Breakthrough: First woman admitted to St Paul’s Cathedral Choir

A woman has finally been admitted as a full adult member to the St Paul’s Cathedral Choir in London.

She is Carris Jones from south London and her title is Alto Vicar Choral.

Carris sings regularly with Stile Antico, Gabrieli Consort and Tenebrae, as well as opera groups.

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  • I don’t doubt that Ms Jones comes to this role with the finest credentials and extensive experience, and I certainly congratulate her on this historic achievement, but I do wonder how this innovation will work. The fact is that the sound of the voice of a female alto is completely different to the sound of the voice of a male alto (countertenor). I accept that in blind tests supposed experts have apparently been found to be unable to distinguish between the voices of prepubescent boys and girls, but this certainly is not the case with adult men and women. I certainly do not approach this from the point of view of somebody who simply feels that women should not sing in church choirs. Indeed, given a choice I would prefer any day to hear women singing the top parts than boys. I was recently comparing a few different recordings of Cantique de Jean Racine, and after hearing several featuring female sopranos on the top line I found a recording by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge very disappointing. The boys simply cannot have the power, technique, and musicianship of women who have undergone years of vocal and musical training at an adult level. I do know that some choirs, e.g. The Sixteen, do use a combination of male of female altos, but this has never seemed satisfactory to me. It seems rather like performing a concerto for two pianos with one pianist playing a Steinway and the other playing a Fazioli. I also wonder how audiences will feel if/when they hear a female alto singing roles closely associated with the countertenor voice, e.g. the solo in This is the Record of John. I suppose, to be fair, that it will be like hearing BWV 1056 played on a piano having known and loved the Gustav Leonhardt recording on a harpsichord, which is to say completely different but no less good. Doubtless others better qualified to comment will be able to correct any errors in my information and reasoning.

    • More than once I’ve seen sharp listeners mistake certain female altos for countertenors, and I’ve certainly seen listeners hear some early-music-specialist sopranos and think they were boys.

      I care about the ability to hold a steady pitch/control vibrato and about the sound quality of the voice a lot more than I care about the plumbing of the body that houses the voice.

      • I have to admit that I assumed that the theme song for the British TV crime drama Silent Witness was performed by a countertenor (or perhaps what I should more properly call a sopranist). It is, in fact, sung by Sarah Leonard.

  • Hurray! At last … they all sound different. Boys from Westminster Cathedral sound different to the wonderful African boys as choristers in All Saints Cathedral, Nairobi, who are different from the Vienna Boys Choir, and the same is for counter-tenors versus altos. The way the training is going, some counter tenors sound like women, a long way from the kind I was brought up with with Alfred Deller and James Bowman. But to discriminate, as has been going on for years, so that at times sadly a male inferior sound would be more acceptable than a really good female one just became girls and women weren’t allowed is at last breaking down. Not enough though to accept women just because fewer counter tenors want to sing in cathedrals or sing a limited repertoire compared to singing baritone or fewer being trained – as all altos are scarce, male and particularly female. I remember Malcolm Archer on our British radio one night broke down the myth with his blind testing as others did about champagne on the BBC one morning. The organist, Fred Harrison Oxley, was another one who broke down the myth of all this and who gave girls a status in cathedrals.

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