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Alt folks at home

Operamission, a scrappy little company that performs music from all sorts of eras and styles in venues all over town, is in fact its Kapellmeisterin, Jennifer Peterson. Her latest brainstorm was to give A Countertenor Cabaret, starring no fewer than 14 of these once-rare songbirds, in the cabaret space of the Duplex on Sheridan Square, and to live-stream the entire event, with translations of the remarkably varied musical fare.  

The upstairs theater was packed and the program ran overtime. This delayed the weekly everybody-sings-Broadway Sondheim Cabaret, celebrating its tenth anniversary that night, a party I was sorry to miss. But the lively and polished (and microphone-free!) Operamission entertainment was quite sufficient for a night’s merry-making. “This is cheating,” said the guy next to me. “This is a $300 concert and we only had to pay ten” (plus drinks). Perhaps Word of Mouth will encourage Operamission to an encore?

My memory (perhaps faulty) stretches back to the Operatic Mesozoic, when countertenors were all but unknown on the operatic stage. Today, this obscure sort of singer is one of the most frequent categories of voice student, competition entrant, performer of star roles in the ever-burgeoning baroque revival—but also in Britten and Berlioz and Philip Glass.

Operamission, which stages a Handel opera each year (Rinaldo is hinted for September), is naturally in tune with the New York countertenor scene, and was able to field fourteen of them. Choice of repertory was all over the map. (“I know a lot of music,” Peterson told us, “and I didn’t know a lot of this music.”) The opening number, for instance, was the bubbly trio “Sing for Your Supper” from Rodgers & Hart’s The Boys from Syracuse, warbled by Joseph Hill, Ray Chenez and Nicholas Tamagna: this signaled that reverence would not be the evening’s theme.

The mood and the music and the qualities of the voices varied to an extraordinary degree. Was there baroque? Yes, the austere opening declamation from Monteverdi’s Poppea, sung by Michael Manning, while from seventeenth-century Cremona, we had a meditation of the apprehensive Virgin Mary by Tarquinio Merula, performed by David Dickey with the sedate urgency that baroque composers brought to the church during the years of opera’s invention. But the only other “baroque” item was a Handel aria from Silla, sung by Biraj Barkakaty. That number, of course, had been written for a castrato; it is the replacement of altos in castrato roles by countertenors (and the elimination of the barbaric practice of transposition to lower male voices) that has made baroque opera such a thriving phenomenon in our own day.

The castrati lingered on, however, into the classical repertory, brought to life at the cabaret senza coltello from operas by Gluck, Mozart and Rossini. “Parto, parto” from Clemenza di Tito, Mozart’s “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better,” was sung by Ray Chenez with the proper bravura, concealing the effort of keeping pace with clarinetist Grover Edwards. Perhaps the most striking dramatic performance of the evening came from a very young singer indeed, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen (should be an easy name to remember, and you’ll want to), who has just taken part in a run (and recording) of Gluck’s Demofoönte in Vienna. He sang “Misero pargoletto” from that work, with a fine, large sound, moving dramatic intensity and elegant ornaments of the da capo. (I’m all for more Gluck. Give this one its American premiere, somebody.)

The operatic snippets were interspersed with far less formal numbers. Doug Dodson sang Debussy’s “Nuit d’étoiles” with a soaring, limpid serenity that left us agog. How could this be matched by what followed? Well, it was: The lights came down very low, and Charles Humphries sang John Dowland’s “In Darkness Let Me Dwell” with beautifully modulated anguish that wrung our hearts. (Humphries reminded us, first, that Dowland was working in Elsinore for the king of Denmark, who made him live below stairs among the kitchen hands.) Andrew Rader sang Liszt’s “Enfant, si j’étais roi” with the proper balance of condescension (“If I were king … if I were God”) and politesse (“I’d do this for you”).

