By Greg Russell
When Mikah Meyer opens his mouth, jaws often drop. But until that happens, he feels
like he hasn’t done his job.
Meyer, a Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music performance major, has made an indelible
mark on the University of Memphis and area music scene as a countertenor, an extremely
rare voice type. He has the ability to sing higher than tenor and in a range that
would be more associated with a female’s singing voice — something similar to mezzo-soprano,
which often catches audiences off guard.
But it is his skill to so elegantly deliver musical voice scores that puts him in
a category with the top up-and-coming countertenors in the world. “It is a very unique
voice type,” said Meyer of being a countertenor. “I had never heard of the term ‘countertenor’
until I was in high school. Many of my friends — even music peers — haven’t heard
of the term because it is such a rare voice type.”
Meyer’s talent hasn’t gone unnoticed — he recently was accepted into one of the world’s
most prestigious music schools: The Royal Academy of Music in London, which he refers
to as “the mecca of countertenor study.”
“The Academy is a pretty amazing institution,” the senior said. “In its history, it
has trained some of the world’s prominent musicians, and its name is recognized around
the world. The school comes up often in my music history course, which doesn’t happen
with most institutions.”
With about 700 students enrolled, the Academy selects only the world’s most promising
voice students; only one in eight applicants gains enrollment. The school, founded
in 1822, is akin prestige-wise to the Juilliard School of Music in New York City.
Famous alumni include pop singers Elton John and Annie Lennox.
Before gaining acceptance to the Academy, Meyer was required to travel to London to
audition where he admittedly was “a little nervous.” But after meeting the countertenor
he wishes to study under, Nicholas Clapton, he said he felt at ease. “Clapton recognized
me and walked over to say hello. He mentioned enjoying seeing the video on my Web
site of me singing the National Anthem at the Tiger men’s basketball game. He was
impressed and we chatted a bit before departing for the official audition.”
Meyer said he prepared four pieces for the audition. “I got to pick the first one
I sang, and the panel got to hear any remaining one, two or three they wanted. I chose
“Ride On, King Jesus!” because it is high, showy, loud and different than anything
anyone else would sing.”
Meyer said the vast majority of countertenor repertoire is opera or sacred oratorio,
not spirituals, which is his favorite genre to sing.
“The panel next chose an oratorio, ‘Oh Lord, Whose Mercies Numberless.’ I sang it
and then they invited me for a quick chat. We discussed my application and my thoughts
Meyer said the graduate thesis project coordinator indicated his thesis proposal —
creating an album of spirituals for countertenors — was an interesting topic.
Chanticleer, an award-winning a cappella ensemble based in San Francisco, is currently
the most recognized group that features countertenors. Meyer said he has his sights
set on this group after graduating from Graduate School.
“Chanticleer has been one of my goals since being a high school student,” said Meyer.
“After doing that for a couple of years, I probably would test the waters and see
if I am competitive with the other people out there making a living as a solo artist.”
Meyer said when he was young, he thought of himself as a tenor who could sing really
“I was singing for a teacher who was a studentteacher at the University of Nebraska,”
said Meyer. “He said, ‘Gee, you sound just like the guys in this group Chanticleer.’
He gave me a CD that I listened to and from there I did research online and I realized
there was a legitimate voice type that sang in this range and that is what God made
my voice built for. From there I went to college.
“After one year of study at the U of M, my voice teacher, Dr. (Pamela) Gaston, said,
‘This is where your greater talent lies, this is what I think you should do,’ and
Only about 20 students are actively pursing this unique voice type at U.S. universities.
Meyer’s talent has already drawn dividends. Last year he was chosen as a recipient
of the highly competitive Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholarship, which requires
applicants to study abroad, and carries with it a $24,000 award for the first year
of graduate study.
Meyer didn’t need much influence to decide on his musical career path.
“My father was a campus pastor so I was always surrounded by church music. We are
Lutherans so we are big on the hymns. My mother is a high school music teacher and
then I have sisters who all do music, dance and theatre. I grew up listening to them,
just listening to music all the time so it became second nature for me.”
Meyer said countertenors are making a comeback. “I am very lucky, because starting
in the 1990s there was a huge resurgence of countertenor use. If you were going to
be a countertenor in the last 100 years, now is a great time, because it is resurging
“Countertenors date to the Baroque era when women were not allowed to sing in church
or on stage,” he said. “Many oratorios, such as the Messiah, were written with countertenors
as the lead alto soloist. When a female is cast as the alto soloist of the Messiah,
which is often the case, it is a historically inaccurate performance.”
Meyer said he initially had a fear of people saying he sings like a woman, but is
now at ease with that.
“When I see jaws drop in the audience, I know I have done my job,” Meyer said.
(Visit www.memphis.edu/videos/ to hear a sampling of Meyer’s singing as well as an interview with him.)
As an international student at the Academy, Meyer is required to have full funding
secured for his program before enrolling, and is seeking additional monetary support
to accomplish this. Donations can be sent in care of the Memphis Central Rotary Club,
P.O. Box 772296, Memphis, TN 38177. Checks should be made out to Memphis Central Rotary
with Meyer’s name in the memo.