The Erroneous Transitions Into Dramatic Repertoire: Part 1 The Tenor Edition

Irrespective of voice type, opera singers tend to expand their repertoire to include roles that require greater sound pressure levels (SPL) or what we normally call “volume.”  SPL depends on sub-glottal pressure (some might call it more support).  With greater SPL comes also the need for the instruments to provide greater glottal resistance.  This glottal resistance comes in either of two ways: 1) greater medial pressure (firmer glottal closure) or 2) greater vertical fold contact area.  The former requires a little or a lot of glottal squeezing and the latter requires the folds to be thicker vertically, richer if you will.  Different singers have used one of the two strategies and when subtle to relative success.  The issue that used to be understood is that different voices have different limits relative to more “dramatic” repertoire.  The tenors are always more obvious in this regard.  The tenor voice (sorry to other voice types) walks a more precarious tightrope and issues of imbalance show themselves earlier.

The great singers of the past had a sense of measure!  They knew what was not appropriate. Not only were they smarter in this regard, but the business structure of Opera was too!  Singers in general developed better because they had a healthy fear of ruining their instruments by singing dramatic repertoire too early. Conductors and directors and colleagues would say:  “This is not good for you, yet!”  Today what singers hear is:  “How soon can you sing this part?  You can get paid big money for it!”  And that in short is why very promising young stars do not make the change in a way that is healthy and instead of thriving, they falter, lose confidence and never recover in many cases.  Some come a little better, but the quality of the instrument becomes audibly inferior.  It is also true that some singers begin their careers with the wrong kind of lyric repertoire. A future Otello, could begin his young career with Tamino or even Nemorino because the tessitura and range is appropriate in those two roles (I have sung through both with little problem) but beginning with Prince Ramiro or Werther could be frightening for naturally more robust voices (I have also worked on parts of these roles for just the experience of it).

The Last Tenor(s)

Pavarotti often told the story that his teacher Campogagliani said to him: “You should hurry up and start your career!  You may be the last tenor!”  Pavarotti was always translating from Italian and his pronouncements sometimes sounded hyperbolic! But when the details are considered, Campogagliani proved prophetic—not because great artists would not come around, but rather because they would not last long enough to be considered great!  In a sense, a great opera singer is not one who is a “flash in the pan!”  Even today, how great an opera singer becomes depends on how long s/he is around in order to be able to command a following worldwide and continue to thrill until an age that one can consider old enough for quality to begin to diminish.  

That Pavarotti’s voice became a touch less reliable in his older age had nothing to do with the quality of the voice itself but rather that his breath support system was beginning to fail him in his 60s.   But his voice sounded fresh up to his 70th birthday and the “King of the High C,” as he was called could occasionally call upon that note in performance even in his very late years.  His great rival and colleague, Placido Domingo, is still singing, but over the years he lost the tenor notes and at a very advanced age still makes a beautiful sound in the baritone range.  It is not blasphemy to say that Pavarotti had a better technique than Domingo.  Domingo himself has said it several times (not in those words exactly)!  The way Domingo expressed his praise for Pavarotti was that his voice was “easy” as if it was a native attribute.  It was not!  Pavarotti also often talked about the fact that he was about to give up when he won the competition that led to his celebrated debut at the Teatro Reggio in Emilia-Romagna.  His was a technique developed for fluidity, elasticity, lyricism.  Domingo is an emotional singer and a superlative musical actor.  His priorities lie in emotional expression, even at the expense of vocal balance (at times). But what both singers had in common was a sense of their authentic instrument.  The basic quality of their instrument never changed.  

Domingo, who took on heavier roles than Pavarotti ( a way perhaps to distinguish himself from his extremely lyrical colleague who ruled the upper register), never sounded “beefier”!  Never artificially dark!  One had a sense of his natural color always!  But indeed, he put his instrument under more pressure to sing the more dramatic parts.  And this he did by medial pressure!  He was always trying to develop a stronger breath support, because when one presses too much medially, the fold cover becomes trapped and fold oscillation necessitates greater sub-glottal pressure.  His throat was strong enough to handle it but he is known to have had hernias from his kind of exertion.  The upper range also is less conducive to high levels of sub-glottal pressure.  That would explain his very gradual loss of the tenor notes B4b and above.

The other strategy is in a way more perilous because it is easily taken to the extreme.  Certain singers have been praised in later years for a “baritonal sound!”  I am such a tenor! I began my career as a baritone (beginning my studies as a bass) and discovered at age 42 that I am a tenor.  The struggle in my development was understanding what was my true, balanced vocal color. I had a C5# as a baritone. But the way I darkened my voice to sing baritone eventually threw the voice off balance and in an attempt to find balance again, I found out that the voice was naturally a tenor voice.  In this process I had to find out how deep is too deep and how stretched (light) is too stretched.  Arriving at that sense of balance made singing higher tessituras a lot easier.  As a natural dramatic tenor, I work on Mozart, Donizetti and Bellini, along side Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini.  Today’s “baritonal” tenors have a tendency of exaggerating the dark side of the voice.  A prominent agent is quoted to have said the following:  “What do you call a tenor with a baritone quality?…A millionaire!”  Placido Domingo, had a baritonal richness to his voice.  But he never lost his tenor quality.  Even now when he sings as a baritone.  I never wanted to hear Domingo as a baritone.  But when I heard him as Germont Père at the Metropolitan Opera a few years ago, he dominated the stage.  I then understand why he was doing this.   The modern “baritonal” tenors are not following the Domingo model but rather the Giacomini/Galouzine model.  We hear this clearly in the productions of José Cura and Jonas Kaufmann.  The lighter tenors who thickened their voices  to achieve the weight for the more dramatic parts unfortunately gave up what made them tenors:  elasticity!