More modern works, composed with or without countertenors in mind, showed up on the program just when you couldn’t guess what would come next and were trying to sort out the soprano countertenors from the alto countertenors, the exquisite boyish sounds from the full-throated theatrical ones. Two composers were present to hear their works presented: Clint Borzoni, whose Whitman setting, “Hours Continuing Long,” was gently delcaimed by Daniel Brubeck, and Stefan Weisman. Mr. Weisman’s chamber opera, The Scarlet Ibis, had a much-admired debut at the Prototype festival of new opera this month. Eric Brenner sang “I Have Wings” from Ibis, a melody of such magic and originality, performed with such imaginative sympathy, that I gnashed my teeth to have missed the recent run.

Brennan Hall sang Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “It Might As Well Be Spring” with such wit, such teasing elegance, as to quite renew this wistful standard. Nicholas Tamagna, best known around town (and other countries) for his Handel, changed repertories entirely to sing Michel Legrand’s “Parapluies de Cherbourg” in well-accented French, in tones that seemed so appropriate to the song and its sentiments that the register could not have been less of an issue: It was just beautiful singing, full of very French regret. Then Nussbaum Cohen returned for his “r & b debut,” John Legend’s “All of Me” with a voluptuous passion and soaring range that filled every corner of the room.

Peterson told me the Duplex techies were bewildered how to deal with a 90-minute program of singers who never used microphones. Ha! It’s called “knowing how to sing.” None of the fourteen had any trouble filling the space, and some of them nearly shattered it.

Derek Lee Ragin, who was among the first countertenors to sing a role at the Met, might have been dubbed the grand old man of the concert except that he isn’t old yet. He is still the showman he ever was, and gave us a gentle, a capella “This Little Light of Mine.” Later, he concluded matters with Vincent Youmans’ “Without a Song,” as affirmative an anthem of art as Schubert’s “An die Musik.”

There should, perhaps, have been a choral or concertato conclusion, but no one has written a piece for fourteen countertenors yet. No doubt it will come. So, one may hope, will other such unexpectedly delicious occasions as this one.

Photo by Patrick T. Jones

  • Niel Rishoi

    Thank you, John, for this fine review of what is surely a first, 101 Countertenors. Your singling out of Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen sent me to YouTube to investigate. What a beautiful, full-bodied tone! I predict a great career ahead of him, based on the following clip alone -- the audience goes fairly nuts, too.

    Here he is doing “Ombra mai fu”:

  • Camille

    Do you, also from the Operatic Mesozoic like moi, not recall Mr Russell Oberlin? He was doing his thing back in the early sixties and extremely well, too, and that’s back when he was like unto John the Baptist crying in the wilderness. I mean, that was countertenorism con cojones!

    Sounds kinda groovy, really.

  • Camille --
    Oberlin (like Alfred Deller) is from the pre-Mesozoic! I never heard him sing in person, but as a little kid, I loved to watch the New York Pro Musica Antiqua’s Christmas treat, The Play of Daniel, staged at the Cloisters, with Oberlin the lead and wonderful little narrative poems by W.H. Auden recited by a “monk” (actually Alvin Epstein, who is still alive and still acting, in his 80s!) to tell the story.

    The original draft of this review included a brief “history of the modern operatic countertenor” from my own experience, referencing messers Jeffrey Dooley, Drew Minter (still singing!), Derek Lee Ragin (vide supra) and David Daniels (who is now in Philadelphia rehearsing an opera composed for his voice). But I figured I’d spare everyone all that yardage. Who but you would be interested, eh?

    However, Mr. Oberlin, as he often points out, is not a falsettist but a very, very, very high tenor. The other gents were/are all falsettists, a word they dislike. That’s reasonable, as the high alto voice is no more unnatural to a male than any other. Listen to the folk music of any country in the world, and there will be men singing way up high to express certain sentiments. Pop, too, is filled with them. Why is there a prejudice in the classical world? Because they used to be castrati? Hasn’t been true in over a hundred years. Ridiculous.

    But the Oberlin sort of countertenor has had no successors with major careers so far as I am aware.

    • p.s. I forgot to mention that The Play of Daniel from the Cloisters was on television. I don’t know why PBS did not keep the tape. It was quite wonderful.

