Reginald Mobley: Countertenor

on his voice, his patron spirit and being seen

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Reginald Mobley: Countertenor - on his voice, his patron spirit and being seen
Reginald Mobley (credit Richard Dumas)

Continuo Connect recently had the chance to sit down with acclaimed countertenor Reginald Mobley for a fascinating and frank conversation about his voice, his music, and his inspiration…

Reggie, you’re a leading countertenor, a Grammy-nominated recording artist, and a regular on concert hall stages on both sides of the Atlantic. But what is the countertenor voice, exactly? Where does it come from?

The countertenor voice … It's basically an extension of male falsetto. For quite some time, for centuries, men have sung the higher treble parts (which we think of as soprano and alto) in religious settings where women weren’t allowed. In order to sing those higher lines, the “falsetto” mode of the male voice was used. Today, the countertenor is exactly that: an extension of the male falsetto. It’s a unique voice in that we have our regular speaking voice [and Reginald is speaking in his rich baritone!], and we have our singing voice, which is different. Because of that, it sounds slightly different to a female mezzo or contralto voice, or a boy treble or alto. It’s more masculine, fuller; people say “ethereal” or “otherworldly” because it’s out of the norm.

There is another take, another idea, to the historical idea of the countertenor. A lot of Purcell, for example, is extremely low compared to the alto castrati lines in Handel. In this case - Purcell - I think it’s essentially a “slightly higher” tenor, rather than a falsetto voice.

Would you mind expanding on that - how does the countertenor differ from the historical “castrato” voice?

The castrato voice is very different. I’m a countertenor - and I’m still at “factory settings”! - but in the 17th and 18th centuries, pre-pubescent boys with good voices were castrated. The idea was that they would develop without testosterone; the voice wouldn’t change, but the body would, so it had a lot more capacity and power. It would sound strange and alien. It was also a huge medical risk - only 10 to 20 percent of the boys retained their voices afterwards, there was no guarantee. It was barbaric … of course, we humans have gone through phases. It was the norm, particularly in Italy.

Back then, therefore, the countertenor (or “slightly higher tenor”) and the alto castrato were different things. For a castrato, it was their true full voice, whereas countertenors have a different natural voice, and the falsetto is an addition which is reinforced and created as a new voice. Today, there are obviously no castrati, and we sing music written for both.

How has the countertenor voice evolved? Is it still developing as a concept today?

The countertenor voice is still being developed. It’s still malleable even in the 21st century. People think of Alfred Deller, Andreas Scholl; but it’s a catch-all term for not just stage opera singers, but the entire range from low contralto (or “barely not tenor”!) to coloratura soprano. It does everything. You say it with an asterisk, though. You won’t find a single countertenor who sounds like another - we’re unique, like fingerprints, or snowflakes if you prefer!

At what stage of your life did you become a singer - and a countertenor?

As a boy I sang in choirs, back in Gainesville, Florida, but I didn’t continue singing very long, I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t come back into singing until the end of high school, where I played trumpet and piano, but music was more of a hobby than anything. My school was what’s called a “magnet” school, focusing on a particular discipline - ours was for drafting and architecture - and this was my hope for college. I had a scholarship for graphic arts, but it all changed in my final year. The choir teacher convinced me to join the choir (a high school choir always needs boys!), and I fell in love with singing. I applied to a different school, and they matched my scholarship for trumpet performance. But I didn’t even take my trumpet there, I converted to voice performance immediately.

And did you immediately decide on countertenor?

Not at first. My professor heard me sing the top line in a barbershop quartet. Unknowingly, I had been developing a falsetto voice. The professor called me in, had me sing a few scales - I was terrified, thought I’d done something wrong! - but he told me that I’m a countertenor. I didn’t know what that was, but he gave me some listening, and said this is what you’ll be doing for the rest of your life!

Did you get into opera or musical theatre?

It wasn’t until I started at Florida State University that I dipped my toe into opera. I started with arias... but I only occasionally perform in opera. I haven’t done so much, but I have done a lot of musical theatre and normal theatre. I’m not welcome– that is, I’m at home on the concert platform.

You started to say “not welcome” there; would you mind elaborating on that aspect?

Truth be told, opera has been more of a welcoming space for people of colour than the concert world. The barriers were broken early by Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson; there has long been a presence of colour. But in the concert world, how many names are there further back? Claron McFadden … a couple of others. The world I’m in now has been a predominantly white space, and I feel that much more than I ever would in opera. But that’s what appeals to me! A lot of my career has been about pushing doors open, creating a sense of parity and equity in the arts.

