27 Nov 2023

A child of the counter-revolution

From Three to Seven, 4:00 pm on 27 November 2023
Countertenor Stephen Diaz

Countertenor Stephen Diaz Photo: Supplied

Stephen Diaz was lucky to be born when he was, at the end of the 20th century.

The South African/New Zealand countertenor has grown up into a world where his voice is no longer regarded as a curiosity, a niche-filler in Baroque opera perhaps worthy of the occasional new work.

A talented countertenor's future is assured, provided they're good enough.

Sure, they might, as Diaz has, have to base themselves in Europe, but that's a better option than having to forsake those glorious high notes to become a tenor, or worse still, a baritone.

Which is just as well, because Diaz has always hit the high notes, even after his voice broke.

In fact, singing in a high register comes so naturally to Diaz, he can't exactly recall when that voice breaking thing  happened.

Speaking to RNZ Concert host Bryan Crump, Diaz is back in Aotearoa to perform with Deborah Wai Kapohe in the Whanganui Opera House this weekend, as part of a fund-raising concert for the nearby Sarjeant Gallery.

The two will sing music from Gluck's opera Orfeo ed Euridice, with Diaz taking on the role of Orfeo.

Diaz is also fortunate he wasn't around 300 years ago, when the males singing such roles were castrati – singers who had their testicles removed as children so that they never lost their treble voices, but where able to project those high notes with the lungs of a fully-grown man.

Castrati were the rock stars of Baroque opera, but the prerequisite to become one was pretty barbaric.

The practice began to fall out of fashion in the 19th century, with the last known castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, dying in Italy in 1922.

Alessandro Moreschi, last of the castrati

Alessandro Moreschi, last of the castrati. Photo: Creative commans

Does Diaz ever wonder about the cruel background behind some of the sublime Baroque roles he sings?

"I don't really think about it. I guess there's too many things to be thinking about in terms of creating the music and performing to be spending time thinking about that. I mean, it was a barbaric practice and thankfully it's not required for males to sing high anymore."

Frances Wilson and Stephen Diaz in rehearsal for Oreste

Frances Wilson and Stephen Diaz in rehearsal for NZ Barok's production of Handel's opera, Oreste, in 2016 Photo: Supplied

Diaz is currently based in Spain, where he lives with his partner. Europe is where the work is, but he's happy to come back to where his career really kicked off: New Zealand, with his second placing in the 2012 Lexus Song Quest.

A recent professional trip to Aotearoa was to play Athamas in NZ Opera’s season of Handel's Semele in 2020.

Critic Sarah Kidd had this to say of the performance: 

"It is Stephen Diaz as Athamas who steals the scene, the countertenor having such a sumptuous richness of timbre that it simultaneously fills the void while wrapping itself around you. His ability to deliver those natural falsetto notes with gentle caress sending shivers of delight throughout the room.” 

Sounds like the Whanganui Opera House is the place to be this Saturday.