The most surprising Countertenor

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A countertenor singing for children

ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON — SEYMOUR BARAB — RUSSELL OBERLIN — A CHILD’S GARDEN OF VERSES — CD UNDATED COPYRIGHT — VINYL 1985 — REMASTERED 2015

I will first regret the poems are not in poetic layout but in plain prose layout in spite of the rhymes and the capital letters at the beginning of each group of what should have been lines. We miss that visual poetry. The illustrations are the only visual element and they are nice but not enough to make us enter in this world of children’s poetry, of poetry for children that has to be visually clear and attractive.

The second characteristic is that it is poetry written for children. Yet it is mostly in first person as if some hypothetical child were speaking and that is not possible because the language is by far too complicated for a child that has just learned how to read. It is thus poetry that has to be read to children and what children are going to find in the poetry is the music with lines, rhymes and rhythm. It is of course a common convention for children’s literature in the second half of the 19th century, which is Stevenson’s period. Children’s literature is adult literature for children.

The themes are essentially that of a garden, a vast garden and a vast house, if not mansion in the countryside by the sea. We are in a wealthy family or even more than wealthy, with a nurse for that child who is a boy and cannot be anything else, knowing how often he plays with tin soldiers or he plays soldier himself, even if at the end an allusion to a cousin girl is introduced. The world is seen through the eyes of the boy and described through the pen and language of the adult who is telling us the story. The big Louis author is alluding towards the end he is seeing the world through the eyes of a small Louis boy that he probably used to be.

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An English voice for the origin of it all

Then you have a lot of seascape, ships, boats, fishing, travelling and foreign countries, though the dominant one is India but only as a distant somewhere. The child is also imagining fairy countries, dreamlike countries to which he is able to travel. But do not expect any Wonderland.

The most surprising element is the total solitude of that child. He is alone, playing alone and by himself with toys he can play with alone. He does not have any partner and adults are not taking part in the games. The nurse only puts him to bed and gets him up. In many ways it is a sad vision of a solitary quasi abandoned child in a wealthy family where everyone is minding their own businesses and hardly the child. So he sleeps at night, watches the sun rising in the morning, plays in the garden all day long, watches the sun setting in the evening and goes back to bed at night. That kind of life is traumatic. A child living such a life should develop PTSS by total lack of love, total lack of company, total lack of another child of the same size, except the imaginary one he creates, and that should lead him to a split personality, a perfect soil for schizophrenia later on.

I was even amazed at finding some social Darwinism in one poem:

The child that is not clean and neat,

With lots of toys and things to eat,

He is a naughty child, I’m sure –

Or else his dear papa is poor.

In other words, it is the fate of a naughty rich boy or a poor boy. And it is normal if you are poor not to be clean and neat, not to have toys and food. There is no questioning of it and it is equaled to “naughtiness” for a rich boy. A good boy, meaning rich, is always clean and neat, has plenty of toys and plenty to eat. Just add to this it is the reward for being a good rich boy and social Darwinism is with you. These concepts of good boy and bad boy are constantly present in many poems and one is for me surprisingly European-centered to the point of reaching infantile arrogance:

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It is always sad to die

FOREIGN CHILDREN

Little Indian, Sioux or Crow,
Little frosty Eskimo,
Little Turk or Japanee,
Oh! Don’t you wish that you were me?

You have seen the scarlet trees
And the lions overseas;
You have eaten ostrich eggs,
And turned the turtles off their legs.

Such a life is very fine,
But it’s not so nice as mine:
You must often, as you trod,
Have wearied not to be abroad.

You have curious things to eat,
I am fed on proper meat;
You must dwell beyond the foam,
But I am safe and live at home.

Little Indian, Sioux or Crow,
Little frosty Eskimo,
Little Turk or Japanee,
Oh! Don’t you wish that you were me?

How plain cruel it is to turn turtles off their legs knowing they cannot get back on their legs alone. Just as cruel as making the Indian, the Sioux, the Crow, the Eskimo, the Turk and the Japanese only dream of one thing: be a good white European, rich of course.

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A countertenor singing with angels

Since the poems were written for children but were not children’s literature, really written from the point of view and with the language of a child but from the point of view of an adult trying to assume the point of view of a child in adult language, Seymour Barab did not try to compose a traditional music for children in the line of nursery rhymes or lullabies. The music is simple, dynamic songs, but it does not respect the fundamental rule of a song that children can sing: its repetitive stanza pattern. The music is thus very expressive and original. Children might like it, and they probably will, but they won’t be able to sing along because of this fact, this elaboration.

Now what about the singing. It is not operatic in the articulation it often gets on the stage that makes the language inaudible and impossible to understand. The articulation is closer to that of plain songs, popular songs, music hall songs, so that we can really follow the words easily. The voice of Russell Oberlin sure is a countertenor but the coloration of this countertenor’s voice is very low indeed and the music does not try to make him go up in any way. So we have a very tamed countertenor voice and people who are used today to countertenors like Philippe Jaroussky, Max Emmanuel Cencic or Franco Fagioli will miss the lightest and highest expertise. Even if you think of Alfred Deller or James Bowman, you will also be surprised or disappointed. And yet you would be wrong.

