The growing popularity of “early” music has brought a lot of old instruments back onstage, but none has a backstory as impressive as the countertenor’s history. A countertenor is a male vocalist who sings in the range of an alto or mezzo-soprano — parts typically sung by women. It’s actually just a fancy way of saying “falsetto,” but the story behind those high tones is grislier than Frankie Valli’s voice would have you believe. Heard mostly in baroque operas and oratorios, countertenors typically replace the castrato — a boy who had his balls cut off before his voice changed, thereby preserving his prepubescent range. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo played a fictional castrato in The Double Life of Zefirino, his senior thesis at Princeton. A documentary about the production screened at the Cannes Film Festival and will air on PBS this season. Since graduating in 2004, Costanzo has won some prominent roles and awards. He makes his Cleveland Orchestra debut tonight, singing alto parts in the group’s performance of Handel’s “Messiah.” He’s joined by soprano Mary Wilson, tenor Alek Shrader, bass-baritone John Relyea and the Cleveland Orchestra Chamber Chorus, with Robert Porco conducting. Showtimes are 8 p.m. tonight and Saturday at Severance Hall (11001 Euclid Ave., 216.231.1111). Tickets: $31-$92. — Michael Gill
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