Twenty-First Century America features men and women as fellow professionals everywhere. Nowwhere is this more true than in my own profession, that of an attorney. My law firm features men and women serving with distinction as partners, associates, and support staff. We’ve come a long way from the days when Ruth Bader Ginsberg, now on the United State Supreme Court, was told after passing the New York Bar Examination that a prominent New York Law firm that they would hire her only as a secretary, not as an attorney, because, “we don’t hire female lawyers.”
Yet in a society which continues to eradicate gender discrimination, there is one place granting itself a gratuitous exemption: the choir rooms of some Christian churches. Men are not permitted to sing soprano or alto and women are not permitted to sing tenor or bass based on the artistic preferences of clergy, choir directors and congregations. Is this truly discriminatory, or is this an instance where gender is a “bona fide occupational qualification?” Some would argue that, just like the fact that men are more likely than women to have the physical strength needed to be firefighters, male singers usually do have deeper singing voices and are more suited to the lower tenor or bass parts while most women have higher voices more appropriate for soprano and alto.
I have felt the sting of these discriminatory polices more than once in my 50 years as a chorister in Episcopal Churches despite the official stance of that denomination against gender discrimination memorialized in its canons for both lay and ordained ministries.
The subjective preferences of the choir director, clergy and congregation for male or female singers on particular parts is as offensive as one of the reasons stated to deny women ordination: that a woman celebrating Mass would be unusual and therefore distracting. So then the question becomes, “aren’t they entitled to have the sound they want?” No, not when doing so amounts to gender discrimination. Selecting singers based on a stereotype that all women should sing soprano or alto or all men tenor or bass devalues singers to mere expectations instead of respecting the unique particularities with which God created each singers.
What is a countertenor? What they are NOT is castratos, or men whose testicles have been removed to prevent their voice from changing. As my wife will attest, I have “all my parts.” Rather, after singing as a boy soprano, the Lord allowed me to retain much of my high range. I have trained my voice to sing with a strong falsetto, similar to what many pop stars have done, only with a more civilized sound. As a human voice, male or female, rises in pitch, at a certain point, it “breaks,” or changes in timbre as the singer adopts a different muscular adjustment. Colloquially, this is known as going from “chest” to “head” voice. What really happens is that air flow creates a hole in the middle of the vocal folds. The sound is then produced by the vibration of the tissue located on the sides of the vocal cords. The countertenor uses the sinus as a focus of his resonance and This is similar to a violin player putting fingers on the strings such that the shortened length makes the string sound a higher pitch. With men, the break occurs at about E above middle C for basses but slightly higher for tenors. A well trained countertenor can smooth over the break and sing in the alto range without a perceptible change in sound.
The term \”countertenor\” can be traced to the thirteenth century where the cantus was the chant line second to the tenere, while the highest of the voices was called the superius. In the fourteenth century, a melodic counterpoint called the \”contratenor\” was included. In the mid fifteenth century, the contratenor split into contratenor bassus (low voice) and contratenor altist (higher voice), and by the sixteenth century the term contratenor had become obsolete. Contratenor became the hautecontre in France and the altist in Italy, England adopted the term countertenor. The typical English cathedral choir was composed (and still is in many places) of prepubescent boys on the soprano line and mature male voices for alto, tenor and bass.
In the mid-eighteenth century, women began to take over the soprano and alto sections, and by the mid-nineteenth century, the countertenor voice had almost disappeared. Thus, not until Alfred Deller in the late 1940’s had most musical professionals, let alone audiences, even heard of countertenors.
What is needed is for all churches to enact a canon stating as follows: “No member of the clergy or any person serving under the direction of such member shall discriminate in the selection of choristers or the assignment of voice parts on the basis of gender.”