      • Will

        Hans, Michael Maniaci may be of the Oberlin type, but may be something else altogether. I have heard him several times and he is really quite wonderful. Here is an excerpt from his Wikipedia page:

        “Possessing a unique male soprano voice, Maniaci is noted for his unusual ability to sing into the upper soprano register without using falsetto. Most men who possess this ability have it as a result of a hormonal imbalance, but for some unknown reason, Maniaci’s larynx did not develop causing his voice not to “break” in the usual manner. This physical particularity has given Maniaci the ability to sing in the soprano register without sounding like a typical countertenor or a woman singer. For this reason, professional vocal pedagogists consider Maniaci’s voice to be unique among countertenors, and compare his vocal quality to the castrato voice of the past.”

        • Camille

          Noted, and indeed highly of interest and a. Ery rare case. He is then, uniquely, a true sopranist? Shall have to try and listen in on him sometime or another as I have known now of him for quite a while but not really done so. If he is our closest approximation of what the actual castrati sounded like it would be well worth the time to investigate, so thank you for bringing this to my atrention.

          • Camille

            Here is sopranist Maniaci to explain himself in his own words and to tive further proof in his singing:

            Everything was going along just soswimmingly —until that last fellow came in and countered Maniaci’s assertion as to being an authentic castrato, and which may well be a valid and fair assessment, so I am back repeating Nedda’s line…”confusa io son.” Sigh.

            Anyway, good singer, nice timbre and ease of vocal production and presentable, too. Have never noticed his presence at the MET but the. Again I have not looked and perhaps he exckusively Euro-centred.

            • Maniaci did sing Nireno at the Met but I think the issue with the Met (and other companies) is that they don’t know how to cast him. He gets more work in Europe because they perform of 17th century rep there. He does have a Mozart album:


            • Camille

              Surely makes sense and thanks. I don’t know who Nireno is but I won’t bother about it. Would be a shame to strain or waste a voice such as his in That Big Barn, in any case. Whom did they think would be hollering therein; a herd of mastodons? It is so interesting to hear which voices carry and which do not. Not always the biggest knes do.

            • I heard Maniaci as Cherubino in Pittsburgh over ten years ago. (He is from near here, in Peters Township, Washington County.)

              Wikipedia says that this was the first time Cherubino was performed by a man in the United States. Fancy that! I didn’t know that factoid at the time, but I did know that I liked his performance a great deal. In addition to his singing, which was superb, his physical presence in the role added a different dimension to the farcical cross-dressing plot points.

            • Camille

              That is a very good point, the one about the cross-dressing thing with Cherubino in the “Venite inginocchiatevi” sequence. Imagine it would be very confusing to the mezzosopeano who copes with it all, even if both Leonard and Malfi did quite well with it all, really quite well. Malfi managed the impossible of iut-mugging and iut-clowning de Niese, not an asy thing to do at all.

              Come to think of it, it would make for a very nice turnplay in the role of Octavian and lend a little more credibility to the entire thing, especially that third act tavern scene. I like the idea of both of them. OMG YES! Now I remember the horror of Tara Erraught and That Wig and the Intractable Physique.

              Yessir! Bring those counters onto where they are in dire need, please!

            • Camille: Sorry, I forgot to clarify his Met role. Nireno is the eunuch in Giulio Cesare. Maniaci would be a great Sesto in that opera.

            • Camille

              Don’t be sorry—I’m not sorry I didn’t notice the eunuch. I don’t pay much attention in Handel operas so it means little to me. Sorry.

    • Camille

      Herr Hans! You are so good and kindly indulgent to take such trouble with explaining the unexplainable to me, yet, going to various and sundry youtubers and a Wikipedia reference, I see that Mr Oberlin is still described as “countertenor”, even by an entry referenced of *mon idôle*, Peter G. Davis, in his “American Opera Singers” book (which I have never read and ever intended to).

