Singing soprano is for girls only in Texas’ elite All-State Choir, eliminating a 17-year-old boy’s chance to audition for a statewide honor and raising questions about gender discrimination.
The Texas Music Educators Association on June 15 denied a request from Mikhael Rawls to audition this fall as a soprano, a part traditionally sung by girls.
Rawls sings countertenor, a little known male voice part that has surged in popularity in classical and operatic circles. He can sing an octave and a half higher than most boys his age, and he feels most comfortable singing in that range.
He has even won first place as a soprano in the University Interscholastic League’s competition two years in a row.
The association, however, does not allow boys to sing soprano or alto, or girls to sing tenor or bass. Association spokeswoman Amy Lear said the group enacted the rule two years ago because of concerns that girls auditioning for tenor parts were hurting their voices by singing too low.
“If you make a rule one way it has to work both ways,” Lear said, adding that the association does not hold auditions specifically for countertenors because the part is rarely included in the group’s music.
In late May, Rawls asked the association to reverse its policy and let auditions be non-gender specific, or to create a new audition category specifically for countertenors. In his petition, Rawls said the countertenor is a legitimate voice part that should be recognized by music teachers, and he argued the policy amounts to gender discrimination.
Neither Lear nor association president Kerry Taylor could think of another male who ever wanted to audition for a traditional girl’s part on the All-State Choir. Taylor said the policy doesn’t amount to discrimination because Rawls can try out for any of the more traditional male parts.
Countertenors unite!The countertenor was a popular part in the 17th and 18th centuries, when women were excluded from singing groups, but it was rarely heard of in modern times until an English singer named Alfred Deller revived it about 60 years ago. Today, men can be found singing that part in music schools across the country.
“It seems to me that it’s time for the association to sort of wake up and see what’s happening around not only the United States of America but Europe,” renowned countertenor David Daniels said in a telephone interview from London, where he is performing this summer in Mozart’s “Mitridate” at the Royal Opera House.
Rawls, who will be a senior in high school this fall, has been singing since he was in the sixth grade. He can sing the lower parts, but it makes his throat hurt. He’s worried it also could hinder his ability to hit higher notes later.
“I could do the music just fine and I could sound good on it. But I couldn’t practice it enough to where I could make state, because I was too worried about my countertenor voice and the effects it would have on it,” said Rawls, who’s the only male in his school’s female a capella choir.
Taylor said he’s seen no medical evidence that singing tenor or bass can hurt a countertenor’s voice. But Timothy Maguire, a professional countertenor and male soprano from San Francisco, said his doctor gave him strict instructions not to sing that way because it could cause polyps to form on his vocal chords.
Participating in All-State Choir is one of the highest honors available for Texas high school singers. Of the more than 20,000 students who audition, just more than 500 students are selected to participate in one of three choirs — a men’s choir, a women’s choir and a mixed ensemble.
Michelle Rawls, Mikhael’s mother, said several attorneys have contacted her about filing a lawsuit against the association, but her family doesn’t want to take legal action.
“We just don’t think that would be the right thing to do,” she said.
Mikhael Rawls said he plans to focus now on preparing for his college auditions, but he hopes the state association reconsiders its decision.
“It’s really for music and for other people that I’m doing this, it’s not really just for myself,” he said. “I think it’s important that these doors can be opened for other boys in my position.”