NACO on tour: David DQ Lee offers some truths about the countertenor

David DQ Lee is a Korean Canadian countertenor.

David DQ Lee is a Korean Canadian countertenor with an international reputation. He has joined the NAC Orchestra’s European tour for two concerts. In London’s Cadogan Hall Tuesday night he sang the JUNO winning composition, and NACO commission, Golden Slumbers Kiss Your Eyes by Ana Sokolovic.  Before the performances he answered some questions from ARTSFILE.

Q. Please tell me a bit about yourself, David. 

A. I was born in Korea in 1978. I moved to Vancouver when I was 13 years old and I am currently residing in Berlin, Germany.

Q. Were you a boy chorister?

A. I was an active member of Korea’s most prestigious children’s choir, The World Vision Korean Children’s Choir, where I had to go through a very competitive audition process and training. We were trained to sing with an operatic approach. I learned how to sing properly at age eight.

In West Vancouver I sang in my  high school choir, where the conductor, Peter Vanderhorst introduced me to the term countertenor, which I had never heard before. He has encouraged me to pursue singing. I remain ever so thankful for his help and encouragement.

Then, I joined the British Columbia Boys Choir and toured and performed a lot. Gerald van Wyck was the conductor then and he helped me prepare for university auditions.

Finally I should mention the late Phyllis Mailing of the Vancouver Academy of Music. She was a mezzo-soprano. She was my mentor, my guardian, my mother. She taught me how to sing and to love. I am forever in her debt.

Q. The countertenor, in my opinion, has re-emerged as an important voice in classical singing. What makes one a countertenor?

A. I am not so good at explaining what a countertenor is. Every time I am asked, I just say: “A male singer who sings like a woman or with the equivalent vocal range of a female opera singer”

Throughout my 22 year professional career, I’ve come across many countertenors. We have different categories according to our vocal range and vocal colours. These basically can be understood as alto, mezzo and soprano. In addition, I’ve met some countertenors who were boy sopranos and altos; some with a naturally high voice (including the speaking voice), some who have trained their voice to be a countertenor starting in their late teens. I’ve even met some who have had careers as a baritone or a tenor and switched to countertenor. Each have had special features in their artistry and voice but I have personally felt that countertenors who began as boy sopranos or altos have sounded the most natural.

Having said that, not all boy sopranos can be countertenors. I personally was devastated when my voice changed, but I never lost the ability to sing high — luckily. Still I have trained my voice as a Bass-Baritone to strengthen my vocal cords which was very helpful.

Q. How did you know you were a countertenor?

A. In my case, I wasn’t going to pursue singing because of my parents bankruptcy. I couldn’t afford lessons. More importantly, I didn’t grow up listening to opera or classical music except choral music. Like I said earlier, I didn’t even know what a countertenor was until my high school choir conductor repeatedly told me I was one — which I didn’t really pay attention to.

I only knew I could sing well and singing made me happy. One of my high school friends, in my senior year, told me about a movie called Farinelli. It sparked some curiosity about the world of opera as a countertenor. When I first saw it I was, first of all, shocked. Then I cried. Then I got inspired.

I knew I had this voice but only the possibility I could imagine for me to use it was to be a female impersonator of some sort. After the movie ended I ran to a CD store and bought the soundtrack. It was my very first classical CD purchase. I listened to it over and over. 

After that, with whatever tip money I made as a waiter, I would buy countertenor CDs or Baroque opera CDs. I learned some arias and auditioned for the Vancouver Academy of Music and for McGill University. The juries didn’t know what to do with me.

I got into both schools but unfortunately I couldn’t afford to move to Montreal. So I stayed in Vancouver and met Phyllis Mailing.

For a half year, I trained to be a bass-baritone, but I got bored with the repertoire and got impatient with my voice.

I decided to train as a countertenor full time and that led to many professional engagements and prizes at international competitions.

Q. Are countertenors singing falsetto

A. Everyone is capable of singing falsetto and for countertenors, we use the falsetto range exclusively. We approach vocal technique the same as any other operatic singers. Well, at least, I do. Let’s say, the difference is that the countertenors sing with a highly trained and developed falsetto range. I am not a doctor, so I am not able to explain correctly how the voice works. All I know is that most countertenors tend to possess more flexible laryngeal muscles than other male singers.

Q. Do you like being a countertenor? Did it suit you right away?

A. I don’t think I have been asked that question before. It made me think. I actually like being a countertenor, and it came so naturally to me. I do feel rather special at times. But the reality hits: Baroque music isn’t often performed in North America hence my departure to Europe. The opportunities for countertenors are rather limited although it’s slowly changing. Nevertheless, if I had a choice, I would rather be a tenor since good tenors are always in demand and rare 🙂

Did it suit me right away? Yes!  One can not strive to be good unless it does suit. Our biggest challenge is to know ourselves. I guess at very early stage, I knew what I wanted and what I was good at. Math wasn’t, so I gave up on that.

Q. Are there certain kinds of repertoire that belong to the countertenor?

A. There isn’t a lot. I believe countertenors existed in choral repertoire mostly in the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Henry Purcell himself was a countertenor, so he wrote quite a few pieces for countertenors. Handel wrote some oratorio roles for a countertenor. Benjamin Britten wrote some roles for countertenors. Many composers today do consider and compose parts for countertenors although we are rarely romantic heroes. Other than those, we normally sing music written for castratos. I do try to explore many genres of music including art songs, jazz and pop, no rap yet 🙂

Q. Are there a lot of modern pieces for countertenor? 

A. Since about the 1970s, composers have started writing for countertenors which I am thankful for. I don’t sing a lot of modern pieces, but I have premiered a few roles and sung in La Scala, with the Frankfurt Opera, The Netherlands National Opera, at the Aspen Music Festival and the Winnipeg New Music Festival. Ana Sokolovic’s piece was written for my vocal range. I do enjoy performing her piece a lot.

Singing contemporary music is always challenging. I wish that I had perfect pitch which I think would make singing contemporary music easier.

Q. Golden Slumbers is a piece you are familiar with. When did you first sing it?

A. In Ottawa in November 2015

Q. It combines countertenor solo, chorus and orchestra. It’s a big work. Is it unusual?

A. It’s one of the biggest cantatas for a countertenor. It’s so beautifully written, and Ana was so kind enough to accommodate my vocal range and text. Singing in Serbian was challenging because I don’t speak the language, but she coached me. 

The work is unusual and yet hauntingly beautiful. I really enjoy singing it. Unfortunately only a countertenor with a vocal range of at least three octaves can sing the piece.

I love the fact that the piece gives equal importance to orchestra, choir and soloist. It contains heartfelt moments, fun moments, it is flirty, and sometimes it makes you dance a little. It’s definitely entertaining. I especially love the fact that the audience gets to experience countertenor’s true capacity.

Q. Is this your first NACO tour? 

A. It is and my first ever with a Canadian orchestra. I’ve toured with many European Baroque orchestras.

I think it is important that we are introducing a modern Canadian composition which represents multiculturalism to the world. I am proud to represent the music and to be a proud Korean Canadian.

Q. What’s next?

A. I am actually in the middle of Rehearsals at the Dortmund Opera in Germany where I will perform the title role of Akhnaten by Philip Glass. I get to be an Egyptian king for a change 🙂 The opera company generously released me for a week to take part in the NACO tour. And after Dortmund, I will be in Moscow performing Handel’s opera, Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno. I am thankful for my busy career but I definitely need a vacation soon.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.