fact that the alto range is the only one in which men can sing using two techniques. The word itself is a range-based definition — that which sings against and above the tenor, meaning alto range — and yet the vast majority of men who do so use one particular technique to manage it. This has caused a range-based vocal definition to have become simply a bookish synonym for falsettist, and has caused an entire category of male voice type to lose a common defining term.
Happily, there are such terms, but as the high male voice has been out of fashion, they have gone unknown and unused for a very long time. The term for a man who sings in the countertenor range using chest voice and only using falsetto in his extreme upper end is “tenor altino” or “haute contre.” I will use the first, but the two terms should be considered interchangeable.
So once again, the basic definitions are as follows, with a non-exhaustive list of examples of each type drawn from classical and popular music:
Countertenor: Guys singing alto. This is what the word itself means, “against and above the tenor,” meaning alto range. The three possible types are:
- Falsettist: Guys singing alto in falsetto.
- Classical: Andreas Scholl, David Daniels, Michael Chance, James Bowman, Alfred Deller
- Pop/Rock: Jimmy Somerville, Brian Wilson, Franki Valli, occasionally Mick Jagger
- Again, to many people, countertenor equals falsettist. And not all men’s falsettos sit in the alto range. Some men with extremely deep voices would probably never reach the female registers even in falsetto, and some men with high chest voices may have falsettos that sit in mezzo or soprano. (Such men, such as the aforementioned Jaroussky, are properly called “sopranists.”) Most men’s falsettos, however, land right in the middle of the alto range.
- Tenor altino: Guys singing alto in chest voice.
- Classical: Russell Oberlin
- Pop/Rock: Neil Sedaka, Steve Perry, Art Garfunkel, Smokey Robinson
- This is an extremely rare voice type. Note that all are Americans. I’ve tried to list the pop ones in descending order of range; ranking Perry and Sedaka presents a challenge as Sedaka’s range is completely circumscribed by Perry’s. Perry however used his voice much, much more vigorously, causing it to drop it relative to Sedaka while still circumscribing his range. Garfunkel is a half-and-half, sitting directly between high tenor and low alto.
- Castrato: Guys singing alto (or even soprano) in chest voice because they have no testosterone and sometimes no balls.
- Classical: Alessandro Moreschi, Radu Marian
- Pop: Ain’t none
- Moreschi was the last of the surviving castrati, who was recorded a century ago when he was 60 years old. The modern-day Marian is believed to have an endocrine disorder. The other best known names are Senesino (alto) and Farinelli (mezzo), but no recordings survive of them.
All other options also require the absence of testosterone by using either a woman or a young boy. The three options above are the only ones for adult males. The first two are the only options for healthy adult males — you were either born with a naturally high voice, or you squeak your way in by using your falsetto (pun not intended but I’ll take it anyway). That’s it.
There’s one other vocalist around that I should mention. His name’s Michael Maniaci, also an American. His voice is very light and high and sits naturally in the soprano register, far above Oberlin and Perry. He’s quite healthy, and unlike Radu Marian, he has no endocrine disorder; his larynx simply never matured for whatever quirk of fate. Consequently, he cannot be considered an endocrinological castrato.
Maniaci was born with a slight facial palsy that resulted in the right side of his face having significantly less nerve insertion that the left and being consequently less mobile. It isn’t terribly noticeable — his features are pleasant and attractive — but if his larynx also has unusual nerve insertion, it may have affected that body part’s ability to respond to his testosterone. Indeed, his voice has transformed partially, but not entirely. As Maniaci himself states, while his “vocal cords did lengthen and thicken somewhat, they didn’t to the extent that most men experience.”
The rest of him, however, most certainly did respond to his testosterone. Maniaci may have the larynx of a castrato, but unlike them, he also has the (rather burly) body of a hormonally normal man. Hence, he does not sound like a castrato. He does not sound like a falsettist, nor does he sound like a typical man, and he doesn’t sound like a woman, either. He could be considered the extreme end of the spectrum represented by the altinos, but he is so radically far above them and so very unique that he really is his own category.
