Countertenors vs. Castrati

loudBelow is a sampling of some discussions I found by googling “I don’t like countertenors”.

Is it sexist or artistically wrong of me to prefer female singers to countertenors?

Is anyone else creeped out by countertenors?

Discussion of countertenors on the Bach Cantatas forum

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?

3 Replies to “Countertenors vs. Castrati”

  1. I’m a 27 year old male singing in countertenor range. For some unknown reason I still look quite like a teenage boy, youthful face and my neck is slim and lack Adam’s apple. I don’t believe my throat to be bigger than what females have so the “bigger pipe theory” isn’t always true. My body weight has been around 58-61 kilograms (zero fat and little muscle) for years. I never had a real voice change in my teens, only gained some kind of low extension that is pretty unusable in singing. My speaking pitch is G3 or G#3, but I can speak in the low extension too and typically my voice resides there at the bottom. If I want to project my speaking voice (say give a presentation), it has to be there in the female speaking range around G3-A3, because the low extension doesn’t project well. I can sing a C6, but B5 is more comfortable. I can sing contralto comfortably and I’d say passable mezzosoprano depends on the song and prefer low mezzo songs. My timbre is on the darker side, the timbre is not very bright, and resembles African American women like Beyonce, Toni Braxton and Whitney Houston. In my opinion, Lady Gaga has a similar timbre in the song Million Reasons and Cher’s timbre in If I Could Turn Back Time is close. Another that comes close is Ann Wilson of Heart, for example songs Love Alive, Dreamboat Annie and What About Love. Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders and jazz singers Astrud Gilberto and Diana Krall are also close. Beyonce’s If I Were A Boy and Whitney Houston’s Didn’t Know My Own Strength suit my voice. Rihanna and Madonna have a brighter timbre and the songs don’t suit as well. Of course I notice when a singer has a brighter timbre. I don’t believe there to be a huge difference in timbre between my voice and contralto/low mezzo female voices. I gave some examples of singers and suitable songs. I want to mention that I’m not the only male in the contralto/low mezzo range. Some examples of males include Steve Perry and Arnel Pineda of Journey. Ronnie James Dio, Adam Lambert, Billy Gilman and Axl Rose should also be mentioned. By the way, 90% of the songs I sing are female songs.

  2. I think there is another point to consider: singing school has favoured big “fatty” and “hooty” voices instead of small and more natural open clear sounds. Think of early recordings of italian opera stars of the turn of late century: Tamagno for example, if he was living and working today, he would be considered too light and “open”, the voice not “covered”, a voice similar of voices we hear in early jazz recordings of “top hats” era, tenor range. Vowels not stretched so far to render the text hard to understand (now we know what’s happening on stage, but in XIX century and before the audience had to understand words to full enjoy the performance).
    Male altos are suffering too this “style shift” and maybe due to phisical structure of their larynx, are forced to “over-cover” their falsetto voice rendering their voices “stuffy” and “hooty” (I always think that many male altos are singing with an apple in their mouth, but it’s not an apple, it’s the tongue forced in the back of the mouth in an attempt to give “body” to a natural “thin” sound).
    Falsetto in pop music has no need to force a “body”, resulting in a more open and enjoyable sound (my personal opinion).
    If male altos would sing more openly and not forcing, maybe they would be more apprecieted (at the expense of a lack of volume).

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