Tell us about your new project with the Academy of Ancient Music, Sons of England. How does that relate to this aspect of your career, and as a person of colour?

It fell into place several years ago in a project at Julliard with Rachel Podger. We put together a project to perform with students and I saw the beginnings of an interesting programme… I took some of those pieces and started to build on it. There was Handel and Purcell, and Rachel had brought a Michael Festing piece! Who listens to Michael Festing now?

This was in 2021 / 2022, after the “George Floyd moment”. It created this signal, this awakening not just in the public mind, but in the arts sector. We began to understand that it wasn’t just an issue of equity or diversity in wider public spaces, but the arts itself had remained an elite, non-black, almost black-exclusionary space. So a lot of institutions, arts organisations, all started to dig. It was a new gold rush! Who can find the earliest, best black composers pre-20th century?

And this led you to the writer and composer Ignatius Sancho?

Yes, exactly. Of course Sancho started to get his “due” because of this moment. We included a suite of Sancho’s keyboard pieces and songs that were expanded for a string band and continuo by a Julliard student. That planted the seeds for Sons of England. In the programme, you have Purcell, Handel, and Sancho. Three different men around the same period, who came to be English musicians through completely different means, but contributed handily to the landscape as it became in England and London at that time.

It shows something that I think is relevant now: your place of birth doesn’t determine your worth; look at all these diverse backgrounds, people, they were just wonderful musicians in their own right. Something to be celebrated. It’s not to draw attention to Sancho and say “look at this black musician, isn’t that novel?” - the fact is, here is a person who is a great musician, here’s another, and here’s another. Let’s embrace and enjoy their music on a level playing field. That’s where this programme has landed, celebrating the greatness of music of that time.

As a black musician in what you’ve said is a predominantly white space, do you feel you can relate to Sancho in some way?

I find it hard to separate myself from what I’ve read in Sancho’s words. I recognise his life so personally. If I were to shave and put on a wig I might look just like the Gainsborough portrait! 

Ignatius Sancho, 1768 by Thomas Gainsborough
Ignatius Sancho, 1768 by Thomas Gainsborough

Sancho was part of a little circle of black British elite that Montagu had cultivated; there were a few around, but only a few. Because of his upbringing, and who he became, absolutely he was followed, mocked a little. I speculate based on my life experiences of being black working in “white” spaces: the feeling of tokenism is always there. It’s a consideration, a factor when judging interactions. 

I don’t think Sancho was extremely comfortable at the end, but he knew he was doing something exceptional. He was very good at eloquently responding and speaking for himself; he’d earned this life and deserved to be there, but behind closed doors, you can’t help but let that ruminate. It seems he hoped that his work and life would lead to things becoming more acceptable for people that looked like him. His collected letters are an abolitionist textbook. Having been born and having lived as a slave, he was well aware of all these things; he was committed to anti-slavery efforts but he was a man of his time and place. The goods in his shop - chocolate, tobacco - would have had illustrations, and were the results of people that came from the same place [i.e., slaves, plantations] as him. How much would that have weighed on him?

Can you relate that - how Sancho may have felt and thought - to how you think about things now, today?

Yes, I do relate that to how I think about things now. Particularly in the US. I want to learn the lessons of Sancho and further that in my own life. Change things just a little … Even in the 21st century, there’s still an issue of tokenism. The idea that I’m seen as different or exceptional because I’m the only black person in this concert: “How fascinating to see a large black man who looks like he should be on a football field… it’s like we have a black Iestyn!”

Sancho is my patron spirit! I want to continue to push for that equal playing field. The idea isn’t just selfish because I’m a black person. It’s also because I feel it’s necessary to the world that we live in, in classical music (and early music). It’s becoming darker, queerer, more feminine; we can’t continue to rely on the same people to fund music. We are a reflection of society. We must reflect the world that is changing around us. At some point there aren’t going to be any of the old guard to fill the seats in even a small concert space! Our audiences aren’t who they were in the 1950s. 

We need to anticipate the 2050s now, in the audiences, on stage. We need to look at everything we do as artists, in full, and give a sense to people out there that they are represented in what we do. They’ve always had a seat at the table - but perhaps there was someone sitting in it, or we didn’t know it was ours.

It’s heartening to me as a black person that there has been someone who looks like me who existed, performed, and wrote, from the same time period as the music I particularly love.