Geographic and Cultural Differences in the Definition of Countertenor
It’s also worth noting that a lot of very well-respected counters disagree on how to define the word, and many of those differences of opinion are geographically and culturally correlated. The up-to-that-point unused-for-a-century word was consciously chosen in the 1950s by falsettist Alfred Deller, the man most responsible for the revival of interest in the male falsetto in Great Britain. As the word was strongly identified with Deller in Britain, it became synonymous with “falsettist” there, despite the fact that it has never been used before to describe falsettists exclusively. There were and are a lot more falsettists in Britain, where they’ve had a tradition of that sort of church singing since the middle ages. Northern Europe has as well; the German Andreas Scholl, who is by far the best of the classical falsettists, adores Bronski Beat and calls the Scots pop falsettist Jimmy Somerville a countertenor. So in much of Britain and northern Europe, the word has altered its historic meaning and come to be identified almost exclusively with the male falsetto.
However, muddying things further, Michael Chance, another British falsettist, says that a falsettist isn’t really a counter, maintains that a true countertenor is in fact a high male and most often castrato chest voice according to the way the term has been used historically, and that he and others like him are better called “male altos,” a term often used to mean “falsettist.” (This term is why I’ve been careful to use the words “natural male alto” to refer to a man singing in that range in a chest voice.)
In the United States, we have never had a tradition of falsetto singing, and so the idea of a man singing high would not necessarily bring to mind that of a man singing falsetto for us. In fact, the American Russell Oberlin, the best known of the 20th century classical altinos, called himself the only true counter since he used chest voice and not falsetto. While there are a number of wonderful ones lately, American classical falsettists are a fairly recent thing; without an historical tradition of falsetto singing, Americans tend to think of it as fake and affected. We’re likely to think that a man singing falsetto isn’t really singing high but is only using a trick.
Miscellaneous Other Voice-Related Terms
Now, there are a few more terms used to define voices, and I’ll talk about a few of them here just for completeness’s sake since they aren’t really germane to this discussion. Two of these terms are called vocal weight and tessitura.
Vocal weight is a stylistic term, and the two words used to describe a singer’s vocal weight are lyric and dramatic. These terms are more significant in a classical context, where singer and part must be matched to one another, but their definitions are of use in a contemporary setting as well. A lyric voice is one that is light, sweet, and relatively nimble. In contrast, a dramatic voice is one that is more forceful, with a stronger declamatory style.
Clearly, these two terms aren’t perfectly defined, in a classical or a contemporary setting. Some singers such as the highly flexible soprano Maria Callas were known for moving easily back and forth between the two. Others, like Beverly Sills (not always but most often lyric) and Deborah Voigt (strong dramatic) are happier sitting in one or the other slot. Other examples might be Pavarotti (most often lyric) versus Caruso (dramatic). If it isn’t obvious from these descriptions, lyric voices are often more flexible in weight provided they don’t spend too much time on the dramatic side of the fence, whereas dramatic voices seem happiest right where they are.
In order to understand these words in contemporary terms relevant to this discussion, one could consider Art Garfunkel to be a lyric voice, while Steve Perry is a dramatic one. Interestingly, this places Perry in an even rarer category as the vast majority of altinos are lyric voices; classical altino Russell Oberlin began his career as a high lyric tenor and only began to refer to himself as a countertenor when it became clear to him that it was within his ability. Perry as a dramatic altino is in an extremely small category; the only other voice that might come close is that of Freddie Mercury, who lacked Perry’s precision or control, although he had a lovely, very pure vocal color and considerable power.
At any rate, these two voices (Garfunkel and Perry) function well to distinguish the two weight types in contemporary terms for audiences unfamiliar with the operatic singers mentioned previously. In general, lyric voices showcase their sweetness, whereas dramatic voices showcase their power. And the two terms are somewhat subjective and of course overlap one another. Garfunkel’s voice was capable of respectable power, and Perry’s could be quite light. As in opera though, Garfunkel’s lyric voice could more easily verge temporarily into dramatic territory, while Perry seemed most at home in forceful declamation. Even vocally, it’s easier to put on weight than to take it off, although not for extended periods of time without strain.
The second term, tessitura, is used to describe the subset of a singer’s full range where they feel most comfortable. It’s a highly subjective term and of most importance to the singer themselves, often influencing the roles an operatic singer will choose, and the music written by or for contemporary singers.
Differences in Vocal Strength and Quality
And since I’ve mentioned them, I should also bring up castrati. These are what you think they are — men with no testosterone and often no balls. This kept their voices artificially high, but it had other effects on their voices and bodies as well. The larynx remained youthful, but it also did not shift its position in the throat downward with the onset of puberty as the larynges of healthy adults of both sexes do. This means that the larynx of a castrato remains closer to the resonating chambers of the head (mouth, nose, sinuses) than it otherwise would have been. Also, the throat and chest remain narrower than those of typical men. Thus, the castrato voice is not only very high but almost aggressively bright and completely without the texture given a normal male or female voice by the resonating chambers of the lower throat and chest.
