When he was in his teens, studying at St. Alban's School and singing in the choir of the Washington Cathedral, Drew Minter led a sort of schizophrenic musical existence. "I would sing alto in the choir," he recalls now, 15 years later, "and baritone in musical shows."

Today, in his early thirties, Minter is one of the world's leading countertenors, singing in a range that used to be considered the exclusive property of women and prepubescent boys. He began singing in public when he was 9 and has never really stopped since. But there was a time when he wasn't sure whether he would be a countertenor or a baritone. And the answer was not something he discovered; it was something he decided.

"All kinds of voice types can learn to sing as countertenors," he believes -- and tells his vocal students. He says he has taught all kinds of singers to be countertenors, even "really heavy bass-baritones."

"For me," he says, "making a harsher sound is more work, because I'm a more lyric voice. But I've taught countertenors who are dramatic, who have really strong musculature and are, of course, a different build. For them, it's hard to produce a thin sound."

A couple of generations ago, the countertenor sound was a rarity, heard in some forms of church music but hardly anywhere else. Today, following in the footsteps of Alfred Deller and Russell Oberlin, dozens of countertenors are enjoying busy careers and hundreds of students are coming along. In most places, the high-pitched male voice is no longer considered an oddity, though audience members sometimes ask Minter some strange questions ("How do you do that?" "Does it hurt?" "Are you a castrato?") after a performance.

The countertenor voice is coming back. Tonight Minter is performing the role of Oberon, originally composed for Deller, in Benjamin Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Wolf Trap. Britten also wrote a countertenor part in his "Death in Venice," and roles in the range have been composed more recently by Peter Maxwell Davies and other British composers. American composers are beginning to use this voice, too, though more hesitantly. A few years ago, Minter performed the premiere of an American piece for countertenor and electronic accompaniment that required him to sing three octaves -- from the F-sharp at the bottom of the bass clef to the F-sharp at the top of the treble clef. But most of the time he sticks to the top two octaves of that range, mostly using the octave that begins at the B-flat below middle C.

"In my late teens," Minter recalls, "I would go and audition with the first bass aria and the first alto aria from Bach's 'Christmas Oratorio.' And I got enough feedback from people who said, 'Really, you should pursue singing as an alto.' But there were several points in my twenties where I almost decided to be a baritone."

Most of Minter's repertoire dates back two centuries or more, but later this year, he will sing in the premiere of a new work, "Suenåos," based largely on "The Autumn of the Patriarch," by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In "Suenåos," he portrays a Latin American dictator nearing the end of his days; in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," he is Oberon, king of the fairies, deeply embroiled in a quarrel with his wife, Titania, and casting spells that confuse the love lives of four innocent mortals.

"It's funny," he muses. "This year is something new; I'm playing all mean guys, and all I've ever played before are nice guys. Oberon is really mean-spirited; he blames everything on Puck, and it's really his own fault. He's a true authoritarian; this opera is definitely about power issues."

For the past seven years, Minter has been living in New York and working all around the world. But he has bought an apartment in Adams-Morgan, overlooking the zoo, and is resettling in his native city. "This year I was gone so much of the season, I decided it wasn't worth it to live there any more," he says of New York. "So I just moved back here. In most seasons, I've spent about six months away from home, including a month or two in Europe."

His yearly schedule usually includes two or three operas, quite a bit of oratorio work ("that's the bread-and-butter for a lot of people") and a growing schedule of recitals. He has two solo albums coming out later this year and hopes that they will focus more attention on his recital work, which he particularly enjoys.

One of those albums brings up an interesting point: Some of Minter's closest musical acquaintances have been dead two centuries or more -- notably Senesino, a castrato singer for whom Handel and other composers wrote scores of operas in the first half of the 18th century, and Susanna Cibber, for whom Handel wrote the aria, "He was despised." Although one was a castrato and the other a woman these two singers had voices whose strengths and weaknesses formed patterns very close to Minter's.

"I can go through Handel's operas and tell from the music who the part was written for," he says. "When someone offers me a role I don't know, I go and look up who it was written for, and if it was for Senesino or Mrs. Cibber, I know it will be a piece of cake. But if it was written for anyone else, I will have to get working on it. In fact, all the countertenor parts are harder for me than the roles written for those two people."

This brings up the offhand way he came to record one of his forthcoming albums: "It was one of these typical '42nd Street' kind of things; they called me up at 11:30 on a Saturday night and said, 'Rene' Jacobs just walked out on our sessions; what are you doing for the next few days?' I said I was doing some teaching and some rehearsals, and they asked, 'How would you like to come out and record an album of Handel?' So I asked what's the repertoire, and they told me 12 arias, and they were all arias for Senesino. And I said, 'I only know one of those arias, but I'll make you a deal; I'll learn six if you'll learn five {other arias}.' So I got on the plane next morning and I learned arias. But if I hadn't known that those were Senesino arias, I probably wouldn't have said yes."

Other long-stilled voices he knows less intimately and finds himself unable to match -- but this gives him something to work for in the future. One of his long-range projects is to come to terms with the music written for castrato Gaetano Guadagni, which includes some of the finest music of the 18th century.

"Three years ago," he says, "I did a role that I think will feel really good in 10 years -- Gluck's Orfeo. I don't think I was ready to do it then, and I was not at all happy with it, vocally or mentally or emotionally. Since then, I've done some other stuff written for the same castrato, Guadagni. It doesn't fit me yet; I don't think I have the dramatic capability that this voice clearly had. It's going to take me another 10 years to develop that forceful kind of sound."

Meanwhile, when he is not kept busy by ancient or modern music, Minter finds that plenty of would-be pop singers are eager to take lessons from a baroque-oriented countertenor.

The countertenor voice "exists a lot more in pop music now," he says. "Since the '50s, there have been a lot of black groups and then, slowly, mainstream rock music has become full of falsettists. In fact, male and female singers sing mostly in the same range in rock music. The women sing in their chest voice, the men sing in their head voice.

"For a couple of years, I was teaching at a college on Staten Island that has a very strong theater department, and essentially I was teaching Broadway belters," he says. "The hardest thing to do was to get the women to sing in their head voice and get the men to sing with a real chest voice -- a real firm, developed voice. They didn't want to do it. The men" -- his voice goes up an octave -- "wanted to sing in this really light little high voice, and the women were all beefing it up" -- his voice drops back down to baritone range -- "and really restricting what they could do vocally."

When a teacher has that kind of problem, it may mean that the age of the countertenor has really arrived.