‘Oh, Bach is tough,” Stephen Diaz says, sounding rueful.
The countertenor will take the alto part in the composer’s Christmas Oratorio, the first half of which is presented by Bach Musica on December 10, and Diaz is bracing himself for Bach’s vocal curlicues.
“Bach writes quite instrumentally for singers. He didn’t really consider our facility when he wrote, so the focus is a bit different in terms of stamina, and a lot of the time there’s something extra on the phrase that comes way faster than it usually would for a singer, so a lot of preparation goes into phrasing.”
In fairness to the composer, Bach repays that effort, and the Christmas Oratorio presents Diaz with several beautiful arias, including the glorious Bereite dich, Zion, which comes early in the work. “Bach is one of the toughest to sing but also one of the most rewarding,” agrees Diaz. “He has a way of bringing a different reality into the human plane. Sacred text is magical in a sense; we’re dealing with faith and belief and things you can’t really see. Bach kind of humanises that realm.”
Faith and belief are already known realms to Diaz. As a child in South Africa, he was raised in the church and sang in the choir. He moved to New Zealand aged 15 and joined the Auckland Youth Choir as a soprano. Like a musical Peter Pan, his voice never grew up, and he continued to sing high, although his speaking voice is in the baritone range.
It’s often assumed that countertenors sing in falsetto, but for anatomical reasons that Diaz is patient enough to explain but which are too long-winded to share here, they don’t. Countertenor singing sounds different to falsetto, too.
“A countertenor sound is more grounded in the body and it’s more agile,” he says. “With countertenors, there’s a lot more possibility for florid movement and more range in the voice.”
With scholars unearthing forgotten Baroque works all the time, countertenors have more music to sing than ever before. Perhaps as a result, they are having a bit of a moment. Contemporary composers including Philip Glass and Thomas Adès are writing for the voice, and singers such as Jakub Józef Orliński have literally become classical music poster boys. Meanwhile, techniques have improved substantially since the 1940s, when pioneering early-music specialists began what was a rather wobbly countertenor revival.
“It’s like gymnastics,” Diaz reckons. “What gymnasts do now would have been unfathomable years ago. And with all the access we have to music, there’s more demand for singers, which means more room for creativity and a lot more stages to be on.”
Bach Musica performs JS Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, parts I-III, December 10, Auckland Town Hall.