This near-total absence of darker vocal tones made their voices (in my opinion) a lot squeakier and less rich. Frankly, to judge from the rare very old recordings of the last surviving castrato and the few men around today who sing that high due to hormonal issues, they sound like ringtones. Senesino may have been castrated to hit the same notes that the popular altinos mentioned above hit naturally, but while his classical training would have outstripped them (I’ve never in my life heard any of them even come close to a good trill or — excepting Garfunkel — a messa di voce; they’re just not common modern techniques), Senesino’s voice would likely have lacked their richness and resonance due to his not possessing a healthy, normal male throat, head, and chest.
The altinos, including the much higher but otherwise perfectly normal Maniaci, sound a lot richer and more resonant since they are healthy, normal men with healthy male bodies. They have unusually high voices for whatever reason, but their larynges are properly positioned in their throats and their bodies are also properly proportioned. During medieval times, such voices were prized even over the castrati. The advantages the castrati had were over the boy sopranos (since boy sopranos had identical light voices but lacked adult lung power) and the falsettists (since falsettists had breathier voices and less power, though greater power than the boy sopranos). However, while the castrati had adult lung capacity, they lacked depth and richness for the reasons mentioned above.
So, falsettists have high voices but are often breathy and less strong. Boy sopranos aren’t breathy, but are weaker still and lack depth without healthy adult male resonance. Castrati aren’t breathy and are strong, but also lack depth.
The altinos alone are the males with the triple crown of a naturally high voice, adult lung capacity, and well-structured adult male bodies. Thus they are the ones that make people rock back on their heels a bit and have for centuries since their voices are extremely full and beautiful. High, but with a nice stripe of darkness beneath them that keeps them from being piercing as some high female voices can be. The female counterpart to them is the equally prized female contralto (Annie Lennox, Aretha Franklin, the great Marian Anderson, Carly Simon, Ewa Podles, etc.) — low but bright, nimble, and clear, without the muddiness that often mars the low male voice.
Now, it can be a bit hard to tell a falsettist apart from an altino if you’re not used to male voices that are that high; I’ve heard even Perry’s stentorian voice casually referred to as falsetto, which it is absolutely not. But if you hear these men talk, it’s instantly obvious who’s singing how. The good falsettists are nearly always low tenors or baritones when they sing or talk normally. The increased depth of their speaking voices is part of what keeps their falsettos from sounding like kazoos.
Altinos on the other hand have extremely light, high natural speaking voices — often the lightness of a boy’s voice wedded to the power and darkness of a grown man’s. You may have a hard time telling Oberlin apart from Scholl if you aren’t used to hearing a man singing that high, but if you hear them talk, you’ll know immediately. Scholl, along with the other falsettists, has a deep speaking voice, and Oberlin (like Perry, Robinson, and Sedaka) has a much, much lighter and higher speaking voice — high enough for even a casual listener to notice.
Although predictions based on someone’s body are not always trustworthy, you can often tell the difference by looking at these men as well, or at least get a general idea of who might be a falsettist versus an altino. Altinos tend to be of slighter build while the best of the falsettists are downright big. It’s no accident that Scholl, Daniels, Bowman, and Chance are all large men, whereas Oberlin, Sedaka, Perry, Robinson, and even Garfunkel are all of much slighter build. Again, it’s not a guarantee or else slim falsettist Drew Minter would be an altino and the burly Maniaci a falsettist, but it is a predictable general trend.
Even when they sing, an attentive listener can tell the difference; a falsettist isn’t using all of his vocal cords to sing but only the very edges. As a result, the voice is weaker and breathier and more easily swamped by an orchestra. That’s why it was most often accompanied through history by a single lute or a very tiny chamber orchestra. It’s also why so few falsettists have ever worked in operas to be honest, even back when high male voices were in fashion; a falsettist has a hard time filling your typical concert hall when working alongside baritones, tenors, and sopranos who are using their full voices. Balancing a full orchestra and four or five chest voices with one guy singing at half-strength is a juggling act. A falsettist may be able to sing the old Senesino roles at pitch, but it’s still a workaround, and everyone else has to ratchet down to keep from swamping him. (Lately, the best falsettists have been working on this, and have made great strides.)
