I have heard some highly respected countertenors in person, and many more on recordings. In general, I find myself preferring a female singer in the same ranges in all types of music. In the discussions above, some people wonder if it’s because of the expectations we have of gender. Some defenders of the modern countertenor remind us that many of these alto and soprano roles were originally sung by men, so why do we have a problem with men doing them now?
They seem to miss the point that a larynx is a larynx. The difference between most adult women’s larynxes and adult men’s is that the post-pubertal male larynx is larger in all aspects. A boy castrated before puberty will not have this larger larynx. This means that the castrato’s larynx is essentially the same as a typical adult woman’s. A hormonally normal man with a tenor or baritone speaking voice can only stay in the tessitura of an alto by using falsetto, and cannot usually unite this to the full chest voice. The castrato is not singing with falsetto, and therefore makes a different sound, mechanically and acoustically. This results in a distinct difference in timbre that people either like or don’t like on a gut level.
The countertenor is singing with the edges of the folds vibrating, and the typical alto is singing with more of the full fold vibrating. The countertenor has longer folds and the alto has shorter ones. These physical facts strongly affect the sound. A scale sung in mezzo forte from C4 to C5 by an alto (female or castrato) and then by a countertenor (baritone or tenor lower voice using falsetto) is quite different and reaches the heart and mind in a different way. You are likely to get a VERY stark difference between the two if you have them start a C5 piano and then crescendo to the octave below!
The sounds are distinct enough categorically to account for the large differences of opinion that have nothing to do with gender, but with how the sound is made. It seems that most people respond instinctively to a voice that has both strong chest and head elements, and an integration between them. Learning to love the countertenor sound usually takes more time, when it happens. For me, it’s missing a visceral connection, but that’s just my personal taste. Do you enjoy listening to countertenors? What do you like or not like about this voice type?