Man on Demand

You may know them as falsettos or male altos. Countertenors have quite the unique role in the vocal world and became an early music phenomenon. Equivalent to its counterpart, the female contralto or mezzo-soprano, popularity grew throughout the 17th century and roles are still very much in demand today.

Canadian countertenor Daniel Cabena is highly regarded in both Canada and Europe for prize-winning performances ranging from baroque to contemporary repertoire. He is recognized for his outstanding talent and has been described as “very classy, with his freely flowing slender, well-sustained alto voice”.

Just recently, Cabena returned to Guelph after spending much time traveling throughout Europe while stationed in Basel. His schedule is definitely jam packed for the next few months and I couldn’t have been more thrilled when the opportunity came up to chat with this dashing fellow.

daniel cabena 2MC: Countertenors are very much in demand all over the world. Do you find it difficult at times to choose roles if there are quite a few to choose from?

DC: I’m grateful that there’s now such an interest in and acceptance of the countertenor voice. That’s really a blessing for me and for my alto colleagues; and it becomes harder and harder to imagine a time – even though that time was so recent – in which the voice was almost exclusively a feature of the choral world. Now there’s a real abundance of wonderful countertenor soloists. Between the moment of Alfred Deller’s debut recital in London and the present day, the voice type that he invented or re-imagined has become an established Fach and has taken on a clear diversity of subcategories, much like the other Fächer. Perhaps we’ll eventually start hearing about lyrico-spinto countertenors and Karakter Kontratenöre. In the meantime, we’re certainly already hearing them on the world’s stages.

But, for the moment, I’d hazard to say that those differences in voice type between countertenors are still not entirely understood; and in that sense, yes, it can be difficult to choose roles or to choose between this or that offer of work. For, quite often a countertenor is still asked to sing – sometimes even on a single concert program – music originally composed for a soprano castrato, a female contralto, a boy soprano, a Purcell “countertenor” (who was was a tenor, a sort of haute-contre à la francaise, though our day’s male falsettists have borrowed his name). To say the least, that sheer variety can pose some technical difficulties. In the end, each singer has to choose his roles and repertoire according to what makes him sound most entirely and beautiful like himself.

MC: Are you a fan of baroque roles with the rise of countertenors replacing castrati performers?

DC:  I am indeed a fan of the practice of countertenors taking on roles originally composed for castrati. I wouldn’t say, though, that there’s necessarily much of a sonic relationship between those two voice types. Nor are the countertenors of today surrounded by anything like the star culture that surrounded the castrati. Also, I wouldn’t say, either, that a countertenor is a more “authentic” casting choice for those roles. In fact, I think the aim of authenticity or historical accuracy is better served by casting entirely according to the creative integrity of a given production, rather than trying to refer to any historical norm. There was, however, a great diversity in casting in, say, Handel’s time; and quite a number of the male roles in his operas were written not for castrati but for women. So, in fact, if one is trying, in casting a Baroque opera, to some extent to enter into the “authenticity” of the thing, one would surely have to take into account this vast difference between the aesthetic sensibility of our time and that of the 18th Century: we’re nuts about realism, while our operatic ancestors were much more intrigued with and compelled by form, structure and artifice. There are many arenas in which one might discuss that topic of aesthetic difference, but I would make a comment just on this one, which ties in with your question: there was way more gender fluidity on stage in the opera of the 17th and 18th centuries than there is in the operas and casting of today. WAY more!

As as a countertenor, I am delighted and privileged to have, at my disposal, some of the castrato repertoire. But I wouldn’t want to be cast in those roles simply because I’m a dude! Rather, I’d want to be cast on the basis of something special that I can bring to the work, the role, the production. And, besides, it’s difficult to imagine a more wonderfully and entirely “Giulio Cesare” Giulio Cesare than that incarnated by Sarah Connolly or a more eloquently uttered performance of Messiah than that offered by Catherine Robbin.

MC: Have you ever faced a challenging role as a countertenor?

