What is a countertenor? And how do you sing falsetto? We asked the brilliant singer Iestyn Davies

1 June 2018, 16:50 | Updated: 1 June 2018, 16:53

By Elizabeth Davis

Iestyn Davies is one of today’s most in-demand singers. And unusually for a top opera star, he’s a countertenor. We spoke to him about his unusual voice type in a beautiful 18th-century house in Spitalfields

First things first: what is a countertenor?

One question I'm often asked is “how high do you go?” Because people when they hear falsetto – when they hear a countertenor – they think of it as a high voice.

Actually, I count myself as what we'd class an alto in a woman. The range that I sing is probably a couple of octaves – from the G below middle C to the G two octaves above that. And there are some countertenors who may sing a whole fourth higher than that. They may be happy around a middle C but not too much below and they may go up to a top C. So in comparison to another voice type, it’s the equivalent of a female singer who sings mezzo-soprano or contralto.

And how does falsetto actually work, how is the sound produced?

Falsetto is basically an additional range on top of your speaking voice. It evolves a slightly different vocal mechanism in terms of where the voice-box puts itself, to present the cords in such a way that the air passing through is only passing the thinner edges of the cords. So the sound is higher pitched.

Countertenors are still quite rare, though. How did you realise this was your voice type?

There are very very few countertenors around, it's not a voice that, in inverted commas, is natural. When boys' voices break the voice they tend to sing with is their speaking voice. If you go to a football crowd you don't hear people singing countertenor, they naturally shout out in their bass, baritone or tenor voice. And that's what I did when I first encountered my lower speaking voice – I sang bass for a bit.

And I think I was bored one day in a choir rehearsal and found that singing along with the alto line felt quite right. I didn't really know what I was doing but I knew how to get into falsetto.

Then I had to go and have singing lessons to learn how to hold in that position, control it and learn to breathe and all these fundamentals of singing which I'd never really learned.

Much of the music you sing – like arias from Handel operas – was written for castratos (that’s young men who’d been castrated. You can find out more about this brutal practice here.)

The fact that they’d been castrated meant their voices and bodies were very different from a man whose voice and body has developed naturally. What are the difficulties of singing music written for the great castratos of the 18th century?

One mistake that the music by Handel that’s performed by countertenors today, was written for a countertenor. Actually most of it was written for the castrati who were the superstar singers of their day – who were of course castrated when they were young to preserve their treble voice. But then it sent it sent their body in a very weird spiral of growth and they were very tall – freaks of nature really.

So this presents a challenge because although countertenors sing in the same physical range, we don't necessarily possess the same physical attributes. The castrati had allegedly very very big ribcages because their bodies grew out of proportion, so they had very big lung capacity and could sing very long phrases.

Nowadays you can do it to an extent but it may not be exactly what was heard in the 18th century.

What should someone interested in discovering more countertenor music listen to next? Here’s the ultimate playlist of music that would spell out what a countertenor is for a listener:

I would suggest the Agnus Dei from the Bach B Minor Mass. It’s the high point of religious expression and the countertenor voice is often thought of as a very otherworldly, spiritual voice.

Any Handel opera that has a heroic-type role, Julius Caesar, Rodelinda. ‘Dove sei, amato bene’ from Handel's Rodelinda is beautiful.

And then I would spool forward to the 20th century. Certainly listen to 'I know a bank' by Benjamin Britten from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That is the fulcrum around which all our careers really work these days because Alfred Deller, who sang it, was a countertenor with a career just about on the concert stage. People weren't that happy about seeing a man singing like he did. But Britten and Michael Tippett were very instrumental in getting Deller to this place of being an opera singer, and the role of Oberon was written specifically for him. I wouldn't be here today without that piece.

And then finally I think one of the most successful operas of the 21st century is George Benjamin's Written on Skin. There's a beautiful role written for countertenor – the main protagonist is an unnamed boy. He's invited into the home of a medieval landowner to create an illuminated manuscript telling the story of his life and he's a very otherworldly, ethereal character in this drama. It’s a great thing to have a really significant, chunky role for a countertenor to sing.

This summer Iestyn Davies will be appearing at Glyndebourne in Handel's opera Saul. Classic FM spoke to him in restored 18th-century house owned by the Landmark Trust in Spitalfields. Find out more about the house here.