      You were indeed lucky to have that rather rarified experience of seeing The Play of Daniel, as it is certainly only something I have ever seen referenced in music books, as a sort of UrMutter of Alles……..but you see, I just don’t know a haut-contre from a hole in the ground! Perdona, confusa io son! And I blame it all in that Sutherland Alcina recording, which long ago started my ?????????? There are contraltos and male altos and countertenors and girl tenors (we had some in school chorus I recall), and then there is the haut-contre and the falsettists and the altists!!!!!! It’s all a big boullabaisse that I can never tell which fish is which in!! When I have more time I shall import an interesting youtube I found explaining all the above in thro terms, but I must rush off right now and wish you a safe, warm evening and should you venture out, do be careful!!

      More later from the hopelessly un-counter moi and thank you so much for all your bradth and depth of knowledge of musical terms and subjects, so very much appreciated.

      • Camille, yes Oberlin calls himself a countertenor — he just denies that falsettists have a claim on that title. And what are usually described as countertenors are, in fact, “falsettists,” though I would say there is nothing false about it. They are trained to go for an alto quality while Oberlin reached those notes without the “change.”

        Michael Maniaci — yes I’ve heard him several times (notably in Handel’s Oreste). It’s quite a high-lying countertenor or falsetto or whatever you call it. He says “sopranist,” and why shouldn’t he? But though his music-making is striking, I do not find it persuasive in dramatic roles; he lacks the stage presence of a Minter, a Daniels, a Mehta, a Jaroussky, a Cencic, a Tamagna. I believe he is better employed in the concert repertory (like Daniel Taylor).

        Play of Daniel, as directed by none other than Drew Minter, has been performed at Trinity Church during their Twelfth Night festival, this year and the one before. But the first time I heard a live performance occurred in the Cloisters on a snowy day about ten years ago. I had got out at the wrong subway stop and then had to race up snowy unshoveled paths and then around the castello to the proper entrance. There were about thirty seconds till it began (in the glorious acoustic of the Fuentidueña Chapel) and only one vacant seat, behind a very handsome, distinguished, silver-haired gentleman, whose head quite blocked my view. Then, just before the music began, the conductor said, “We’re very happy to have here, in this first Cloisters revival of the Play since the Pro Musica days, the star of that first production, Mr. Russell Oberlin.” And the silver-haired gentleman said a few gracious words and was generally adulated, not least by me.

        • Camille

          This is actually quite useful information and appreciate the time you took to explain these fine distinctions to me. I am trying to reform my long held views toward 18th c. opera, or at least adjust them to allow some light into the dusty old room I’ve relegated them to.

          It is so sweet to hear you had the good karma of meeting Mr. Oberlin in such a manner, especially after so long a time having seen him perform there but solely on film. One hopes he was actually as possessed of the gracia which he appears to have in performance. I am so happy for you and it’s so lovely to hear, for—sometimes, and when one least expects it, a butterfly may alight on your shoulder if you are very quiet and just so still. One could expect such a thing to occur in the Cloisters.

  • I’ve known Nicholas for several years. In fact, my first stage role in 23 years was in Fledermaus at Amore Opera in 2010 and Nicholas was one of the Orlovskys. And he was tremendous. He’s also sung Ulrica, believe it or not. He will be going back to Germany this year and I’m so excited to see his career take off. I should also add that he’s designing my website for SoNotedMusic. And he also put together my Indiegogo campaign (at He’s multi-talented.

  • Hippolyte

    It’s Daniel Bubeck, not Brubeck, I believe.

  • Will

    Mr. Maniaci sang a recital with orchestra at the Monadnock Festival last summer and was very well received. His voice was large and easily produced. Mostly Mozart, as I recall.

    I have a fine CD of The Play of Daniel in the Drew Minter production (a typo credits him as Drew Winter) recorded live in a church somewhere in Italy. I also have the NY production with the estimable Mr. Oberlin, a very beautiful and classic rendition. The Italian musicians take a different approach to the orchestration and are more overtly dramatic; one chorus is accompanied mainly my multiple clapping hands for example, and there is a bit more characterization with the voice. It would seem to me that a certain freedom of interpretation is justified given my college studies in medieval performance practice. When giving a symposium on history of opera a decade ago, I had no hesitation of calling the Play of Daniel an opera rather than just a “music drama.”