In his youth, Dr. Stephen Westmoreland’s favorite hobby was music. He studied piano and voice, performing in a number of contests. He gained recognition and won various awards and scholarships to summer music programs. He studied with concert pianist Lilli Kelleti and had the honor of playing for the eminent Hungarian pianist and composer Ernst von Dohnányi. His university studies were both in the U.K. and the U.S. After several years teaching, he opened a private behavioral health clinic and was Program Director. During this time, he maintained his interest in classical music and conducted research on Baroque vocal music and the male high voice, giving lectures on the subject. His information has been utilized by various music professors and an opera company. Now retired, he is able to devote more time to his musical interest. He has continued his research, discussed the human singing voice with various singers such as male sopranos, sopranists, and countertenors, and shared many examples of exceptionally fine voices on his YouTube channel. It is a great pleasure to have such a distinguished authority.
In this short presentation, I suggest to the reader to reconsider any potential decision to lump together high-tessitura female and male voices as being about the same. I hear and read this comment from time to time.
Although I enjoy and have studied a wide spectrum of music, my preferred specialty for several years has been Baroque vocal music. Over the last generation or two, singers, directors, and audiences gradually have shown an increased interest in the vocal works written for castrati. Because the era of castrati is long gone, a frequent solution has been to cast such roles with women. These efforts continue to be met with relative success or failure depending upon the quality of the voices and the training of the singers.Not surprisingly, the casual listener conveniently equates high voices with female and low voices with male. If, for example, a male sings with a high tessitura, whether naturally or with falsetto, some listeners fail to analyze what they hear beyond their simple conclusion. I recall during one of my lectures, a music professor and Julliard graduate exclaimed, “Why, he sounds just like a woman!” One irritated response was, “No, he does not!” I suggest that there are two major factors in one’s ability to discern male voices from female voices other than tessitura: musical experience and innate musical sensitivity.
Other than through musical education and experience, the degree to which a listener is able to discern the difference between male and female singers also is determined by a genetic secondary-intelligence keyed toward musical perception. Each of us possesses a variety of secondary intelligences, but to varying degrees. This factor contributes to our uniqueness. I have friends who are classical-music lovers and who have listened to the Met for many years but who admit to not being able to perceive the differences between voices of the same tessitura, or for that matter, any musical nuance. One states that, to her, music is an unfathomable foreign language. There are others of us, however, who have a very acute hearing and the ability to perceive fine nuances in sound. I, for example, have surprised myself by hearing radio broadcasts of piano recitals and identifying the brand of the piano, such as Steinway, Baldwin, Bechstein, or Bösendorfer (the one I chose for myself because of its sound and touch.)
Yes, it is true that we also are aware that vocal timbre varies somewhat from individual to individual singer because of variations in physical structure as well as vocal training. As a consequence, a few female voices, such a Maria Cristina Kiehr, may sound somewhat more “masculine,” and a male singer, such as natural male soprano Radu Marian, may sound somewhat more “feminine,” not exclusively because of his high tessitura, but also because of his timbre. Regardless, the acute listener will detect general differences between male and female voices. Recent studies, such as those by Christine Mecke and Johann Sundberg, have revealed that such differences exist even among young boys and girls, despite the fact that most people do not stop to consider the question because all children have undeveloped voices. The history of boys choirs stems not exclusively from mere tradition or religious doctrine. A generally unified sound results from boys’ choirs or girls’ choirs, but less so from mixed. The sounds produced are discernibly different, even at an early age. Such differences increase significantly as boys and girls approach puberty. As a boy soprano grows, the sound of his voice changes, and not only from the beginning of the effect upon the physical voice-structure itself. A larger body, larger chest and breath capacity, larger head, larger jaw and mouth, and larger resonating chambers, result in a fuller, richer, stronger sound. Also as the voice begins to change, the deeper notes begin to take on a somewhat heavier sound, whereas the top notes have more force. The boy may be singing soprano; however, the voice does not resemble that of a girl.
When it comes to the question of how best to cast male roles in Baroque operas or for other similar works such as oratorios, motets, and cantate, a male sound is preferable if possible to acquire. With the relatively recent rediscovery and renewal of interest in Baroque vocal music, such considerations are important, especially considering that 80% of operas were written before the year 1800, and 70% of the roles were for alto or soprano castrati. Of course, we no longer are producing artificially more than 4,000 potential singers per year, as was the custom during the Baroque golden age. We have only a handful of natural male sopranos and altos whose voices result from a variety of causes, such as Kallmann’s Syndrome. The music world has developed, however, improved methods of training the growing number of singers who choose to be countertenors.
As a fortunate consequence, adult men who sing high tessitura (be they natural male altos or sopranos, countertenors, or sopranists), who have been trained in the Baroque style, will sing with a noticeably male timbre, power, and breath capacity. Then there is the additional advantage with on-stage performances where the physical appearance of men playing men’s roles may be preferable. With the growing number of countertenors, I have heard some superb singers, many average ones, and a few unfortunate ones. Despite the fact that producing and financing Baroque operas is difficult and often avoided, the best countertenors can not fill all the roles available. If carefully chosen, a female singer can do well. One director told me that he had attempted to hire a rare male soprano for a lead role, but he was already booked-up. The director then offered the role to a countertenor who had sung the role before; however, he found the tessitura too high for comfort. The director then was fortunate enough to find a female singer whose voice and acting, as well as her understanding of Baroque opera, were so successful that the director hired her two years later for the role of Rinaldo. Despite her not having a truly male timbre, she was good enough for my suspension of disbelief to be relatively easy. I do wonder, however, how much more fascinating the performances would have been with the male soprano. I have heard him live before. His soprano tessitura does have a male timbre, and his masculine form on stage works well.