High hopes for a high-toned voice

Years ago, when countertenors were so rare that people thought nothing of asking them: “Why do you sound like a girl?” the breed was insecure and not always able to explain its extra-high, feminine sound.

Now, when the sexiest man in opera, David Daniels, is a countertenor, even a grass-roots organization such as the San Francisco Opera’s Adler Fellowship program boasts a countertenor star in the making — not only high-voiced and technically masterful, but a brilliant actor as well.

Gerald Thompson has played only three roles on the War Memorial stage since he became an Adler Fellow: Prince Go-Go in the sour modern satire “Le Grand Macabre,” Unulfo, the brilliant comic foil in Handel’s “Rodelinda” and this season’s androgynous Prince Orlofsky in “Die Fledermaus.” In each, he was cited as much for his acting as for his singing.

Born in Pochahontas, Ark., 30 years ago, Thompson started his career as a teacher and performer of musical theater after graduation from a small Arkansas college.

Like many young singers from the opera-starved Midwest and South, Thompson’s first role, as Hansel in “Hansel and Gretel,” was in the first opera he ever “saw.”

At that point he also discovered a new voice teacher who “kept having me go up and up until we realized I was really a countertenor.”

He was struggling to make a career in New York when SFO offered to enroll him in the Merola and Adler Fellowships training programs. From here, he makes debuts next spring at the Metropolitan and New York City operas.

The prestigious fellowships, named after former SFO director Kurt Herbert Adler, require the fellows to live in San Francisco, study their craft at the Opera Center and appear in small roles on the main stage. They also give concerts such as Tuesday night’s: “The Future is Now: Adler Fellows Gala Concert.”

Thompson’s most spectacular part at SFO was Unulfo, friend to beleagured leading man Bertriardo, in “Rodelinda.” Daniels sang

this difficult part.

“I learned so much from David, just watching him onstage,” Thompson said. “He’s such a complete artist.”

Thompson has since gone on to sing Bertriardo as well, finding it fascinating to play both comic and heroic parts in the same opera.

Thompson said he believes the best way to deal with a countertenor is to treat it like any other operatic voice.

“There are no tricks involved,” he said. “You need to stay healthy and flexible. I felt much more precarious as a tenor than I do in this

repertory.”

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