© Denis Jouglet
© Denis Jouglet
October is Baroque Month here at Bachtrack. Recent years have seen the unstoppable rise of the countertenor – they're everywhere! We thought it was about time we caught up with some of today's leading countertenors to find out more.

Christopher Ainslie started his singing career as a chorister in Cape Town, his home city. In 2005 he moved to London to study at the Royal College of Music, where he graduated with distinction. Recent and future engagements include Orfeo ed Euridice for Opéra de Lyon and for Opéra National de Lorraine, Agrippina for the Göttingen Handel Festival, Saul for Glyndebourne, Bach’s B Minor Mass with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Handel’s Messiah with the Ulster Orchestra and with the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, and Orff’s Carmina Buranawith the Choir and Orchestra of Radio France.

How do you explain the explosion in popularity of countertenors?

 The baroque revival of the last few decades created some demand for countertenors in the industry. As they stepped up to fill this demand, the voice type began a path of discovery of its own, as singers began to explore the voice's technical and musical potential. And as they did this, the public was exposed to some extreme beauty and dramatic power, and more singers considered the countertenor voice as a career option. There is something magical about a man singing in this tessitura, but I think the popularity of the voice has more to do with the timbre and sound world it unlocks. The voice can be etherial and also unpredictable (in a good way), and as singers begin to apply conventional bel canto techniques to the voice, the potential of the voice is, more and more, being unlocked. How wonderful that contemporary composers have also pricked up their ears to this potential, and we see more roles being written for the countertenor.

Catherine Hopper (Ottavia) and Christopher Ainslie (Ottone) in Opera North's <i>Poppea</i> © Tristram Kenton
Catherine Hopper (Ottavia) and Christopher Ainslie (Ottone) in Opera North's Poppea
© Tristram Kenton

Which is your favourite opera role and why?

Gluck's Orfeo is hard to beat, although numerous Handel roles are up there too, including the title role in Amadigi, Arsace in Partenope, and Ottone in Agrippina. Each role has its unique musical and dramatic magic, but the thing that puts these at the top of my list is the way they tap into the deep melancholy, even despair, which the alto voice is so perfectly suited to expressing. I love these roles also for their range of emotions, and the tessitura: rich, juicy alto lines with some beautiful higher sections to relax into.

When did you discover your countertenor voice? 

I sang as a treble in a boys' choir in Cape Town and, when my voice broke, I sang alto or tenor for a while, depending on what was needed. But the alto range always felt more special to me, and I began training my countertenor voice just to keep up with the demands of the choir. When my teacher suggested that perhaps I should think a little more seriously about singing as a career choice, I didn't think much of the idea, as I was well on my way to qualifying as a chartered accountant and I was stubbornly a violist, not a singer! Fast forward five years and I found myself studying with Mark Tucker at the Royal College of Music, and I never looked back. I feel like I am still discovering my countertenor voice, as I am still actively exploring what this voice type has to offer. There are so many approaches to this voice and sub-fachs are being more clearly distilled all the time. But the exploration is far from over, and I find it fascinating and thrilling to be part of it!

What is your approach to da capo ornamentation? Is there a balance to be found between florid fireworks and good taste?! 

We aren't living in baroque times, and as much as we strive for period-correctness, our job is really to bring this music to our modern audiences. In my mind there is a choice to make with each production or recording: pure historically informed practice, or tasteful and beautiful to our modern ears. Usually the dramatic context of our staged operas is so far from what it would have been in baroque times that if we came anywhere near what we believe they would have done a few hundred years ago, it just would not make sense. I would have nothing against a period production or recording which aims to get every aspect of the performance as accurate to baroque times as possible, including florid fireworks. But my personal style of singing aims more at expressing text and emotion in song, so I try to ornament in a way that emphasises what it is that I am trying to say.  

Christopher Ainslie (David) and Sarah Tynan (Merab) in <i>Saul</i> at Glyndebourne © Richard Hubert Smith
Christopher Ainslie (David) and Sarah Tynan (Merab) in Saul at Glyndebourne
© Richard Hubert Smith

What’s the strangest thing you’ve been asked to do on an operatic stage?

Caligula at ENO must be the strangest production I have been part of (and one of the most exciting). From carrying a naked actor (playing the dead sister of Caligula), within seconds of arriving on stage, to playing a crazed, sadistic choir-master to the bizarre and confused chorus, while dressed in a little green toga and crown of roses, it was all quite out there. Being the servant of Caligula, it was just sad that I couldn't actually join in with the food fight. I had to stand nearby, grinning like the possessed weirdo that I was.  

 Then again, singing an aria as Eliogabalo with Gotham Chamber Opera in NYC, while being carried in the air on my back, by four (topless) dancers, while dressed in pink fishnet stockings, a codpiece, and a chain-mail shirt comes pretty close...

Click here for Christopher Ainslie's performer page on Bachtrack.