Reginald Mobley (credit Richard Dumas)
Reginald Mobley (credit Richard Dumas)

You talk from the heart about the need to feel represented by those on stage. But do you also think there’s value to those on stage being so different that they expand your mind by seeing them?

I remember the first time I programmed a recital of queer composers - in Vancouver - with Early Music Vancouver. I included Cozzolani, Schubert, Ned Rorem, Chopin, Handel. A lot of straight musicologists immediately said “How dare you!”, but I pointed them to the things I’d read - Ellen Harris’s writing for example - and challenged them with the idea that as someone who isn’t in these groups, you don’t know. There are things you don’t know or care to look for. You have always been represented - you don’t think about representation when you are represented. To a person in this age who lives in this world, and doesn’t see themselves, it means a lot to finally be seen.

What you see and hear should represent something different: an exclusionary space is something antithetical to what music is. Music is a link between humans - that connects you and me, connects us to Handel and Sancho - connecting to people who will come after. If what we do and see doesn’t reflect all of us, there’s a flaw. We don’t think about representation enough.

Music is something that is heard, but there’s such a difference in experience between hearing alone (say, on a recording) and the experience of seeing and hearing together in a live concert. It’s more than the thrill or threat of the unexpected, isn’t it?

I’m reminded of [the American conductor and founder of Seraphic Fire] Patrick Dupré Quigley. "People don’t just come to hear, they come to see!” We are social creatures, and we feel more connected when we see people like us doing the things we enjoy! We aren’t just cerebral creatures, we are visual. Americans in particular: we process the entire world visually. We can’t ignore or deny that, even in a discipline that is mostly concerned with sound.

What is it about baroque music that you find so engaging? Could you share some memorable experiences or insights from collaborating with ensembles and conductors?

I’ve worked with a lot of incredible people and done some pretty cool things… hard to pin down specific moments, but I’ll draw on something completely random.

During the pandemic … I’d been pushing the idea that there’s a similar spirit, in baroque music, to what exists in jazz. I’m not the first or last person to associate them. There are groups now, and always have been - back to the Swingle Singers! - blending the two, but I never think it’s necessary to go that far, to completely mix the pot and see what happens.

I think that the inherent relationship between genres is more present when you show them as they truly should be shown. Push the membrane without breaking it. You don’t need to add a drum kit to Purcell! You can push that present, living spirit in baroque music in the way you can in jazz. That helped me as a baroque singer - one of my best teachers was Ella Fitzgerald. She explored the word, the text, in a way that was almost visual. Baroque music functions the same way - the fullness of spirit in the music.

So, I’ll tell you about a concert that I did with Bach Collegium San Diego - a programme called Bach to Bop. It was a programme focused on that common spirit between jazz and baroque music. We put them together, but we didn’t mix them: Bach, Purcell, and some jazz standards, Gershwin, Sarah Vaughan’s scat songs. After rehearsing the jazz songs, we thought: something’s not working. What was missing was percussion! We called up Maury Baker - in his 70s, Janis Joplin’s drummer, a living legend! - he came all the way - he came and contributed. And it changed the way we performed baroque music. There was this human element that was so consistent and strong throughout. It was such a great and cool experience. I’d love to expand on that, follow that up… put some different kinds of musician on stage.

What do you do to relax - anything other than music? Or, in music, what do you enjoy listening to when not performing?

I’m a peddler who is a client of his own wares! I listen to a lot of baroque music. Bach’s my guy!

When I’m on the road, relaxing, going to the grocery store, it’s cantatas … and a lot of jazz … and Japanese rap! I lived in Tokyo for a while, working for Disney. I really got into Japanese hip hop when I was there. I play a lot of video games … I got that from Japan. And I read a lot of manga, and I watch anime.

Oh, and mixology. I used to work for Starbucks and other coffee places for about a decade. During the pandemic, my housemate and I tried our hand at mixology. We found a website for every kind of cocktail, and every day we would go through that and try different cocktails and learn the craft of mixology, in coffee and cocktails, so that’s also a pastime for me. Manga and Manhattans!

Mixology! Do you by any chance know Davina Clarke?

I do know Davina! In fact I’m sure she’ll be playing [with AAM] in Sons of England

For more information about Reginald Mobley, please visit his website. The Academy of Ancient Music's Sons of England project takes place in May 2024. Reginald Mobley’s research for this project was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, UKRI.

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