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Considered by many critics the outstanding countertenor before the public today, Russell Oberlin has done much to restore to popularity this unusual vocal range and the music originally, written for it. But the praise he has received is not solely due to the rare quality of his voice. A reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune (December 26, 1959) has written: "If there is a singer working in any medium - now before the public - who has Mr. Oberlin's uncanny sense of phrasal delivery, all-'round musicality, and sensitivity to the shape of a vocal line this reviewer has not heard him."
The countertenor voice is a very rare and exceptionally high-pitched male voice between the tenor and soprano ranges. Oberlin, whose voice spans well over two octaves from the lyric tenor into the alto range, stresses that he does not resort to vocal artifice in order to produce his high, floating tones. "Occasionally, in print" he says, "I have been described as a falsetto singer. This is not true. I have a naturally high tenor voice which enables me to sing the countertenor repertoire without resorting to the falsetto voice."
Russell Keys Oberlin, the son of Mary Ethel (Keys) and John Russell Oberlin, was born on October 11, 1928 in Akron, Ohio, where he was reared and where he attended the John R. Buchtel High School. His one sister, Jean Ann, presently lives in California. Oberlin is a descendant of Jean Frédéric Oberlin, an eighteenth-century clergyman and educator for whom Oberlin College (Ohio) was named
. Oberlin's musical career began as a soprano in Akron, where he performed in boy choirs long before he could read the words in the score. When he was about fourteen, Oberlin's voice changed to a baritore tenor, and then rose until, two years later, he was a light tenor. He became a tenor soloist for a Cleveland church and began studying voice.
Upon graduating from high school in 1946, Russell Oberlin enrolled in New York's Juilliard School of Music, where he majored in voice. While there, he held tuition scholarships and also undertook professional singing engagements. At this time, however, h did not sing any music before the time of Bach nor any music above the normal tenor range. He was graduated from Juilliard in 1951 with a diploma in voice.
Oberlin had been a leading soloist with New York's Pro Musica Antiqua from its inception in 1953 until 1959. The Pro Musica, a group of singers and instrumentalists under the direction of Noah Greenberg, is dedicated to the performance of o forgotten music of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. One of Oberlin's first assignments with this group was to particate in a recording of sixteenth-century Italian madrigals for Esoteric Records. Having previously confined to his singing to tenor roles, Oberlin now experimented with the alto parts and was so succesful that he became "typed" as a countertenor. His many outside commitments forced Oberlin to resign as a regular member of the group in 1959, but he continues to make guest appearances with it.
Russell Oberlin has appeared with many of America's most important musical organizations, principally in performances of operas amd oratorios of such composers as Bach, Handel and Monteverdi. Among the groups to employ Oberlin's talents are the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, the Chicage Symphony Orchestra, the American Opera Society, the Washington Opera and Choral Societies, and New York's Little Orchestra Society. He has sung several of Handel's, including the Messiah, Julius Caesar, Israel in Egypt, Judas Maccabeus, Acis and Galatea and the Passion According to St. John. Other Oberlin performances include Monteverdi's Orfeo and Bach's Magnificat the Passion According to St. Matthew and the Passion According to St. John. Reviewing Oberlin's appearance with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein in Handel's Messiah, Paul Henry Lang commented in the New York Herald Tribune that "among the soloists Russell Oberlin, countertenor, demonstrated absolute mastery of the style@, as well as impeccable taste and musicianship (December 28, 1956).
Russell Oberlin's work with the Pro Musica and with the larger American musical groups has not prevented him from appearing with smaller organizations, among them the Clarion Concert groups, the Cantata Singers, Collegium Musicum, American Concert Choir, Caramoor Summer Festival, and Collegiate Chorale. He has also sung frequently in American universities, museuns, and churches.
When Oberlin performed in Bach's Cantata No. 54 with the Collegium Musicum under Fritz Rikko in an outdoor concert in New York's Washington Square Park, Eric Salzman in the New York Times praised the presentation and noted that "part of the effect was due to the fine countertenor of Russell Oberlin. Although a couple of things got away from him in the final aria ... most of the time he was right on the buttom musically as well as technically" (August 18, 1959).
Russell Oberlin has also enjoyed success as a singer and actor in the Legitimate theater. In the 1955 Broadway production of Lillian Hellman's adaptation of Jean Anouilh's The Lark, which starred Julie Harris, Oberlin was heard in incidental songs especially composed for him Leonard Bernstein. Two other noted contemporary American composers, Virgil Thomson and Marc Blitzstein, have provided Oberlin with musical material for his appearances with the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre Stratford, Connecticut. In the summer of 1959 he was featured in the Cambridge (Massachusetts) Drama Festival production of Shakepeare's Twelfth Night.
Since 1957 Russell Oberlin has been a featured soloist in the New York Pro Musica's production of the medieval drama The Play of Daniel, given in New York during the Christmas season. He also appears in the Decca recording of this production, and he was a member of the company when the United States State Department sponsored European tour of the production in the summer of 1960.
Television and radio have provided Russell Oberlin with numerous engagements. He offered musical illustrations for Leonard Bernstein's lectures on Bach on the television series, Omnibus, and was featured in Bernstein's performance of Bach's Magnificat on the Ford Startime show in 1959. With the NBC Opera he appeared in a presentation of Mozart's The Magic Flute, and has also been seen on the series Camera Three. During two recent visits to England he was heard as soloist on the British Broadcasting Corporation.
In addition to his many recordings with the Pro Musica Antiqua for Decca an Columbia, Russell Oberlin has also made solo recordings of Purcell songs (Counterpoint) and recorded Dowland lute songs, English medieval melodies, and troubadour and trouvère ballads for Expériences Anonyimes. His Decca disc of Handel opera and oratorio arias has given listeners a rare opportunity to hear the selections performed in the countertenor range for which they were originally written. With the New York Philharmonic, Oberlin can be heard on Columbia records as soloist in Handel's Messiah and Bach's Magnificat.
A bachelor, Russell Oberlin makes his home in New York's Greenwich Vililage. He is five feet eleven inches tall and weighs 170 pounds. His hair is red and his eyes, blue. An Episcopalian, Oberlin attends the Church of the Ascension in New York. The scholarly attention which he lavishes upon music may be discerned by the fact that a few years ago he was chosen to co-edit a set of songs by Purcell for the Associated Music Publishers.
House & Gard 111:30 My '57
The New York Pro Musica with Russell Oberlin