DC: I’ve encountered lots of challenging roles. One challenge for me is that, though I’m brimming with energy and ideas (and even strong opinions, for which I beg your indulgence!) I’m rather a soft-hearted soul. That can make it a bit tricky to enter into, say, the mental and emotional space occupied by a villain like Tolomeo in Handel’s Giulio Cesare. Violence and outward displays of anger don’t come naturally to me; so I have to search for them, search for the motivations that bring out those expressions, seek to turn outwards what I’m more inclined to experience inwardly. At the same time, villainy is quite a lot of fun to play. And I think that the very process that I’ve just hinted at has been and is ongoingly a wonderful learning experience for me. So these are challenges for which I’m grateful. (And I’m deeply grateful to Tom Diamond for having led me through some of that process and for having provided me with the tools with which to work away at it.)

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MC: Favourite opera character you’ve performed to date (or a few if you can’t choose just one).

DC: So, to answer your next question, I’d say that Tolomeo, that villain who’s so far from my own temperament and character, is one of my favourites to perform. I also love Oberon from Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.  I’m fascinated by the combination of villainy and nobility in Oberon, and I love his music – even though the role sits rather too low in the voice to allow for any vocal fireworks. It’s all nuance and colour and text and character. Oberon’s quite different from Tolomeo, and perhaps rather more like myself. But an entirely other favourite role of mine was that of Donna Elvira in “Dal male il bene,” an opera composed in collaboration by Abbatini and Marazzoli scene from which I performed under the direction of Guillaume Bernardi a few years ago. I loved working with Guillaume, who led me into the role with such care and subtlety and by way of the text. I just loved that process. And I loved exploring the physicality of the character, one physiognomically so different from myself. I wonder, in retrospect, if the experience of singing a female role wasn’t somewhat akin to that of working with a mask. In any case, it was liberating and enriching for me.

MC: What are you looking forward to about your upcoming performing on December 7th?

DC: I’m really looking forward to my and Stephen Runge’s December 7th recital at Hart House. That performance will be the last of a tour, which has taken us to a number of venues – universities, for the most part – in the Maritimes and Ontario. It’s a joy to work with Stephen, with whom the rehearsal process is smooth and straightforward and the music-making spontaneous and natural. He’s just such a wonderful pianist and accompanist. We’re both very pleased with the program that we’ve created and which we’ve entitled “A Sanctuary in Song.” We developed the program initially for a CBC broadcast, and we’ve subsequently tinkered with it slightly so as to create two versions, one shorter one, for lunchtime concerts and the like, and one full-length one, which we’ll be performing at Hart House.

The music and poetry of which the program is composed is very dear to me, a sort of musical mother-tongue in a way (or “father-tongue,” I might say, as I discovered the works of most if not all of these composers thanks to my father, Barrie, who’s a wonderful composer, organist, pianist and church musician). So I’m very much looking forward just to speak that language again. I also love leading the audience through the story that we’ve traced out in the program and to go through that journey myself.

MC: How do you find performing a recital with an accompanist, such as Stephen Runge, in comparison to an opera role?

DC: The process of performing a recital with a single accompanist is, I’m sure, quite different from that associated with an opera role. But what strikes me most just now is the similarities between the two. By that I mean especially that the feeling of collaboration can be equally strong in both instances and that there’s a great seeking after character and narrative clarity in both cases. I do, however, love the intimacy of recital. I love being so close to my accompanist, such that one can very spryly, instantaneously pick up the physical and musical hints left by the other. I also love the proximity of the audience and being able to see them and receive their reactions. But I also love a part of the recital work that happens long before singer or pianist gets near the stage, and that’s the work of creating a program. I imagine it to be akin to the work of a curator; in any case it’s certainly an opportunity to interpret or maybe just come to terms with the music and texts that have touched me, made me who I am. I find that to be an immensely enriching process, and it’s one that I cherish.

Daniel will perform this Sunday December 7th at 3:00 PM (Hart House, Toronto)