Starring as Clearte in Steffani’s ultra rare Niobe, regina di Tebe at The Royal Opera, countertenor Tim Mead spoke to me about the burgeoning interest in the countertenor voice and how his career took off after standing in for David Daniels in a performance of Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne.
Q) Earlier this year Opera Magazine published an interview with mezzo soprano Christine Rice, which included a controversial statement about the need for the “quality control” of countertenors who now regularly perform in baroque opera – particularly, singing roles that were once universally performed by mezzo sopranos. This is a viewpoint I have often heard repeated, especially by singers and critics. My question to you is why is this the default position adopted by many, especially when one considers that the standard in countertenor singing has been raised to such a high level as to render all but unrecognisable some of the more egregious examples of the 1970s and 1980s?
TM: Well I don’t subscribe to this viewpoint at all. “Quality control” is not something which must be restricted only to countertenors. As with all voice types, there will appear over time, voices of varied quality. Taste in countertenor singing has changed considerably over the past 30 or 40 years, leading to the quality of the singing improving significantly, both in terms of the range of colours present and in the vocal authority on display. When it comes to casting singers, you cast from strength, not just because you have a preference for countertenors or mezzos. In fact, I really don’t believe that happens today.
There are so many good, available countertenors that I simply don’t believe that the “quality control” issue is taken all that seriously. There are a huge range of different types of countertenor voice, all developing as the voice type has moved from being purely choral to operatic. We have come a long way since Alfred Deller.
What does still exist is the peculiar image of the “English countertenor”, which frustrates me no end. Rather like the “English tenor”, it implies a genteel and a less robust form of the voice type, which is absolutely not true. Similarly, you have the stereotypical image of the American countertenor like David Daniels, where a sweet, feminine, mezzo-like tone is used, but we forget that Kowalski was doing exactly this in the 1990s. In many ways Andreas Scholl best typifies the sort of sound which people confuse with the English variety. There are so many different styles and approaches around today that we should avoid broad stereotypes.
If you take incredible singers like Lawrence Zazzo or Bejun Mehta, who sound nothing like David Daniels, but who are probably the two most exciting exponents of this voice type around today, one cannot and should not, categorise them very easily. These are the sort of singers who are really taking risks with the voice, finding out just what the countertenor voice is capable of achieving. I don’t think this voice type can now get by on just being pretty, that approach went a long time ago. We have to push what sort of vocal colours we can now get out of the voice, which is very tricky indeed. It is far easier for me to achieve a range of colours in my baritone than I can in my countertenor. Consequently countertenors may need to occasionally make the odd sound, which just isn’t that attractive, but which develops the colours and the style of singing. This all aids dramatic effect. If a countertenor therefore makes such a sound, it doesn’t mean “oh he doesn’t have a good voice”, it means that he is trying to express something new. It needs to be considered in exactly the same way as any other voice.
Going back to the question I would say that if when casting you are faced with a superior mezzo, then of course you cast the mezzo. But there are today a lot of great countertenors, who are easily good enough to rival their mezzo colleagues, plus they have the added advantage of being men, making their interpretation far more credible. We are in a very looks-based time in theatre, so if you can find a man who can sing as well as a woman, then the appropriate option is to choose the countertenor for greater dramatic effect.
Q) Where do you stand on the idea that countertenors should branch out and start singing trouser roles, for example (being adventurous here) Arsace in Rossini’s Semiramide?
A) It’s not really an issue for me personally, as they all lie too high. But it is inevitably an approach which will cause some controversy, so if a countertenor is going to sing such a role, he must be able to sing it as well, if not better than a mezzo. I’ve been offered female roles in the past and have turned them down on reasons purely of range. If they can sing them well, then why not, but it should never just be a gimmick.
Q) Of course in Niobe, Covent Garden audiences have been introduced to, for the first time, an even rarer voice type, namely the male soprano. Is this a voice type which is likely to gain greater prominence within the baroque movement?
A) I have been working with Jacek Laszczkowski for some time now and he is the first male soprano I have worked with, and admittedly when I first heard him sing it came as a bit of a surprise, but now I am used to the sound and can appreciate it for being so individual. But it is, just another voice, so people shouldn’t look at it as something exotic or wildly different from the norm. I suspect we will see more male sopranos appearing in baroque operas as time progresses. The glory of Jacek’s voice is the top. I defy anyone to not be impressed by his F-G-A. I remember Veronique Gens talking about how during the time of the castrati women would faint at the glorious high notes and coloratura deployed by the most legendary of the castrati. During one of the rehearsals Jacek sang this huge high A, where upon she promptly dropped to the floor in a mock-faint! Sadly the director wasn’t too keen on keeping this in the production. The voice type itself is still in its infancy, so who knows where it will end up as more and more male sopranos come through.
Q) You have managed to pack in quite a lot into a rather young career, but what is your most significant memory so far?
A) I once understudied David Daniels as Giulio Cesare in Glyndebourne, when I was just 24. The man was absolutely incredible and I learned so much from watching him in rehearsals. I remember thinking “Ah, so that’s how you pace yourself through such lengthy roles”. I even went on to sing one show for David and found that I could do it twenty times better than expected, simply because I had spent 3 or 4 weeks watching him in rehearsal. It was an amazing experience going on to sing the title role, and one which I will not forget.
Q) Do you think enough Handel is being performed in London?
A) Baroque opera in general is not being performed anywhere near enough in London, especially within the leading houses, which is why Niobe and the upcoming Radamisto at the ENO are so welcome. What is ironic is that I was thoroughly employed in the UK whilst as a student, but this was on the peripheries of mainstream opera venues – mostly festivals and concerts, where Handel is well served. This season however, is my first season in 7 years where I will only be performing opera in the UK, three operas in fact. I’m in the Niobe right now, which will be followed by singing the title role in Orlando at Scottish Opera and then Eustazio in Rinaldo at Glyndebourne.
Q) Steffani is a composer unfamiliar to many, so what did you make of his music?
A) I hadn’t even heard of Steffani before this came up, but from looking at some of the arias which were sent across to me, it was obvious that it sits somewhere between Monteverdi, Cavalli and Handel. The most interesting thing about the music is where it goes harmonically, as well as his use of chromaticism. In many ways he is far more inventive than Handel, even though he pre-dates the great composer. What I like about Niobe is that there is an awful lot to be done in the recitatives. It’s not the conversational recit you get in Handel - it opens up melodically and needs to be treated differently. Steffani really excels in the reflective sad arias, rather than the upbeat arias. He does grief very well!
Q) Apart from what we know already, what other engagements and recordings do you have planned?
A) I have two projects coming up with Emmanuelle Haim: Ottone in Handel’s Agrippina (Lille, Dijon) and then Ottone in Monteverdi’s L'incoronazione di Poppea (Lille, Dijon, Nice). In between I have La Calisto in Munich. On the recording front I have a Flavio coming out on Chandos, plus next March/April a new St Matthew Passion. Next month I will also be recording the Brahms Liebeslieder, which I believe is the first time for a countertenor in a studio setting. It should be available next year.
To find out more about Tim Mead, you can visit his website by clicking here.