The Kansas City countertenor enjoys critical acclaim and prestigious gigs.
When charged with voicing angels, kings and gods, call countertenor Jay Carter.
The Liberty, Mo.-based singer is an artist in demand.
In April he performed with Ars Lyrica Houston; on May 15 he joins the Bach Society of St. Louis for a performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor.
A steady stream of gigs reflects Carter’s growing critical acclaim. The New York Times singled out his “clear voice and full, rounded tone.” Examiner.com has praised his “expressive smoothness.” The Houston Chronicle found his singing “effortless…pure, even and utterly beautiful.”
Often times, Carter says, people flip quickly through their programs as he begins to sing, confused as to the source of this luminous sound. From his vantage point on stage, he finds it amusing to watch the quiet scramble as audience members realize that the glorious treble sounds are coming from a man’s throat.
In a recent interview, Carter, in town between appearances in California and Texas, summed it up with a grin and a dismissive gesture, “It’s a very strange existence.”
Sometimes called a male alto, the countertenor was a favored voice color popular during the 16th century into the 18th century, used by Purcell, Mozart, Bach and Handel.
The voice type has gained attention in recent decades, both in research and performance demands, with the revival of period practice in Baroque and Renaissance music and modern composers wishing to harness its power and sweetness.
Carter does it all, performing nationally with period ensembles such as the American Bach Soloists and Ars Lyrica Houston, and locally with Musica Vocale, the Kansas City Baroque Consortium, and Schola Cantorum. He also performs as a soloist with modern orchestras around the country, including the 2009 North American premiere of John Tavener’s Lament for Jerusalem in Washington, D.C.
“My colleagues would say what marks my singing as distinctive is that I don’t just waffle out at middle C. I sing a fairly strong tone below where most male altos try to carry a falsetto,” he explained, “I do a gear shift there like a manual transmission car.”
Becoming a countertenor, acclaimed as a concert soloist and valued as a chorister, was a gradual process. In fact, his first exposure to hearing a countertenor was not a positive one, watching Handel’s Messiah on VHS tape. “I was horrified. I thought, ‘That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard!’ ”
Growing up in rural southeastern Illinois, “I didn’t hear a stitch of classical music that wasn’t on Masterpiece Theatre until I was nine or 10. I got a record player for my birthday one year and it came with all these albums that my relatives didn’t want. There was a Brahms Symphony No. 2, a Virgil Fox Bach album that I loved, a Beethoven 5…and I liked those as much as I liked the Johnny Cash, the Merle Haggard and the Happy Goodman Family.”
He enrolled at William Jewell College with the intent to become a church musician, but “it never goes the way you expect it to,” said Carter. As a high tenor, he was wrangled to sing in Henry Purcell’s Hear My Prayer, O Lord when an alto dropped out. He was surprised at how well the part fit his voice and marks that as his “Aha!” moment.
He was recruited by Simon Carrington (founding member of the King’s Singers and renowned choral conductor) to attend the Yale School of Music and Institute of Sacred Music. Finishing his master’s degree, he found an agent as his performing career took off. Carter was ready to settle into the hectic East Coast lifestyle, when his wife was offered a job with the Harriman-Jewell Series. He was offered a position as Artist in Residence at Jewell, so back they came.
Carter relished his academic training at Yale and in the liberal arts environment of Jewell. He’s currently pursuing a doctorate at UMKC’s Conservatory of Music and Dance and enjoys digging into the language and history of a work. Much of his repertoire comes from examining performers in the past, like the famed castrato Gaetano Guadagni, for whom Handel and Gluck wrote. “You have to be willing to research. I don’t think everybody in this business enjoys the search the same way I do,” he laughed, “My wife likes to say I am never bored and I’m easily entertained by minutiae.”
Carter incorporates these tenets into his teaching at Jewell. “I’d rather (my students) go away and struggle with ideas than give them pat answers, to wrestle with that information…I would really be a rubbish professional soloist if I didn’t have the teaching work to challenge my thoughts, to make me think about what I’m doing.”
The repertoire available for the countertenor also intrigues him. He relishes the poetry of the likes of Petrarch, Rilke and Goethe, and he prides himself on conveying—“well rendered and thoughtful”—the beauty of their words.
That’s one of the reasons Carter doesn’t pursue an operatic career. “I don’t want to ever have to sing music that requires me to have subtitles. I want to be the primary source for all of that textural material.”
Also, he likes being home in Liberty, Mo., instead of camping out at an opera house for weeks at a time. “I like where I live a lot. I live within a quarter mile of the college. I can walk to work, my wife can walk to work. … That being said, in 20 minutes you can be in downtown Kansas City and in a world-class performance hall.”
Though his performance career sends him all around the country, Carter values time spent participating in local ensembles, too. He performs with Musica Vocale, run by his mentor, Alfred Epley. It’s a volunteer group of music teachers and non-music professionals, but Carter believes that it’s important to have that connection. “More pros need to be able to do that, to participate in their local communities.”
He spoke warmly of his colleagues in both Musica Vocale and in Schola Cantorum, conducted by Anthony Maglione, director of choir studies for Jewell. “They are insanely committed amateurs who often do their work more thoughtfully than a vast majority of the pros. It keeps you very humble when you realize that.
“The arts need patrons who know a lot about the material and care intensely, but that do other things,” he added. “If there’s a future for the arts in this country, it’s probably because of those people, and less because of those of us who quibble about harpsichord tuning…although we certainly spend a lot of time doing that.”