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.

Tim Mead © Benjamin Ealovega
Tim Mead
© Benjamin Ealovega
Countertenor Tim Mead is praised for his elegant and warm tone with faultless projection and stylish interpretations. His virtuosic performances have drawn much international attention, and he is recognised as one of the finest across the generations of countertenors. 

How do you explain the explosion in popularity of countertenors?

The modern countertenor voice has been part of the musical landscape for many decades, but there is still something about it that strikes audiences as new or unusual. One of the reasons this continues to be the case is that the definition of the voice type is developing and expanding all the time. I still regularly meet people who think all countertenors sound a certain way and are surprised and fascinated to discover the vast array of voice types that exist within this once quite narrow vocal category. With this huge variety of different voices there definitely seems to be something for everybody! Whilst the rediscovery of Baroque works shows no sign of slowing down, the various countertenor voice types currently on display also seem to be a source of inspiration for contemporary composers. From Britten’s Oberon to Benjamin’s Boy, contemporary composers seem to turn to the countertenor voice to paint some of their most special characters. In these regards the countertenor voice is constantly showing audiences something new.

Which is your favourite opera role and why?

Barbara Hannigan (Agnès) and Tim Mead (Boy) © Richard Termine
Barbara Hannigan (Agnès) and Tim Mead (Boy)
© Richard Termine
I think a ‘favourite role’ has a lot to do with the context in which you encounter it. The experience of singing a role is dependant on so many factors: the production, the director, the conductor, your colleagues, your current vocal condition or simply how you feel the morning you get up to sing it. But it’s probably also true that when a role really fits everything else seems to take care of itself. The role I’ve enjoyed performing most over the last few years is the Boy in George Benjamin’s Written on Skin (which Bachtrack recently reviewed in New York). It’s one of those roles where everything you need to tell the story has been given to you in the score. George’s ability to set and pace the text is really extraordinary. Of course, George’s music has moments of incredible beauty and dramatic fire that would be great to sing on their own, but it’s the way this material fits into the dramatic structure of the complete work that really appeals to me. The role of the Boy seamlessly blends inviting vocalism with dramatic expression and it’s simply a joy to perform, especially within Katie Mitchell’s wonderfully detailed production. Vocally and dramatically it feels like a perfect fit and that is a rare and beautiful combination for any singer!

Another role that I’m particularly drawn to at the moment is Didymus in Handel’s Theodora . Whilst strictly an oratorio, it’s a work that lends itself to staging and a more operatic treatment. Handel has long been at the core of my repertoire and I think he was never more inspired than when writing this late work. It really brings into sharp focus Handel’s ability to paint the humanity of his characters and results in some of his most ravishing music. It’s not a piece that has had the benefit of too many stagings since the Peter Sellars production for Glyndebourne in the 1990s, but I’d love to see it receive the sort of serious theatrical treatment that a director like Katie Mitchell brings... maybe one day!

When did you discover your countertenor voice?

Like many English countertenors I was surrounded by countertenor voices from an early age thanks to the English choral tradition. I can’t say that I ever had any burning desire to be a countertenor and that I have ended up here is more of a happy accident than anything else! I stopped singing treble in my local cathedral choir in Chelmsford relatively late, I think I was about 14. About 6 months into my ‘retirement’ the choir had an unexpected choral scholar vacancy and my old choir master, Graham Elliott, wondered if I’d like to give it a try. So I turned up for the Sunday services and gave it a shot, having never really experimented with my voice in this register since my voice changed. I can’t say the immediate results were that impressive. The voice lacked any real power or definition. But it instinctively seemed to retain some of the warmth and naturalness of my treble voice. In any case, it was enough to persuade my choir master to give me the job on a permanent basis and I spent the next 3 years growing into my new voice, just in time to audition for a choral scholarship at King’s, Cambridge where I took my first voice lessons.

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

‘Good taste’ seems to be a rather broad church within the baroque music world! Whilst we can assume that ornamentation was used to some extent in the baroque period as vehicle for the singer to show off, I’ve never really been too interested in that. A da capo is not simply repeating previously heard material with decorations. The repeated material has to be informed by the experience of singing it for the first time and by the material of B section. It is an opportunity to enhance the meaning of the material, and ornamentation is one of the most useful tools we have in achieving this. For this reason, in past years I’ve found myself preferring more subtle styles of ornamentation. In staged productions I like to wait until I have good idea of the staging before writing ornaments, so that they grow from what I am trying to do dramatically, rather than just being an exercise in impressive vocalism or musical inventiveness. This also applies to cadenzas. I believe there is a real need to earn them dramatically, rather than just use them as excuse to show off your highest note. I never really want to see a singer being ‘impressive’ at the expense of the story they are supposed to be telling. Whether any of this conforms to what is considered historically correct doesn’t bother me so much. I think in the modern opera theatre we are, on the whole, presenting these works with increased dramatic integrity and we need to use all our knowledge of what baroque singers might have done to inform our choices, but not be dictated by it.

Tim Mead (Eustazio) at Glyndebourne, 2012 © Bill Cooper
Tim Mead (Eustazio) at Glyndebourne, 2012
© Bill Cooper

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

Thinking back over all the productions I’ve done, nothing really seems that weird. But perhaps my weirdness threshold is quite high. A lot of the stranger things that have been suggested on the rehearsal stage usually come from me! I’m generally up for trying anything, as long as there is some point to it and it’s not just a cheap gimmick. (Early on in my career I was singing a Handel opera in Austria and the director suggested that during the da capo I slowly take my trousers off. He was never able to give me a reason for it, so I politely declined). I don’t think it’s that unusual in a Handel aria to fix a bicycle puncture, pull a giraffe’s tongue out of its mouth, smash some tea cups, hit crocodile eggs with a croquet mallet, perform various acts of sadistic torture... all the while singing beautifully, of course! Oh, I also had to kiss Chris Purves in Written on Skin... he wasn’t gentle.

 

Tim is currently singing the role of Arsamene in Cavalli's Xerse in Lille.