Converstation with Cuban Countertenor Ubail Zamora

By Helson Hernández

HAVANA TIMES — Ubail Zamora, the first and only countertenor to have graduated from a Cuban higher education institution, is a pioneer of the island’s professional tenor movement. “The lyrical genre is facing a widespread crisis,” he tells us in his interview for Havana Times.

HT: Tell us about your academic background.

Ubail Zamora
Ubail Zamora

Ubail Zamora: I graduated as a singer from Havana’s Higher Institute for the Arts (ISA), with honors, in 2007. I studied under the soprano and singing instructor Maria Eugenia Barrios. Previously, I had taken singing lessons taught by Jorge Garcia Porrua, Marta Santibañez and Ana Menendez, people who also contributed to my development as a singer. I hold a pre-doctoral degree in Hispanic musical heritage, issued by the San Geronimo University of Havana, a degree program offered in conjunction with the University of Valladolid, Spain. I had taken part in lectures offered by Canadian soprano Linda Perillo, Spanish baritone Josep Cabre and Italian tenor Davide Livermore, in addition to other renowned artists.

HT: Could you briefly explain to us what a countertenor is?

UZ: In a few words, a countertenor is an adult male singer who sings at a voice range usually reached by women, be it a low alto tessitura or a soprano. Countertenors generally sing in a falsetto voice to reach that voice range.

HT: Have other countertenors graduated from Cuba’s Higher Institute for the Arts?

UZ: No, unfortunately no – and not for lack of talent.

HT: Do you believe Cuba’s concert halls are in need of more voices of this nature?

UZ: The lyrical genre is facing a widespread crisis. What’s more, we countertenors are a minority, so we can say there aren’t many of us at concert halls today. That said, my colleagues and I have not stopped performing over the past few years, either as soloists or as part of projects that make use of these types of voices, such as Sine Nomine or Ars Longa. We have also had a good reception from the audience.

The best part of this is that, in addition to a different kind of voice range, we have also exposed people to pieces of music they did not know, pieces that are often neglected or trivialized by most of our lyrical singers. Many of them, on working with us, have discovered a truly interesting world in baroque or classical opera, as well as a very different way of tackling this music, which distances itself from the clichés most lyrical singers were taught on taking their first steps.

Sine Nomine
Sine Nomine

HT: What future do you see for the Cuban countertenor movement?

UZ: These are difficult times for the development of such a movement in Cuba. I am speaking of the fact the Higher Institute for the Arts, ISA, is not admitting students with this voice range into its music program. Unfortunately, we have no other higher education institution that trains singers. I have worked with and trained several of these singers, who also have extensive musical knowledge and are well prepared to take on studies at institutions of this nature.

The meetings we’ve had with some foreign teachers, orchestra directors and singers, and during exchanges and work next to Cuban professionals and researchers of the stature of Teresa Paz or Miriam Escudero, attest to this. However, being denied enrolment at ISA has bound them hand and foot in terms of continuing with their training.

HT: Are there institutional and social prejudices involved?

UZ: Contrary to what many believe, the voice of the countertenor is very well received by audiences. Everyone remembers the Cuban band Los Zafiros and the immense popularity it enjoyed. Ignacio Ejaldo, the lead singer, was a countertenor and was hailed as an exquisite singer by those who enjoyed his peculiar timbre. The same holds for classical music: the world’s most important theaters and most prestigious concert halls have opened their doors to these artists and many have achieved the status of the sopranos and tenors in vogue.

I believe, however, that a number of our teachers and singing professionals are prejudiced and offer us false criteria and a musical culture that does not support their claims. They speak of “weak voices” or of a lack of “vocal mass”, though they are unable to deny these singers evince things as fundamental as good tuning, musical knowledge and taste.

Lyric Theater, The Magic Flute
Lyric Theater, The Magic Flute

As I said before, institutions like ISA, where I graduated some years ago, are now closed to the idea of offering higher studies to these types of singers, many of whom have more powerful voices that I do. I owe much of what I know to this institution and do not understand this attitude. They speak of a lack of repertoire or of having to adapt the one they have to these voice ranges, and of the difficulties this would entail for the syllabus, but I simply adapted to what they asked of me and nothing had to be changed on my account. They in fact have a broader repertoire now.

HT: Are experts or the media divulging information on the issue?

UZ: No, there is very little information on the subject out there. Television programs such as Bravo, where I presented an excellent material on the English countertenor Alfred Deller, or the show Un palco en la opera (“At the Opera”), hosted by Angel Vazquez Millares, are inadequate because very little about the subject is known. I am not speaking only of the general public, but also, unfortunately, about musicians and music teachers who will train a new generation of students and divulge misguided and prejudiced concepts that won’t help these singers develop. I have researched the matter and offered conferences in Spain, Mexico and Cuba, but these have been gatherings for experts, for the most part. Perhaps publishing some articles on the subject could help clarify some of these concepts.

HT: Tell us about Sine Nomine.

UZ:The group has been a kind of oasis for voices like ours. Other groups, such as Ars Longa or El Gremio, have also continually used countertenors. Sine Nomine, however, was different from the very beginning. Countertenors are simply an essential part of their choir, and the group tries to reproduce that vocal ensemble that flourished during the Renaissance, where men sang in soprano and alto voices, singing in that voice range.

The group has been opening up to other repertoires and hasn’t looked down on genres such as spiritual music or traditional Cuban pieces. It has also inspired contemporary composers to write pieces for it, attracted by the idea of creating music that could be novel for many. I want to say that Sine Nomine, currently directed by professor Leonor Suarez Dulzaides, has been consistently successful both in Cuba and abroad.

Its recordings include albums dedicated to the work of Esteban Salas, Cayetano Pagueras and Juan Paris, some of our first composers of holy music, whose choruses included countertenors. The voices of Sine Nomine’s choir take us back to a kind of music that permeated the cities of Havana and Santiago de Cuba in the 18th and 19th centuries. So, turning our backs on countertenors is turning our backs on an important part of Cuban music history.

HT: Do you have any specific idea as to how to contribute to the development of countertenors in Cuba?

UZ: Giving them the opportunity to study, to acquire “that” which they lack, according to institutional criteria. Giving them the opportunity to learn about this highly interesting voice range, without prejudices, so as to train singers with these types of voices and allow them to take on different repertoires. Encourage exchanges with experts, publicity in the media. This way, all of us lovers of good music will profit.