Singing From a Perspective Across 5 Octaves
What lead you to sing?
I played the piano for a while, and after, I played violin. I got bored, so I started singing. And now, I go to school for singing. I like it more than the other instruments.
What is your favorite thing about singing?
My favorite thing about singing is that it brings people together. And riffing.
These are just some simple questions I asked to get the ball rolling for Nicholas Peta, a freshman music education major here at Syracuse University. Nick is not just another vocal student. He is one of just two countertenors here at the Setnor School of Music. What is a countertenor you may ask? I think Clemency Burton-Hill from BBC says it best when she describes listening to a countertenor: “At first, you can scarcely believe your ears, so arresting is the sound a countertenor makes.” A countertenor is the highest male singing voice that there is. So while they can still hit notes that regular male tenors can hit, they can also extend their range to hit notes that altos and even sopranos can hit. This makes for a very wide range of possibilities for a countertenor. For Nick, discovering this untapped upper register of his was not something that was very hard for him to find out, so I asked him:
When did you first discover your ability to sing in the upper register?
When I listened to listened to ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’ by Mariah Carey, I really wanted to sing her part and I started to try to in 8th grade. Then, I started to perform music in a barbershop quartet and those parts required me to sing higher notes.
What has it been like becoming a countertenor?
“It has been really hard, and it made me feel really insecure. But that is just what comes with doing something very new. Also, it’s just fun! It’s fun to sing with female singers, it is quite a different experience.”
Nick did not start to really learn how to use his high register until he came here to Syracuse when his voice teacher threw the idea of becoming a countertenor on him. The history of male singers with high voices is not the prettiest. Going back to Clemency Burton-Hill’s BBC article, she goes into some detail about how countertenor’s work today would have been sung by a male “castrato.” It can be easy to see now how tackling songs meant for a castrato might be a little bit demeaning, and might make somebody like Nick who is relatively new at the whole countertenor thing, a bit insecure. But, Burton-Hill doesn’t just talk about the kind of uncomfortable history of countertenors, she also talks about what countertenors are doing today. She talks about how there are many opportunities for countertenors in church music, as well as many great operas. So even though it sounds like countertenors could be perceived as a dying art because of the practices that no longer go on, people like myself and Burton-Hill want to assure people that this is not a dead art form. I went on to ask Nick some final questions about his countertenor career.
What are some of the struggles being a countertenor?
Not knowing how to do anything. Finding repertoire, because not a lot of people sing countertenor – binary rep. Having old people in “Oratorio” tell me I’m in the wrong section. Sounding like a balloon… I don’t want to sound like a balloon. That’s been a challenge.
How do other people react to hearing your voice?
Either they run away or they clap their hands.
What’s something you see in your future as a countertenor?
I look forward to be able to singing every voice part when I’m teaching students so they can have somebody who can really show them how it’s done rather than just telling them how to do it.
So, even though Nick is not thinking along Burton-Hill’s path of church gigs and opera performances, he is still going to use his great vocal range to his students’ advantage. This is actually something really great, because it is another application of a countertenor’s ability used in a way that will benefit others. The art of countertenors is not one that is going to die out, thanks to people like Nick and many other great singers.