However, an altino is using all of his vocal equipment and hence he can sing with much more power. Such men can be backed by full 110-piece orchestras (or amplified four-piece rock bands) and still be easily heard over them, even taking their own microphones into account. In a decision that created some bad blood a few decades back, Oberlin as an altino was chosen over British falsettist Alfred Deller to sing Oberon in Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” when the opera debuted in Covent Garden, despite Deller having originated the role. The producers feared that Deller’s falsetto would never be able to carry in a large hall, and that Oberlin’s full voice could, hence their decision to use the American altino. And there are stories of Perry filming a music video with his old bandmates (the legendarily bad video for the equally good song “Separate Ways” ) and singing while doing so to keep from feeling awkward. He handily drowned out the recorded music that they would play to keep everyone synchronized during the filming, something no falsettist could have done.
The Final Wrap-Up and The Future of the Term
So, in summary:
- A tenor altino or haute contre is a healthy adult man who sings in a chest voice substantially within the range called alto when sung by a woman.
- A falsettist is a man who sings within that range in a falsetto voice. (Some falsettists sit in soprano range and are called sopranists.)
- A countertenor is a man who sings within that range, period.
The only other way for it to be done is to remove testosterone from the equation.
Nowdays, due to the resurgence of the more common male falsetto in opera, “falsettist” and “countertenor” are beginning to be equated to one another, even in the US where they have traditionally been seen as separate.
In my opinion, this is a temporary state of affairs. The altinos mentioned previously (two of which, Perry and Garfunkel, are greatly respected contemporary voices) handily demolish the false belief that natural high male voices no longer exist, which makes me wonder if any of the classical and opera cognoscenti who promote this belief have ever listened to the radio. The same “expert” who blithely states that such voices don’t exist anymore will nonetheless drive home from work, switch on his car radio, and sing along with “Breakin’ Up Is Hard To Do” one octave down without the slightest awareness. This belief, which is only ever dented and never punctured by modern exceptions “like this one over here” (and that one, and that one, oh and that one as well … ) has simply got to give way.
The current resurgence in popularity of the high male voice in opera will begin attracting talented, ambitious altinos who will start performing the legendary castrato roles at pitch, in chest voice. These men are rare but not impossible, and their rarity in the classical world is only due to their having been rejected by it for a century and a half.
Another Oberlin will surface, and the next Sedaka, Perry, Garfunkel, or Mercury may, especially if he isn’t a songwriter, feel a pull toward classical voice rather than pop or rock. I imagine the man in question, whoever he may be, is in college at the moment and calls himself a high lyric tenor. He probably anticipates a career in the high Rossini repertoire. He will attend a party with his music school friends and be dared by one of them to sing “Vivi, tiranno” at pitch, and he’ll do so, surprising them and himself.
The second this man pops off a “Furibondo” or “Dove sei” at pitch in a well-known venue, the words “a real countertenor” will start surfacing in reviews, and all but the very best of the falsettists will find themselves placed at an immediate, permanent disadvantage.
And as the world of opera finally begins to adjust to the existence of such voices within its purview after over a hundred years of absence, the definition of “countertenor” will shift again. It’s just a matter of time.
Good starter options for people curious about the history of opera and the high male voice include:
- Patrick Barbier’s “The World of the Castrati” (excellent reference)
- Angus Heriot’s “The Castrati in Opera” (not as good but useful in places)
- Mark Ringer’s “Opera’s First Master: The Musical Dramas of Claudio Monteverdi” (good for its background on the birth of opera)
- Winton Dean and John Merrill Knapp’s “Handel’s Operas” (a two-part series, both of which are mouse-crushers, but a wonderful reference)
- Roger Blanchard’s “Dieux et Divas de L’Opera” (in French, but worth if it you read French)
- “Countertenors,” a 2008 documentary that can be ordered on DVD, with the various interviewees swinging wildly between multiple definitions of the word in a perfect illustration of the current foggy state of the taxonomy for the high male voice.
For the beginner, Barbier’s book is probably the best place to start, but there are literally tons of excellent references. Some of them are astronomically expensive unfortunately; these are specialist books. Good information can also be obtained by researching Russell Oberlin and Alfred Deller; both have excellent interview DVDs available from Amazon.com and other online booksellers.