The Countertenor, Radio 4, Thursday Coming Out, Radio 4, Sunday

These voices from history hit a high note

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The Independent Culture

The writer, Bidisha, seemed at first an odd choice to present The Countertenor –an experienced broadcaster but not a card-carrying musical expert. It quickly became apparent, though, that she's an enthusiast.

When she first heard the countertenor voice she found it "ethereal, so other-worldly and pure ... I thought it must be made by something divine". It does indeed have a haunting, fragile quality, quite unlike a woman's or a boy's voice.

The voice she heard was that of Alfred Deller, who single-handedly revived the art after 200 years of neglect. (Natural countertenors had been plentiful until castrati came along.) Deller was a lay clerk at Canterbury Cathedral, and Michael Tippett couldn't believe his ears when he heard him. Bidisha met Deller's son Mark in the cathedral's Song Room, where Tippett heard his father singing Purcell. "In that moment, the centuries rolled back," said Mark.

For all his success, there were certain questions Deller had to answer. A German came up to him and said: "Mr Deller, you are absolute eunuch." "I think you mean unique," Deller replied.

Countertenors and falsettos – they're not the same thing – have also enjoyed a second life thanks to the likes of Smokey Robinson, the Beach Boys, Jimmy Somerville and the Bee Gees. Bidisha met Michael Chance, a countertenor who teaches at the Royal Academy. He enthused about the Bee Gees, when I'd thought he might be sniffy. "Astonishing, really well controlled and incredibly high and brilliantly in tune ... fantastic, fantastic." She also asked him about the "real man" question. "I have to say [the countertenor voice] is particularly popular among women," he said, with what may have been a hint of smugness.

The new Coming Out has an interesting brief: to explore "the ways in which we decide how far to be honest about ourselves, and in doing so make ourselves vulnerable to the judgements of others". It kicked off with Daniel Smy, a former local councillor jailed in 2009 for abusing his expense account and schmoozing politicos to the tune of £35,000.

There were no neat resolutions; the shame is still intense, even though he now works with a charity assisting ex-offenders. He talked about meeting a client who told him he couldn't possibly know what he was talking about because he'd never been inside. "Here was the chance," said Smy, "to get it off my chest. I bottled it."