Full On Countertenor

I wrote this post a month ago and immediately took it down because, in some ways, it is a sad story.  I was worried that someone might feel bad for me or the reasons I made the decision that I made.  I want you to know that although there were regrets for awhile, I now don’t regret my decisions at all.  I wouldn’t change a thing.

A countertenor is a male singer equivalent to the female contralto or mezzo soprano.  He develops a strong falsetto to give him such a high range.  It became very popular in the 90s when I was studying music at OU.

Here’s David Daniel, perhaps the greatest living countertenor.

In studying tenor, I began to develop as a countertenor.  Given that I am actually a baritone, I used a reinforced falsetto to sing my high notes.  I sang in an early music ensemble singing with this kind of voice; half tenor half countertenor.  The director actually preferred my falsetto to the rest of my voice, and it certainly was easier for me to do.  I began singing more and more in the range until I finally went full out countertenor in a university concert.

Soon after, I went to see the director of graduate choral studies for some guidance on which way to go.  I wanted so badly to be a professional singer.  I asked him what my best shot was.  He said that my tenor singing was inconsistent, but that my countertenor singing was superb, and that if I really wanted a shot at a career, then countertenor would be his recommendation.

The attention I got as a countertenor was outweighing the attention I was getting at a tenor.  After I graduated, I started working full time at developing my countertenor voice.  When I felt good enough about it, I contacted two of the voice faculty to ask if I could sing for them.   I believe I sang “O Cessate di Piagarmi” or something else from the 24 Italian favs book.  I nailed it.  One of the teachers began pacing when I was done singing.  She was a highly exciting.   She walked to the door then turned around, took a lunging step,  and pointed at me.

“We have no time to lose!  The Peabody Conservatory auditions are next summer.  I believe we can get you in on a full ride if you’re willing to work!”

This is the the classical equivalent of saying “You’re gonna a be a star, kid!  A big star!”

She was in a full out tizzy.  In my recollection, it seemed like she was spinning and spinning around as she rambled.  She agreed to take me as a student and wanted me to begin immediately.

She and I had a history, and I was hoping that she was distracted enough to forget.  Two or three years before, when my wife was studying with her,  my wife had arranged for me to house sit for the professor.  I had some experience with it and didn’t hesitate to accept the offer.

She was living in a house out in the east of Norman.  Behind her backyard fence were quite a few acres of undeveloped land.  She had two dogs that were her most precious companions, and she made it a point to tell me not to let them out of the fence.  I took note.

I had a lovely stay.  It was a nice break from living at my parents house.  Although I was not much of a dog person at the time, I enjoyed their company, but a few days before the professor was to return from Baltimore, the one thing that was not supposed to happen happened.   The dogs somehow got out of the yard and ran away into the fields.  I searched as far as I could search, but with no luck.  I felt that I had no choice but to call her.  Maybe, I thought, it had happened before and she would be able to tell me what to do, but she could not.  She became very upset.  She wept as she told me that she was flying back to Norman immediately.

Naturally, the dogs returned the very next day before she even got home, but the damage was done.  I had broken a trust.  And I felt terrible about it.  She still paid me for my service, but she was very unhappy with me.  I gathered my stuff and went back to my parents’ house.

The next day, my dad got a call from the professor.  Holding the phone to his chest he asked me, “Did you take towels from the house you were sitting?”

I told him that no I hadn’t.

He put his ear back to the receiver and said, “No ma’am.  He says he didn’t.”  He raised his eyebrows and looked my direction as he listened to her talk.  After the call was over, he said,  “She is very angry.  She says you stole her only matching set and that she needs it for some company she will be having soon.”

The truth is, that I later found the towels in my laundry, but I was too proud to admit that I had them.  I didn’t appreciate the accusation that I had stolen something, especially something as silly as old towels.   I went to Walmart and bought a brand new set.  Her towels were thread bare, so I figured she would appreciate having new ones.  I brought them to the house and laid them on the front porch.  I was too timid to ring the doorbell.

And so, I really hoped that she had forgotten all of this.  She never mentioned it, and I never brought it up.

The lessons were excellent.  I developed quite well, despite my wife’s insistence that I sounded like an old lady!  Now that I was full on countertenor, I didn’t want to throw it off by singing tenor, even at church.  And this is when things got awkward.

I felt that my singing needed an explanation of sorts, so one Sunday when I was planning to sing a solo, I stood up during the joys and concerns and “came out” to the church as a countertenor.  I explained with a very dramatic demeanor exactly why I would be singing differently than before.  After the service, there were very many awkward conversations.  “So, what did you call this?  And this is how you’re always going to sing? Whatever makes you happy.”

Just this year, I was at a party with some of my church friends who witnessed this many years ago, and one of them described a recent encounter with a friend from that time.  He said that any time someone mentioned me, he thought of this event.   He thought it was the weirdest, most hilarious,  most dramatic display  he had ever witnessed at a church.  I laughed when I heard it because I had come to see it that way as well.

There were many other awkward moments like this.  Like the time I auditioned for Chanticleer , an all male classical singing group.  They wanted a scale, a classical piece, and a pop piece.  I sang “Hello” by Lionel Richie.  You don’t want to hear a countertenor sing this.  I still get ribbed for that.  I tried and tried to make it sound pop, but I suspect it sounded more like Climb Every Mountain.

After studying for awhile, my teacher had me sing for the opera director.  He offered me the lead role in Handel’s Julius Caesar.  This would be my testing ground.  I was very excited.  I felt that I was finally getting the attention I deserved.  While I was studying the role, a friend talked me into competing in a talent competition fundraising.  I knew what I had to do, it was a routine I’d done at a music camp at Calvin College the summer before my freshman year.  I would dress in drag and sing The Habanera from Carmen.

It was enormously successful. Comic, yes,  but I had never sung better.  Afterwards, I was hit on by a guy in the parking lot.  I took it as a compliment, but it fed into my paranoia that everyone would think that I was gay because of the way I was singing, never mind the fact that I was wearing heels. As far as I could tell, I was the only straight guy in the countertenor business.  The paranoia wasn’t on behalf of myself.  I really don’t care what people think about my sexuality.

Later, while visiting very dear friends, a gay couple, my wife showed the video.  They were blown away, but when I went into the kitchen to get a drink, I heard one of them say “Oh my God, if he wasn’t married to you I would swear he was gay!”

This really did not sit well with me, and perhaps not with my wife.  There are many gay men who are married to women, and it seems to be a very sad situation.  And although I am certain my wife would have supported me, I knew that there might eventually be rumors that I feared could greatly embarrass my her.   I didn’t sing Julius Caesar, and I never sang countertenor again.  Also,  I didn’t get the Chanticleer part, and even if I had, I had made up my mind that my place was at home being a father to my baby daughter, and soon after, a software engineer.

Occasionally, people ask me if I can still do it; sing countertenor.  The honest truth is that I can’t.  That part of my voice seems to have withered away.  Perhaps I could work it up again, but I probably never will.  I still have the Carmen recording.  I make an absolutely hideous drag queen, but my singing sure impressed the hell out of my daughter.

And that, my dears, is just one more brick in my complicated wall.

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