Linda Christmas speaks to Hilary Summers about the decline of the contralto voice, which once seemed so ubiquitous, ahead of her performance in Voices of Power at The Three Choirs Festival.
Welsh contralto, Hilary Summers, relishes the opportunity to salute powerful women. She is a contralto – a voice you don’t hear much of these days. It was different when radio ruled and no town was complete without a choral society, needing professional singers to help them joyously boom out Elijah and The Messiah. In those days the contralto voice appeared to be ubiquitous. Kathleen Ferrier was as famous as the Queen, so they say, for singing the Northumbrian folk song “Blow the wind southerly” or mournfully repeating Gluck’s question, “What is life?”. A decade ago, 2012, the anniversary of Ferrier’s birth, she was considered a national treasure worthy of remembrance celebrations, including a royal mail stamp as one of ten “Britons of Distinction”. This fanfare prompted newspaper articles asking “Where have all the contraltos gone?” and pleading for a new generation of composers to wake up to the potential of this great and beautiful voice.
Nothing has changed: the influence of the contralto has continued to fade, aided by the popularity of the countertenor who has usurped many of the castrato roles in Baroque operas that used to be sung by contraltos. Now, it is so hard to make a living as a contralto that all too many low-voiced singers push their voices up to become mezzos in order to have access to a much larger repertoire. But Hilary Summers stands firm. And alone. Her vocal range covers three octaves from C below middle C. It is rich, warm and rounded in a lower register, lyrical in the middle and can hit a seriously high note. But it is the low C that is so special: “I am happy to use my chest voice as low, as masculine, as butch as it needs to be!”. She has performed her share of statuesque Handelian heroes, earth mothers and old ladies and has had several composers writing operas for her, including two by Gerald Barry, The Importance of being Ernest and Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. Now Luke Styles, composer, and Jessica Walker, librettist, who have both known Summers for some years, have written an oratorio not only to suit her voice and her personality, but also on a subject in tune with the times.
Luke Styles has admired her voice since he was a student usher at Wigmore Hall in 2004. “I heard this phenomenal singer and was blown away. On the whole, I was attracted to her voice rather than the contralto in general. Looking at her career you see that she does both baroque and contemporary music very well. We first started talking about a new work several years ago – these things take time – and I needed to wait for a Commission which finally came from the Three Choirs Festival. To me and Jess, it was clear that Hilary wanted to get away from the usual run of contralto roles focussing on the elderly and grotesque – recently she was in Paris singing the role of a legless old woman dying in a dustbin! [Kurtag’s opera, Fin de partie, based on Beckett’s Endgame].
“But I was happy in the dustbin”, says Hilary. “It is an amazing role. A 20 minute monologue on my knees in a dustbin, playing a dying woman, and that’s it – I’m back to the dressing room! However, Luke’s oratorio is a bow-wrapped gift. I am using the full range of my voice from bottom C to top A, and I sing the words of strong powerful women.” The 45-minute work, Voices of Power, explores the role of seven women through the ages: Boudica, Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great, Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton and Jacinda Ardern. Jessica Walker uses their words and letters to emphasise their perspective and their contribution to the world. It starts with a woman who emulated men in the brutality she used to revenge the death of her husband and children; continues through women who were remodelled by men in order to “get on” in the world and ends with the hope that women can be … women.
How does Summers feel about the politics of the piece? “I think I am in alignment with Jess and Luke, we are presenting words that the women have said, letters that they have written, sentiments that they have expressed. We are not commenting on that. I don’t think even the choir is commenting. Some of it may appear to be sympathetic to characters that one wouldn’t necessarily find sympathetic. I thought it would be fun to put in Thatcher, ghastly as she was, you can’t deny that she was a presence that had a huge voice. A voice she was advised to lower! Clinton was the driving force behind Bill but advised from a young age to hide her emotions and sound less excitable. No wonder, when her chance came, she was not seen as warm and electable.”
Does she have a favourite? “Yes! Catherine the Great – 100%. I would sing it all day long. It is difficult, challenging and hilarious. I love it to bits.” And her least favourite: “Eleanor Roosevelt. I am not getting into her as much. The difficulty is finding the voice – should I be doing an American accent? – but it sounds corny, I don’t know. Then [with] Ardern [from New Zealand] I am not bothering with the accent, it’s just too hard.”
The words are important and will be printed in the programme to overcome any shortcomings in the cathedral’s acoustics. I’ve read the libretto and it is subtle rather than strident and toward the end there is a message of hope.
“The message is that voices have changed”, says Styles. “We have moved beyond the manifestations of power in some of our historical examples: the age of the strong man is done with. It doesn’t work anymore. We are not going to survive climate change with short-term thinking. We will blow ourselves up if we take the aggressive stance. There is nothing revelatory about these ideas; nor are they the sole remit of women, but it does seem that female examples of power, whether in business or politics, tend to be more compassionate, collaborative and long- term in their thinking. If you look at the issues facing us today, we need all of those things.” Amazingly, even Boris Johnson agrees; recently saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin would not have invaded Ukraine if he were a woman and added that the “crazy, macho” invasion was a “perfect example of toxic masculinity” and called for “more women in positions of power”.
We can all agree that it is over for Professor Higgins, in My Fair Lady, who wanted women to be more like men. But what of the future for the contralto voice? Neither Summers nor Styles is optimistic. “I have said to Luke that he could and should allow changes in Voices of Power, so that others can sing it – otherwise it won’t get the performances it deserves.” And according to Styles: “The public still prefer high voices, coloratura, Queen of the Night stuff and tenors with top notes held for a long time in the Italian works of Verdi and Puccini. They see some woman singing in a man’s register and think: how vulgar! You won’t see many large-scale works placing a contralto at the centre. My oratorio is 45-minutes and that is considered large. You might see a song cycle for contralto that is an hour long, but it might be for contralto and piano. That said, I do think composers, directors and writers are interested in getting away from clichés and the contralto voice is so amorphous it could appeal to those who want to get away from a binary gendered singing.”
In an increasingly non-binary world, those last few words offer a note of hope.
The Three Choirs Festival in Hereford will run from July 23-30. Voices of Power will be performed in Hereford Cathedral on 28th July.
Linda Christmas is an author and journalist.