"You very quickly forget whether it's a male voice or a female voice. ... Because he's such a terrific musician, and so expressive, the fact that it's a man singing in a woman's range becomes irrelevant, and what we hear is the music."
That's how Morning Edition music commentator Miles Hoffman describes the voice of David Daniels, one of the world's most celebrated countertenors. Most simply defined as a "male alto," a countertenor is a male vocalist who sings in a range that is — at least in modern times — ordinarily associated with women.
This weekend, Daniels will put that impressive voice to work in an opera written especially for him: Theodore Morrison's Oscar, based on the writer and wit Oscar Wilde, premieres Saturday at the Santa Fe Opera, with Daniels in the title role. Click the audio link for more on the history of countertenors, and read on for three examples of Daniels' voice in action — including a sneak preview of Oscar, recorded during this week's dress rehearsals.
(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA MUSIC)
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We are listening now to the voice of David Daniels. He is a countertenor, men whose singing voices approach the range sung by women. David Daniels is one of the most celebrated countertenors in the world. This weekend he'll be singing at the Santa Fe Opera in the world premiere of "Oscar," an opera based on the writer and wit Oscar Wilde. And this is an opera written especially for Daniels.
To talk more about all of this we're joined by MORNING EDITION music commentator Miles Hoffman. Good morning.
MILES HOFFMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: And Miles, there's no getting around the fact that when we hear that voice, which we've just been hearing - at first, anyway - we do think we're hearing a woman.
HOFFMAN: That's true, Renee. And in fact, the simplest definition of countertenor is a male alto. It's a man singing in a vocal range that in modern times, at least, we ordinarily associate with women. But you know, you said at first and I think that's the key. I'd love you to listen to another example right away of David Daniels singing. This is from a song by Franz Schubert song; it's called "Nacht und Traume" or "Night and Dreams."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NACHT UND TRÄUME")
MONTAGNE: Very lovely, there's a richness to it.
HOFFMAN: There sure is. And I think that it's so beautiful that you very quickly forget whether it's a male voice or a female voice - it's just a beautiful voice. One of the things I admire the most about David Daniels' singing, in fact, Renee, is that it sounds completely natural. Actually, it looks natural when he sings, too.
I mean David Daniels is all over YouTube. And after you watch him for a while, it just doesn't seem weird anymore because he's such a terrific musician and such an expressive singer. The fact that it's a man singing in a woman's range becomes irrelevant and what we hear - all we hear - is the music.
MONTAGNE: Well, one thing, Miles, you mentioned just a moment ago that the high vocal range is associated with women, as you put it, in modern times. And what? That's because...
HOFFMAN: That's because in the earliest days of opera, Renee - the 1600s and the 1700s - many of the biggest superstars were men. They were castrati, in fact - singing eunuchs, men who had been castrated as young boys so that their voices never changed. And they sang heroic roles in very high voices, what we would now consider alto or soprano range.
Here's an excerpt, Renee, from George Frederick Handel's opera "Giulio Cesare" or "Julius Caesar." And it's David Daniels singing the title role.
(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "GIULIO CESARE")
MONTAGNE: One thing, Miles, why in that period of time, why would heroic roles, why would they be going to very high voices? Why "Julius Caesar" singing in this range?
HOFFMAN: Well, again, the high voices were the most important voices in the earliest days of opera. And castrati, the men, were the ones who sang very high but also very, very powerfully. And there were very few women involved; sometimes they weren't allowed to be involved. So it was the men, the castrati, who were the stars, and the composers wrote those roles for these castrati.
MONTAGNE: Well, then let's get to how someone becomes - in this day and age - a countertenor as a musical path.
HOFFMAN: Well, it's funny. I spoke with David Daniels about that the other day and I asked him about it. He told me that he had always had a high singing voice. He'd been a boy soprano and after his voice changed he still sang in a very high voice. The way he described it, it was very funny. He said, Renee, that at 17 he was a boy soprano with facial hair.
But he went to college and to graduate school as a tenor, but he said it always felt very uncomfortable. In fact, he said, it felt awful. And just before he finished graduate school, he decided to make the switch up to countertenor. And I just think it's interesting for a person to discover that that's his voice, and that that's where he's comfortable, and then for it to turn out so unbelievably well.
MONTAGNE: I was going to say it certainly worked for him.
HOFFMAN: It certainly worked.
MONTAGNE: He's a huge star. So, tell us more about this brand new opera that he is starring in, "Oscar."
HOFFMAN: Yeah, it was commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera and the Philadelphia Opera. And it's based on scenes from the life of Oscar Wilde. Well, I say scenes - the opera doesn't so much depict events as it depicts Oscar Wilde's emotional and psychological reaction to events; and in particular to his prosecution and persecution, you could call it, including two years in prison and hard labor for what British law called gross indecency.
MONTAGNE: Which basically meant, at the time, homosexuality.
HOFFMAN: That's exactly right. The libretto is by the British opera director John Cox. And the music is by the American composer Theodore Morrison, who wrote the opera for David - for David Daniels.
MONTAGNE: And Miles, I understand you have a bit of a sneak preview for us.
HOFFMAN: Well, we do have a little snippet that was recorded at a workshop a while back, Renee. It's an excerpt from an aria that Oscar Wilde sings to his lover, Boosie. The voice belongs to David Daniels and he's singing here with just piano accompaniment, not with the full orchestra that he'll have Saturday evening.
(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "OSCAR")
MONTAGNE: Well, that's a sneak preview from the opera "Oscar," which will have its world premiere this weekend at the Santa Fe Opera, with countertenor David Daniels in the title role.
Miles, thanks very much.
HOFFMAN: Thank you, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Miles Hoffman is the violist of the American Chamber Players and the author of "The NPR Classical Music Companion."
(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "OSCAR")
MONTAGNE: And you can hear David Daniels sing more from "Oscar" at NPRMusic.org.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.