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Hear Countertenor John Holiday In "Flight" On IPR Classical

Courtesy of Des Moines Metro Opera
John Holiday and Deanne Meek in DMMO's performance of Johnathan Dove's opera "FLIGHT" in 2018.

Saturday on IPR Classical, you have a chance to hear John Holiday, a renowned countertenor, perform in the Des Moines Metro Opera’s rendition of “Flight.”

Some people are stunned and can’t believe their ears or their eyes when they hear a countertenor sing. These male musicians can control their voices to sing really high or in a falsetto range. They manipulate their voice so only the air passes over the edges of their vocal cords which vibrate in a lighter, much higher pitch.

Saturday on IPR Classical, you have a chance to hear John Holiday, a renowned countertenor, perform in the Des Moines Metro Opera’s rendition of “Flight.”

If you were just listening and not looking, you might think you were hearing a woman singing in an alto or mezzo-soprano voice when you hear a counter tenor.

Pop performers like Justin Timberlake, Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson, Prince, Barry Gibb, or even Swae Lee are all in the countertenor category. Classical countertenors include such greats as the late 20th-century trendsetter, Alfred Deller. Current countertenors include Iestyn Davies, Philippe Jaroussky, Andreas Scholl, David Daniels, and of course, John Holiday to name a few.

Overall, this head voice sound in men, as opposed to the “normal” chest voice, is what gives countertenors their pure high-register tones.

Countertenor History: Eunuchs and Castrati, Oh My!

Countertenors aren’t new kids on the block. Their roots are linked to the grizzly history of eunuchs dating back as far as 4000 years ago in China. Eunuch singers are first mentioned in Byzantine Empire texts as early as 400 B.C.

Castrati, or young castrated male singers, were in vogue during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. They performed and were in demand in churches, courts and operas all across Europe. During this time, women weren’t allowed to sing on stage or in church choirs. Choir boys were castrated before their voices changed, usually around the age of 8 or 9, so that they could continue to sing the high vocal parts.

Without reaching puberty, the castrato retained their child-sized larynx, and their limbs and ribs grew unusually long. This gave them remarkably large lung capacity and the ability to sing phrases and hold notes up to a minute in length. Successful castrati singers were the rock stars of their day.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, many poor families who had a young boy who sang in the choir would get their son castrated before his voice changed. If they survived, they did so without the luxury of painkillers. During the brutal procedure, the boys were often doped with opium and bathed in milk. Families took these drastic measures with hopes that their son’s future singing ability as a castrato would lift the family from poverty. Since it was not a lawful procedure, families would manufacture mishaps, saying that their son had fallen from a horse or been attacked by a wild boar.

During the 18th century, thousands of boys were castrated in Italy with hopes of becoming wealthy castrati. Even the famous composer Franz Joseph Haydn barely escaped going under the knife before his angelic voice “broke.” Luckily for Haydn, he eventually landed a job as the Kapellmeister for the Esterhazy Court. Like today’s pop stars only a “lucky” few became starring castrato singers. And those stars were basically seen on the opera stage.

Castrati singers were well-trained musicians. They underwent at least ten years of intense music and singing instruction. Those that didn’t become superstars, became voice teachers, or took their singing skills to perform in parish choirs, or sing in court or minor opera roles and opera choruses. Tragically some castrati singers that didn’t make it in finding a musical occupation ended up in prostitution, and in some cases, even committed suicide. Castrato were legally forbidden from taking church orders or serving in the government or military. Their only choice really was to become a musician.

Outlooks were changing by the late 1700s, and by 1861, castration was outlawed. In 1878, Pope Leo XIII forbid churches from hiring castrati in their choirs.

Fortunately today, countertenors and women are now performing the high castrati roles. And modern-day composers like Benjamin Britten, Thomas Adès, Philip Glass, and Jonathan Dove have started incorporating countertenor roles in their works.

The Des Moines Metro Opera’s “Flight”

Two summers ago, the Des Moines Metro Opera presented Jonathan Dove’s opera, “Flight.” The opera plot is inspired by the true story of a refugee stranded in the Paris airport for 18 years.

Dove describes airports as “portals between the everyday world and the magical world of flying.” He scores the tragic and trapped refugee in an unearthly high countertenor register. The Des Moines Metro Opera casts countertenor John Holiday as the hero. Mr. Holiday assumes the role of the refugee with veracity.

The Los Angeles Times has dubbed John Holiday as, “one of the finest countertenors of his generation.” The New Yorker called his voice, “a thing of astonishing beauty.” And The New York Times said his sound was, “exceptional [and] strong...even in its highest range.”

Holiday has a multi-dimensional career with a love of baroque to contemporary classical music, and jazz to spirituals. His voice and personality are both charismatic and genuine.

He has performed with Los Angeles and Houston Operas, the Boston Baroque, the Spoleto Festival, the Wolf Trap Orchestra, at the Kennedy and Lincoln Centers, the Philharmonie de Paris, toured with the LA Philharmonic under Dudamel, and sung at Taiwan’s National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts, the Apollo Theatre, and London’s Barbican Center.

On March 2, 2021, Holiday will make his Metropolitan Opera debut performing as Nireno in Sir David McVicar’s Bollywood-inspired take on Handel’s Baroque masterpiece, “Giulio Cesare.”

To hear Holiday, join IPR’s stream online and on IPR Classical radio Saturday evening, July 11 at 7 p.m. Holiday will be performing the role of the desolate refugee on the Des Moines Metro Opera’s 2018 production of Jonathan Dove’s “Flight” being broadcast as part of IPR’s contribution to the DMMO’s Virtual 2020 Festival.