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Matthew White. (On State).

"I took private lessons, with the idea that it would be a hobby," says the charming young man with wavy hair. "Then I started getting offered jobs and realized I was actually making a living."

These are the modest words of Matthew White, Canada's latest contribution to the world of countertenor singing. Just 26 years of age, he made his international operatic debut last March in L'Incoronazione di Poppea at the Houston Grand Opera. "White was a glorious-sounding countertenor," enthused the Houston Chronicle, describing his portrayal of Ottone in the HGO/Opera Atelier co-production. "His rich, even top was a particular treat"

White denies his rise has been meteoric, but it's hard to know what else to call the career of this Ottawa native who decided to become a professional singer just two years ago. Already he's sung with such ensembles as the Netherlands Bach Society, Oregon's Portland Baroque Orchestra and New Zealand's Christchurch City Choir, not to mention a tour to Brazil with Montreal's Les Sonneurs. As well, he's on several CDs: a Messiah recording with Tafelmusik on the CBC label, a recording of Carrissimi's oratorio Jepthe and Jonas with the Studio de musique ancienne de Montreal on Analekta and a set of Bach cantatas with Toronto's Aradia Ensemble on Naxos.

How did it all happen so fast? White was a baritone in his teens, singing in his church choir, when he became fascinated with the unique color of the countertenors. "I started singing countertenor in St Matthew's Church choir in Ottawa when I was 17," he says. "I went to McGill and did one year of music, then did a degree in English Lit., but I continued to study voice privately."

Of course, it didn't hurt his chances that countertenors are all the rage these days, with demand far exceeding supply. "The amount of competition that a countertenor has is not quite so daunting," he acknowledges. "But the high level of singing we're hearing from David Daniels, or Canadians like Daniel Taylor and Brian Osawa, raises the bar. You have to learn on the job."

Indeed, there isn't really any other way for a countertenor to gain operatic experience. In this regard, young countertenors--so blessed with opportunity in many respects--find themselves in a Catch 22 position: the professional programs connected to Canada's major opera companies don't seem interested in training the falsetto voice. So what's a countertenor to do?

White feels he's found an understanding vocal coach in Montreal's Jan Simons, and he's recently turned his attention to the dramatic side of opera performance. "I'm taking acting lessons because I feel I'm behind a little in that respect," he says. "In Houston, I felt really strong about my dramatic contributions, but I had to work extra-hard--I spent a lot of time with the director, and I think it paid off. I didn't have the basic tools that some people have."

Even if his entree into the business of singing was almost haphazard, White is now thoroughly serious about his career. With managers in Canada and Britain, he has to be careful not to push himself too hard. "The vocal mechanism of a countertenor is fragile," he says. "You get busy, and it's very easy for a voice like that to go into decline quickly. People want to hear you a lot right away. I feel I worked too much this year, and I'm going to take more care in pacing myself."

With reluctance, he's learning to say "no" to people--but he certainly didn't turn down Glyndebourne. That's where he spent the fall, travelling around England with the prestigious festival's touring company in Handel's Rodelinda. In fact, he's so much in demand overseas that, for a time, he contemplated moving to Europe. But after consideration, it was his adopted home of Montreal that won out Last year, he bought a condominium in the Outremont neighborhood, and he currently directs a music series at Montreal's Christchurch Cathedral called Les Voix Baroques.

As for the future, he hopes to be a family man some day, and artistically he's not ruling anything out. "I'd love to sing Schubert songs. I'm beginning to believe that being dogmatic about authenticity is not worth it. Why not try something a little different? If it works it works; if it doesn't, it doesn't" (*)

Colin Eatock is a composer and freelance writer living in Toronto
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Author:Eatock, Colin
Publication:Opera Canada
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Dec 22, 2001
Words:728
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