A new repertoire for countertenors?

Michael Chance, one of the most celebrated countertenors of our times, comes to the Athens Concert Hall this Saturday to perform works by Handel, during an evening dedicated to baroque music. Chance will be performing alongside bass Michael George and the Academy of Ancient Music Ensemble, under the baton of Paul Goodwin. With an impressive accumulation of more than 100 recordings (including works by Bach, Monteverdi, Mozart, Pergolesi, Purcell and Scarlatti), not to mention DVDs and video performances, Chance’s recording career began in 1980. Kathimerini spoke to Chance in view of his upcoming appearance. When and how did you discover that you had a countertenor voice? It happened naturally at a young age. In Britain, there is a centuries-long tradition of male church music choirs, featuring older men for the lower voices and children or men singing falsetto. I also joined a school choir and as my voice became deeper at the age of 14, I was placed in the mezzo voices; I simply stayed there, without a second thought. Later on, when I went to Cambridge – which also enjoys a great church music tradition – I joined the renowned King’s College Choir. When did you decide to sing professionally? It took me some time. In the beginning, I started working in the stock market! At the age of 26, however, I met the right teacher, who taught me the romantic repertoire and Italian bel canto. Given that I had followed acting courses back in Cambridge, my first contact with the stage was a smooth one. In the minds of many music lovers, it is appropriate for countertenor voices to undertake a repertoire which, in the past, was interpreted by castrati. What is your opinion? It is wrong to associate the castrati with countertenors. We countertenors have a kind of artificial voice and the resulting texture is, after all, a matter of taste. Personally, I believe that this kind of voice is well suited for Bach, Handel oratorios and Renaissance music. On the contrary, roles in Handel operas which were originally composed for castrati should preferably be sung today by women, who usually have a broader voice and a richer texture. These days, however, there is a new generation of «operatic» countertenors, some of whom sing Handel parts beautifully. Following a steady countertenor presence on the music scene, I believe that we are now knowledgeable about which kinds of music suit this voice, going beyond stereotypes. What about the boom in baroque music over the last few years? First of all, it has unearthed a number of forgotten works. Also, in the past even prominent Bach works were rarely interpreted in such a way as to reveal their qualities. Contemporary interpretations put forward certain chamber music qualities which define these works. Also, these days, there are properly trained virtuoso voices which justify the artful phonetic compositions. Finally, some highly imaginative, forward-thinking baroque opera productions have also demonstrated the potential on stage. What is your opinion of orchestras with period instruments? We’ve reached a good point. Musicians using period instruments today have excellent training. Personally, I would rather be accompanied by period instruments, as my voice goes well with their sound. In general, I believe that the human voice shares many characteristics with older instruments. On the other hand, it is further away from the qualities of contemporary instruments, which were developed mainly based on the demands of purely symphonic music. Baroque music has characteristics of chamber music, where voices and instruments should be tightly tied together and converse intensely, on the contrary to long, melodic phrases and the great sound that romanticism was looking for, for which modern instruments were developed in their current form. Do you enjoy contemporary takes of baroque operas? I do. We should not remain hooked to a museum-type tradition. We must give a new lease on life and breathing space to these works. A reproduction of a historical aesthetic is not enough. The result must be of interest to today’s audience. Besides, the essence of the baroque opera is to get out of daily life and into a world of gods, heroes and mythical figures. That is what period productions aimed to achieve in the old days, and the challenges remain the same today, through the use of modern mediums and equivalent aesthetics. Which traits of the countertenor voice interest 20th century composers? If we take a look at Oberon, in Britten’s «Midsummer Night’s Dream,» or the child-king in Philip Glass’s «Akhnaten,» I would say that the interest derives from the fact that it is neither a man nor a woman’s voice and that it is not «part of this world,» that it is, in a certain way, intangible. I believe, however, that this is a rather restrictive stereotype. I think that today, we can be accepted as men with fully developed ideas and feelings, which allow us to enjoy normal relationships with other people. We should not be interpreting spirits or elves. Is the classical music public diminishing? The plethora of CDs produced during the 1980s has undoubtedly reached a point of saturation and people have stopped buying records. Our responsibility is to persuade the public to return to concert halls and theaters. We complain that concert audiences are never young enough. But what we offer demands the public’s money, time and education, which inevitably excludes many young people. I believe, however, that the situation has evolved for opera, through reduced prices for tickets and interesting productions. It is not such a bad thing to treat classical music as an alternative kind of entertainment; subsequently one might discover how enriching it can be. The entertainment factor is a necessary lure. Athens Concert Hall, 1 Kokkali & Vas. Sofias, tel 010.728.2000. Reservations at 010.728.2150 or on This interview was translated from the Greek version.