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