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Speakeasy with David Daniels

Daniels brings his renowned countertenor to Orfeo & Euridice at the Atlanta Opera

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If you were to hear opera singer David Daniels’ voice before you saw him perform, you might make a mistaken guess as to his gender. Countertenors such as Daniels sing in a vocal range usually associated with sopranos and other classical female singing styles. Daniels’ renowned approach has redefined the countertenor style for a new generation of opera audiences. The first countertenor to give a solo recital in the main auditorium of Carnegie Hall, Daniels sings the role of Orpheus in Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo & Euridice at the Atlanta Opera, Nov. 14, 17, 20 and 22.

How young were you when you began singing as a boy soprano?
I think I remember singing when I was 3 or 4 years old. It was probably more like screaming and driving my older brother crazy. He plays the cello, so he’s the only one in my family who doesn’t sing. My mother was a soprano, my father a baritone, and they both taught voice at Converse College. My mother taught me to sing in my “head voice.” I sang professionally as a boy soprano probably from age 9 to 16. Even though my voice changed, I kept the ability to sing this way as a teenager. Now I’m 43, and I still sing this way.

When did you decide to become a countertenor?
It was at the end of grad school, my last year at the University of Michigan. The tenor voice was never meant to be for me. It always felt unnatural, and the countertenor voice always felt natural. With it, I could do the artistic things I could feel inside my body. I felt free as a countertenor, where I never felt free as a tenor. I didn’t do it earlier because there was no educational history for countertenors at that time. No teacher urged me to be a countertenor. Now, whenever I sing at a university, there’s always one or two countertenors in the audience.

Did you meet any resistance to becoming a countertenor?
Actually, the faculty was very supportive for the most part, especially after I sang a jury for them and they heard the voice. They knew I had a talent as a singer but that I struggled with being a tenor. When they heard me as a countertenor, they urged me to pursue it. It’s amazing how much things have changed in 15 years. These days, it’s not rare at all. For every major voice competition, it seems like every other year a countertenor wins these days.

Is singing as a countertenor more demanding than any other kind of operatic singing?
I think that’s a stereotype. People hear the voice and think it must be more tiring. I sing heroic roles, like Handel’s Julius Caesar, which has 10 arias a night, some of which are five to 10 minutes long, with five in the first act. Compared to a Puccini opera, you might sing an aria and two duets, and you’re done. If one has the proper technique, I don’t think it’s more fragile than any other voice type. I do need to rest between performances, just like any other singer.

What kind of response do you get from audiences who’ve never seen a countertenor before?

I see perplexed looks occasionally, because I’m not a slight person. I like to think I bring a sense of masculinity to this voice type. I think they feel comfortable with me pretty quickly, because they see how natural and comfortable it is for me. So they can focus on what they should be, the words and the music and the emotions.

What are the challenges of your role in Orfeo & Eurdice?
The challenges are simply that he’s the main character, so I sing 75 percent of the music in the opera, and never really leave the stage. It’s one emotion after another — he has a wife who dies not once but twice. The difficulty lies in how long [the performance] is and the concentration you have to have from the moment you walk onstage. If you do not capture your audience with the emotion in the piece, you’re going to lose them, because this opera is not about big, opulent costumes and sets. It’s about the music and the characters.

Didn’t you perform at gay Pride this year?
I sang the national anthem with my partner on Pride weekend. I was excited to plug the opera to Pride people at Piedmont Park. They scheduled it so we started singing before the parade was over, though, so there were about 12 people there for us. Come on, really? Apart from that scheduling, it was great.

Could he keep up with you as a singer?
He’s a school teacher who sings with the Atlanta Symphony [Orchestra] Chorus. He keeps up. We were just doing the national anthem, it’s not like we were doing an opera. A friend provided a two-part arrangement of the piece that was quite lovely. Being Southern, he doesn’t like me to give out his name.

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