Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Is there a countertenor in the house? A conversation with Gerald Thompson

Gerald Thompson is the 31 year old phenomenal countertenor who is singing the role of Unufo in Portland Opera’s production of “Rodelinda.” I talked with him over the phone yesterday afternoon to find out more about his voice and his career.

How do you become a countertenor?

Thompson: Well, I think that it’s a little different for everybody, but for me it happened while I was still in college – in Arkansas, which is where I’m from. A new voice teacher came to our school and I started studying with him. I was a tenor at the time, and he was also a tenor; so I thought that he could help me figure out the tenor stuff. So after a couple of lessons, he kept warming my voice up higher and higher. Then he said, “Well, you’re not a tenor.” So I asked, “Well, what am I?” He replied, “A countertenor.”

So, I just found the right teacher who recognized my voice for what it is.

What is the countertenor tone, isn’t it sort of a falsetto?

Thompson: Some people call it different things, like reinforced falsetto. When I was warming up at the top of the tenor range I would switch into this other voice. Then I could still go an octave and a half or two octaves higher.

So how high do you go?

Thompson: In Rodelinda, I go up to a G above a tenor’s high C.


Thompson: Most countertenors go around an F or a G above the tenor’s high C. I can sing up to a soprano’s high C.

Mon Dieu!

Your voice is so rich and full. How do you get this wonderful sound?

Thompson: None of my teachers taught a countertenor before they met me. So they just taught me as if I were a mezzo-soprano. They used the same technique for them but applied it to my voice.

Every countertenor that I have heard has a different quality to their voice than any other countertenor I’ve heard.

So how to you transition into the lower tenor range?

Thompson: What I try to do is very similar to mezzo with her chest voice. I try to mix the tenor and the head-voice so that I’m never singing with the full tenor sound. So it should sound like an even mix. It’s the same concept when I go into the extreme upper range, I try to keep a some of the middle in the higher area. So there’s an even transition throughout the voice.

You are from Arkansas?

Thompson: Yes, I was born and raised in Pocahontas, Arkansas, and went to college to Arkansas Tech University, and that’s where I met the teacher who discovered my countertenor voice. He had a career in Europe as a tenor and knew about countertenors. David Daniels had just released his first CD as a countertenor at this same time. So the idea of becoming a countertenor was more acceptable here in the States, but they have been using countertenors for a long, long time in Europe.

Tell us more about your career path.

Thompson: I was in the Merola Opera program for young artists then I got the Adler Fellowship with San Francisco Opera. I graduated from that program last year and have been working full-time for a full year now. I’ve been real busy. I’m preparing for a big European audition tour so that I can get work over in Europe. My agent is based in London, and she’s setting things up for me. I’ll be based in Paris, but I’ll go all over Europe for the auditions. There are just more opportunities in Europe.

When I first got into this the upper range was just a freak kind of thing. My voice teacher brought in some CDs of countertenors from Europe, and I asked, “You can make a living from doing this?!”

Before the getting into the Merola program I sang two and a half years with Opera Theatre at Wildwood Park in Arkansas doing their opera season and also as a young artist in their opera in the schools program. So I sang as a countertenor in a children’s opera tour.

The kids’ jaws must have dropped!

Thompson: The first question that the kids always asked is, “Why do you sing like a girl?” Since the first role I had in that program was Hansel in “Hansel and Gretel,” I’d tell them that I was playing a young boy and boys still had high voices.

With a countertenor there is still some masculinity in the voice despite that fact that it’s really high. It’s difficult to find your way into this profession. You just have to see what doors open. My biggest break really came when I did Merola – 12 weeks in the summer – then I got a call to be in the Adler Fellowship, and they had a countertenor who had to drop out of a show, so they needed someone as a last minute replacement. So I immediately flew back to San Francisco and started rehearsal. So I was singing a nice-sized supporting role on San Francisco Opera’s stage. Then they put me in two more shows. So I sang the role that I’m singing here with Portland Opera while still in the young artists program. And later I sang Prince Orlofsky in “Die Fledermaus” there as well. So they’ve been very good to me.

I feel so lucky to be the first countertenor to have performed with Portland Opera. I love the company and the city here. I’d love to come back here and sing again.

That would be terrific! Good luck with everything.

Thompson: Thanks!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lorin W.

I heard Gerald sing Thursday night and was amazed. I've heard a few countertenors before, but never one who sang so purely and flawlessly. Gerald is definitely right that each countertenor has a very unique voice.

Last night I heard countertenor Ian Howell sing with the Portland Baroque Orchestra in a performance of several Bach cantatas, including the well-known wedding cantata #196 Der Herr denket an uns. While Gerald definitely posessed a much more 'effortless' high tessitura, Ian sang with a very warm lower range; the quality of his voice actually reminded me a bit of contralto Jennifer Hines, who sings the role of Bertarido in Rodelinda.

Hearing two such talented countertenors on successive nights here in Portland was a real treat! If you're a fan of countertenors, be sure to catch either the PBO concert this weekend or Rodelinda. Or you could do both! I did; you won't regret it.