Randall Scotting sings "Thy tuneful voice my tale would tell" from Semele
You’re new here—welcome to Seattle Opera! Now, it’s been a while since we’ve heard a countertenor, so perhaps it’s best if I start by asking you what countertenors do?
Well, we sing high! Higher than your typical tenor and with a different technique. The idea for most countertenors is to sing with a strengthened head voice (sometimes called falsetto, it’s that high voice we all have – think Justin Timberlake). We countertenors train and strengthen it so that we can project, without a microphone, in a large opera house. On the history-side of things, we now often take over the heroic roles which were originally written during the 1700s for castratos, who were some of the most accomplished singers of all time and definitely the superstars of their day. Today many countertenors have developed the strength to take on these demanding roles. In Baroque music we often get to play the hero, which is really great fun.
You grew up in a small town in Colorado. How did you first learn about countertenors and how did you learn that you could be one?
Yes, I’m originally from Grand Junction, Colorado, and when I was young the concept of opera or being a professional opera singer wasn’t much in my consciousness. When I was growing up the people around me tended to be doing very functional jobs and the arts was often seen as something a little extravagant. It was a wonderful place to grow up but there was no opera house down the street where you could go and see that people were actually doing this thing I was drawn to but didn’t yet have a clear way to define. So it took me a little while to discover classical music as a career! I learned I could be a countertenor while I was in college. I sang baritone before that, in fact many countertenors have a lower voice when they aren’t using the head voice I mentioned earlier. That baritone speaking voice flips up into a higher range as a countertenor, closer to that of an alto, whereas if you have a higher speaking voice you might have a higher countertenor range too, more equivalent to a soprano. Either way, while in college, I was lucky to have a voice teacher who had studied in Germany in the 1970s; there weren’t a lot of countertenor singing then, not as many as there are now, but in Germany there were some singing Bach that my teacher had heard.
One afternoon in choir I was singing along, in my head voice, with a soprano sectional rehearsal, just for fun and not thinking there was anything unusual about it. But my voice teacher took me over to the piano and realized there was this high extension above my baritone voice. I was fortunate that he knew that this was a vocal range I could actually use. I eventually took a trip to Europe—on tour with a church choir actually—I was 19, and I sang for a teacher who worked specifically with countertenors. He heard me and said, “Well, this is natural-sounding, and you’ve got a nice quality,” and so I just went for it. Within about six months, the progress I made was night-and-day. I think I would have been a very average baritone—I certainly wouldn’t be singing at Seattle Opera if I hadn’t made the switch!
John Vicery, photo
You don’t sing much traditional 19th century Romantic opera. Are you missing out on anything?
Well, yes and no. For a while I avoided Baroque music, even though I was a countertenor. I really love contemporary music; I love its psychological aspects. That felt like a natural extension of who I was when I was younger, trying to make sense of the world and where I fit. But as I got a little bit older, around my late 20s, I felt much more at home singing substantial Baroque roles. These days, my bread-and-butter is Baroque music and Handel specifically. When I was younger it was hard for me to find the balance of style and emotion and the right way of expressing myself in Baroque music, but now it’s become second nature to me. I do love listening to say, Norma or Tosca, and so much other 19th-century Romantic music...but it’s just not my voice. In recital however, I do get to sing some wonderful romantic art song.
And you’re still singing contemporary music, too?
Yes, after all, Oberon in Britten’s Midsummer is one of my favourite roles – I wish I could sing one every season! In general though, I had quite an atypical journey as a countertenor. After grad school I studied in Budapest for several years (with the Wagnerian soprano Eva Marton – which is another story) and I now make folk and contemporary Hungarian music sort of a specialty. It’s admittedly kind of an oddity... the language can be a barrier, but I lived there so am more comfortable with it. I love singing pieces by Bartók and Ligeti.
Handel wrote for both castratos and countertenors, and you sing both kinds of roles. What’s the difference?
The difference between the roles probably has more to do with spectacle (castratos were at the height of showiness). The difference between the singers has mostly to do with anatomy and training. Case in point, my role of Athamas was originally written for countertenor, not castrato, so he’s not the central hero in this one.
There was a period when Handel was new to London when Italian opera was all the rage. The Brits imported almost all their famous opera singers and composers in from Italy; and Italian opera, sung by Italians, was all anyone wanted to hear for quite a number of years. Eventually, it turned around, politics were involved, and it became a Catholics vs. Protestants thing too—then a taste emerged for more British music. That’s why Semele is written in English. Handel was then working with more home-grown British singers, and they had countertenors. There was also a growing backlash against this ‘unnatural’ idea of the castrato.
John Vicery, photo
But is the vocal writing different, from your perspective as a singer? You’ve sung roles he wrote for castrato, such as the title roles in Handel’s Giulio Cesare and Orlando, but here you’re singing a countertenor role.
Handel was so good at writing for specific voices, at finding the strength of a singer’s voice and bringing that out. You discover that when you sing roles like Orlando or Julius Caesar (which were written for a castrato named Senesino) which sit quite low, and the roles call for strong dramatic flair with long recitatives—apparently that’s what Senesino was really good at. Fortunately, my countertenor voice sits low as well and is a good match with Senesino’s range so I absolutely love doing all these castrato roles. Athamas is a little bit of different thing. It calls for strong coloratura technique and dramatic expression, but it’s not as extreme as what Handel wrote for the castratos.
Do you think a high tenor with a powerful extension, a Rossini tenor like Lawrence Brownlee, say, could sing Athamas?
I would say yes, but the timbre and style would be different, the way of approaching those high pitches. I approach them with head resonance, more of a soprano quality, whereas he might approach it with a chest resonance, carrying up the low voice. That makes for a very dramatic, exciting sound, but it’s probably not really the quality Handel was after.
How does Athamas grow or develop over the course of the opera?
Well, in Seattle Opera’s version, the focus is centred more on the power struggle involving the gods and we see Athamas only at the start. Semele leaves him standing at the altar in the first scene. He’s a hopeful guy, maybe just a touch oblivious. Semele’s fallen in love with Jupiter, a god who has come to her in human form, and Athamas is unaware of this. It’s his wedding-day to Semele and he’s ready to tie the knot, but everything falls apart. So he goes from hopeful and happy to the depths of despair, because it hits him like a boulder. Then, he soon realizes that Semele’s sister, Ino, is in love with him, and there’s a budding romance there which we explore—they connect in their suffering and eventually end up together. In the end, it was probably a more appropriate match, anyway!
To learn more about Semele, countertenors, and castrati, check out Seattle Opera's SPOTLIGHT GUIDE.