Russell Oberlin has a voice of his own which is like the voice of a pre-puberty boy who has aged nicely and sounds more like the still light and rather high-pitched voice of a young teenager more than that of a child. But the voice sounds so masculine indeed. And that voice has a strong charm that makes the recording very attractive and dynamic, but above all expressive and that is what we expect from a singer. Expressive in various styles, tempos and emotional stances adopted by the singer in the various songs, some of them being very short and yet in each one, even the smallest, he varies every parameter to create an atmosphere loaded with emotions and sentiments. And that’s the most beautiful side of this recording, even if some of the songs are so short, just like the poems, but just like one sushi is one mouthful small, two dozens of them are quite a satisfying dinner. Good major and minor fluent tonal Appetite!

Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU

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The countertenor is the harp of all voices

He is a legend but we hardly have any of his early recordings. He explains in the 2004 interview that he has recordings of what he did from age 6 to age 36, the age when he stopped singing two years after his hepatitis, but he does not know where they are. He does not seem really keen on looking for them and asking people who have archives here and there to do it for him. He is the proof though that a singer must start early. He was already singing at the age of six in a church choir and he was already hired to sing for private audiences around the age of nine. His evolution was then a continuation and not a discovery. He moved from boy soprano to his countertenor voice or, as he calls it, his high-pitched tenor voice.

He is also the one who must have started the myth that at the beginning there was only him and Alfred Deller in Great Britain who was a falsetto voice and not a countertenor, according to Russell Oberlin mind you because you could disagree, and his comment was that he was the only countertenor and still is. He says that in 2004 which is amazing and he widens the scope by saying that all so-called countertenors are in fact falsetto voices. Though he says in 2004 that they are doing a pretty good job he seems to disagree with them though he considers they are not a fad but they have come back to stay because they are bringing back a whole immense lot of music scores and operas that could not be sung before (he seems to imply that both the use of women and the recomposing of the parts for tenors or baritones is unacceptable: he does not even mention those surrogate substitutions)

But to sat that in 2004 seems to prove that he was not connected with the world any more because a full generation of countertenors were appearing, some falsetto voices, but some real countertenors. And anyway that’s not the point. Men can sing in that high pitched range and the problem is; as he says, what the singer makes with his voice and that implies work, a lot of work and the saying is right about the early riser. He even acknowledges that falsetto voices that he calls fragile can really be powerful enough to fill a house. Unluckily some critics have followed his approach and rejected all falsetto voices, including those who are real countertenors, as being freaks like Laura E. DeMarco did in 2002.

The interest of this DVD is that apart from sorting out Russell Oberlin’s two carriers, thirty years in singing and thirty years in teaching music and singing, it provides us with two Canadian radio recordings done in 1961 and 1962 for the nascent black and white television. These recordings are archive recordings and the quality of both the images and the sound are not what we would expect today. The images are low definition and the remastering of them did not improve them that much. We can dream about what television was then. The sound has also been remastered too but you cannot create CD or FM sound with a fifty year old recording. In those days low frequencies and high frequencies did not go through. So it is more a testimony about Russell Oberlin than a real demonstration of what he was able to do.

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Magnifying magnificence

The result is very interesting nevertheless. He covers pieces from the Middle Ages, hence monastic singing and church singing when women were banned from singing, which is not entirely true since women were part of the congregation and could as such sing in the chorals even if they could not be part of the choirs. Then he skips the English Renaissance when women were still banned from the stage or church choirs. He jumps to the English baroque period with Purcell and Handel, then moves to the 19th century with Robert Schumann and then more modern things with Hugo Wolf and above all Benjamin Britten and his Oberon part in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

As for what we hear it is quite satisfactory, as I have said before, as a testimony of the past but not as a real demonstration of Oberlin’s art. As for what we see we recognize, if we have had the chance of seeing performances in the 60s and 70s, the performing style of these days: sophisticated as for the body language and very standardized as for the costumes in the 1962 show or suits in the 1961 radio recital worn by the performer. The body language is inspired from what we know about baroque performances in the 18th century and tries to recapture the mannerism of that time, a mannerism that was more or less considered as foppish at the time but that has been dropped since the 1960s or completely reconstructed as a style, not an imitation or vague recollection, but a fully developed style including setting, costumes, lights, body language and vocal posture and behavior, at times in an extremely modern and creative way. No nostalgia anymore but creativity.

An essential DVD if we want to apprehend Russell Oberlin and what opera singing was in those older times that are in fact the early modern times, the very vocal rich compost on which the modern world was and still can be constructed for tomorrow.

Dr Jacques COULARDEAU

Written by

Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, PhD in Germanic Linguistics (University Lille III) and ESP Teaching (University Bordeaux II) has been teaching all types of ESP

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