Christopher Ainslie was the first countertenor ever to win the Richard Tauber Prize at the Wigmore Hall in 2008. Since then this dashing young singer has been carving a niche for himself as a sought-after performer on the international stage.
You started your singing career as a chorister in the choir of St Georges Cathedral in Cape Town. When did you realize that you had a special gift and a special voice type?
When my voice broke, I moved up the ranks in the choir from the treble to the alto section, and I soon realised that my voice worked well up there. However, that was just in the choir, and the thought of perhaps one day in dreamland becoming a professional singer only first entered my head after singing the alto solos in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with the St Georges Singers and Barry Smith. However, it was only years later, after spending some months in the UK and auditioning for teachers and colleges that I realised I could actually do this!
You are a qualified chartered accountant. Was this just something you studied as a back-up plan, in case things did not work out in the performing arts, or did you only realize later on that you wanted to be a full-time performer?
When I left school, I never thought much about studying music. If I had studied music, it would have been as a violist, and the thought of being a professional violist was not too appealing to me. I began studying Business Science mainly because I enjoyed Mathematics and the degree seemed a very broad and strong base in business. 8 years later, after 5 years of study and 3 of articles, I took the plunge and left the profession.
No, qualifying as a Chartered Accountant was not a backup plan, but rather as a powerful business qualification and one that is very easily transferrable outside of the traditional business world. I have never regretted spending that time, money and energy on the qualification and training, and consider it a very important part of the training of my mind. It was also very useful in earning some good cash to pay for my years studying music!
Was there a specific moment where it dawned upon you that you wanted to persue a career as a singer?
It was only near the end of my articles that I started to realistically consider the dream of becoming a singer. By that time I had had singing lessons with Sarita Stern for a few years, and things were going nicely, despite the fact that I could not devote as much time and energy to my vocal development as I would have liked. The end of articles provided me with a great opportunity, as I was forced, after being in full-time employment, to reconsider exactly what I wanted to do. Many accountants stay in the profession, many enter business in a variety of capacities, and others rethink their path outside of business. Despite being a significant leap out of my comfort zone, I felt the risk was minimal, as I could always go back to the business world if things did not work out so well!
Have you ever regretted being a countertenor and not a baritone or tenor?
This may be different for other countertenors, and even David Daniels started out his singing career as a tenor, but for me this is my voice and it was not really a choice. I find the voice type incredibly exciting. The prospect of a male figure producing this sound which can often sound more like a mezzo soprano creates such dramatic tension and possibility. It is also a very exciting place to be right now, as the voice is still relatively young, having only been rediscovered by the likes of Alfred Deller a few decades ago. The technical approach to using the voice is still being explored, which is a wonderful challenge and creative opportunity.
The repertoire for countertenor is dominantly from the Early Music period. Of the modern repertoire that has been written for countertenor, which is your favourite?
Benjamin Britten (although hardly modern anymore) has given many gifts to the countertenor voice, as has Jonathan Dove (and he continues to do so). Outside of the opera genre though, I am enjoying exploring some composers that are not traditionally associated with the countertenor. Not with the view to challenging the listening public, but rather to explore what works for the modern countertenor voice. In a recent recital at the Wigmore Hall in London (to be repeated on the 29th August at St. Andrews in Cape Town) I included some songs by Schubert, Mahler and Yamada, and while these naturally raised some eyebrows, the reception was good and I find they fit my voice very well.
Which living composer are you still hoping would write a part/repertoire for countertenor?
I hope Jonathan Dove will write another significant role such as the Refugee in Flight. He has a tremendous understanding of the voice and how it works in dramatic music. On a local front, there is talk of a project with Capetonian composer Robert Fokkens, also based in London. Watch this space!
On your website there is a wonderful photo of you in an extravagant costume as Artaxerxes. Was it difficult to move in this specific costume it looks quite heavy!
I have never worn anything that big, and doubt I ever will again!! South African designer Johan Engels went to town with these costumes and they were a huge hit in the London opera world. Yes, it was heavy and difficult to move in, and the heels didn’t help! But the show used very stylised choreography, with a carefully designed language of gesture and movement which didn’t involve much running around, thankfully!
Do you prefer opera to oratorio or recitals? Are you drawn to the dramatic?
I love all these spheres of performing, and aim to include a balance of the three in what I do. I do love the dramatic world of opera, and enjoy acting a tremendous amount. But I cannot imagine doing without such works as Bach’s Passions or Handel’s oratorios. Each form has its unique challenges and joys as a performer, and I will feel like I am on the right path if one day I manage to master to some degree the art of performing equally in each form.
Which opera production have you found to be the most challenging in terms of combining your singing and acting skills?
My most recent role, the title role in Handel’s Tamerlano was a tremendous challenge for me. As is often the case, the role lies in a middle-to-low register, which for any voice is not the most powerful area of the range. Tamerlano is a character full of rage and anger, and to portray these emotions (unfamiliar ones, for me personally) powerfully in this register in the voice, without pushing the voice too hard was a big challenge.
Would you like to tackle a trouser role (Hosenrolle), and if so, which one would interest you?
I have not come across any that interest me yet. Many of the roles that are often sung as trouser roles were originally written for castrati (which of course I sing as part of my standard repertoire), and those written specifically for women to sing as trouser roles were written like that for a reason and would most probably lose some of their dramatic strength if sung by a man. However I don’t write off the possibility, were the right role to come around.
Is it easier to find work because you have a rare voice type, or is the competition stiff?
I’m sure I have had it easier than the other voice types. The competition is stiff, as the amount of repertoire available is quite limited compared to the other voices, and countertenors are springing up all over the place, but it is still hardly comparable to the world of sopranos, for example, where the standards are high and there is just such a vast number of singers around.
Who has been your role model?
David Daniels is the countertenor voice I enjoy listening to most. He sings with such a wonderfully fluid bel canto technique, and he uses his voice with such mastery musicianship just a treat and great example to us all, I think!
You will be performing a very special work in Cape Town in August. Tell us more about this.
I dearly love Handel’s music, both opera and oratorio, and Jephtha is one of his great masterpieces. It was such a great joy to sing in Theodora last year, and I look forward to this with great anticipation. Also, the opportunity to sing alongside Colin Lee and the rest of the fantastic cast that has been assembled for this production is a great privilege and joy that I look forward to so much! It is an ambitious work for choir, orchestra and soloists alike, and is a typical example of Barry Smith’s dedication to Cape Town’s music.
Christopher Ainslie will be performing in “Jephtha” by G.F. Handel in Cape Town on 20 & 21 August. He will give a recital on 29 August. For more information, please consult our What’s On calendar.