At age 38, countertenor Cencic still sings like a woman

BUDAPEST - Max Emanuel Cencic was a hit at the age of six in his native Croatia when he sang the coloratura soprano showstopper "Queen of the Night" aria from Mozart's "The Magic Flute" on television.

At age 10 he says he was the first person who was not an Austrian citizen to be accepted into the prestigious Vienna Boys Choir. He immediately became its lead boy soprano - a position that usually ends at puberty when the voice drops.

At age 38, Cencic is still singing in the upper registers as an operatic countertenor with a sound so sweet that, as he puts it, "when you close your eyes, you really think it's a woman".

That ambiguity, which arises pretty much every time that Cencic, who is one of the world's top countertenors, sings gets him started on one of his chief bugbears - what he calls the increasing "genderisation" of modern society.

Countertenors are in demand as replacements for the castrato voice in baroque opera of the 17th and 18th centuries. They are more accepted today than 20 years ago, when they were rare, but only just, Cencic says.

"A man that sings high is an issue, the same as a transvestite ... is an issue. Anything that has to do with gender-diluting topics is an issue nowadays.

"We live in a time when genderisation is at its peak -- not even 300 years ago were people posing such harsh questions on the matter of what is male and what is female."

Here's what else Cencic had to say in an interview at the Budapest Spring Festival where he sang the title role in the 18th-century German composer J.A. Hasse's "Siroe, King of Persia":

Q: How did you maintain your treble voice after puberty, when most male voices drop?

A: There are two ways to be a countertenor -- one is you go into your falsetto and you train with this falsetto ... The other one that has crystallised in the past 15 years with the newer generation, like me, is that you sing as a child and you continue singing and you don't have a break in the voice ... So it was by chance, it's because I continued singing, I didn't stop. It was sheer coincidence.

Q: When you were born, Croatia was part of Yugoslavia, but you were mostly raised outside the country as Yugoslavia collapsed and ethnic conflict broke out in the 1990s. How did that affect you?

A: It's kind of weird when you come from this Central European background ... It's like an ongoing shock that every 20 or 30 years borders are being changed and so you live with this very strange feeling of asking yourself, 'Where is home?'

Q: Your "Siroe", which you have revived and rescued from obscurity, has been a hit in performances around Europe and on CD. What do you do for an encore?

A: "Catone in Utica" composed by Leonardo Vinci (1690-1730) is my next ... It's wonderful music, I think I've found a jewel.