The great tenor in 1969 at age 29
One of my favorite recordings of this great tenor in 1983, age 43!
I find this the beginning of an overly darkened tone!

Again, no disrespect to a superlative artist, who despite what I consider a touch darkened still manages two thrilling high Bbs! But we can observe the constant rounding of the lips and how that relates to an attempt at finding a darker color. Relating this to the youthful sound of 1969, some 25 years before makes me wonder. And this is the problem with emulating singers. Do we ever ask ourselves whether the technical approach is balanced, despite the results.

Is this just age, or is it a good thing taken too far? The Giacomini of the 1970s and 1980s is a different animal all together from the one in the 1990s and later. He has several interviews in his later years where he speaks of a deeper, “inside” sense of space. I use Giacomini as an example because he manages to be successful to some degree. Tenors are judged by the security of their top and these recordings show high notes that by today’s standards are more than acceptable (referring to later recordings). But does the voice sound like itself the way Pavarotti and Domingo sound throughout their lives?

Galouzine is supposedly 23 years old here. There is a spoken clarity to the tone here. Did he darken the voice when he took on Otello? When he came to New York for his debut in the role, the preview said: “A New Lion Roars!” Supposedly he was to become the new Otello after Domingo gave up the role. When I went to see it with great expectation (my favorite opera), he barely made it through the second act. He was obviously tired by mid act!

At age 55

Is 55 a time to expect major decline? There was a time such an age was considered the prime time for a dramatic tenor. But the persistent wobble, which we also hear in Giacomini in his 60s, is that a symptom of overly darkening the voice? Another example:

1994, age 32

Cura’s rise through the first Operalia competition is famous. Domingo and his wife Marta have both talked about Cura’s arrival at Operalia. They thought it was God’s gift to opera, just when it seemed there would be no one to follow Domingo in the heavier tenor repertoire. The tendency towards finding a deeper connection is heard already here in his constant onsets below the pitch. Yet a very compelling presence onstage and a great natural instrument. Is the wobble a result of excessive darkening?

Which of the voices of Jonas Kaufmann is the real one? This is a question that is often asked in opera chat groups.

in 1998 at age 29

Some passaggio notes in this Ferrando aria are a little spread and I can see how they could cause this talented tenor some frustration.

2006 at age 37

This adjustment 8 years later seems in keeping with his natural voice. But in seeking a better adjustment to the passaggio and upper range might he have gone a little over board?

This year at age 51

He is a compelling actor, and a refined musician. But is 50 now the new 60 for opera singers, in a world when people otherwise ask whether 50 is the new 40? Is the pressure in the top range sustainable?

The more confusing part, particularly for tenors coming up, is that the top-tier singers are allowed to take in very high fees even as their voices deteriorate.  The temptation is too great, even for a disciplined singer like Juan Diego Florez.  His attempt at taking on the heavier repertoire is interesting to me.  He comes from the Rossini tradition, very much based on the elasticity of the voice.  Another Rossini tenor who made the transition to spinto/dramatic repertoire is Gregory Kunde, who is jetting around the world to replace the big name tenors who are cancelling right and left.  Granted, Florez is a leggiero where Kunde was always a tenor of substance in the Rossini and Bel Canto repertoire. 

It feels like a century ago when full voices were allowed to sing Rossini and the Bel Canto!

At the height of his fame, age 34 in 2007

Will Florez take on appropriate challenges and maintain his elasticity or will he beef up the voice so much that he will lose the ease of his top notes?

2014 age 40

I don’t write this article without compassion. In retraining over the past 10 years, I’ve developed great respect for those singers.  What they do is not easy and the pressure of delivering consistent singing and the top notes that define tenors especially is not for the faint of heart.  Yet, as a lover of opera and a teacher of active singers, I always ask: Why is it that people who do not understand the intricacies of the voice making decisions about what repertoire singers should sing? Agents were always eager for a fatter check.  This is not new!  That is their job!  However, in the past, conductors knew better. Stage directors knew better!  The singers were able to say no without such extreme negative repercussions.  Today, the singers say:  “If I don’t take the job, they will get someone else who will and they will never call me again.”  Bergonzi said no to Karajan and became a legend!  It is not so easy today.  

One tenor gives me hope in this crazy game. Piotr Beczala gives the third and traditional choice! 

Possessing of a fundamentally lyric voice, he remained safely in the lyric repertoire and gradually developed his native fullness without giving up his elasticity (his ability to stretch up to the top of the voice).  When I heard him sing his lyrical roles at the MET and in Berlin, oddly I found him more successful in Ballo in Maschera in Berlin than in Lucia di Lamermoor at the MET.  The slightly heavier role of Gustav/Riccardo seems to have inspired a fullness in his voice that gave him greater thrust than the lighter part of Edgardo.  His recent Cavaradossis were indeed impressive:

and I just experienced him in Barcelona a few days ago as Rodolfo in Verdi’s Luisa Miller.  He was riveting, inspiring calls for an encore (which he delivered) of the aria, “Quando le sere al placido…”  as he did above in Tosca a month earlier in Vienna. He was also a standout Lohengrin in Dresden.  Beczala reminds me of Pavarotti in his selection of roles.  Lohengrin, Cavaradossi and Rodolfo (Luisa Miller) are relatively lyric roles in the more dramatic category.  The tessituras of these parts require elasticity like a lyric role but with greater volume.  It’s a natural development from Tamino to Lohengrin and Walter von Stoltzing or Puccini’s Rodolfo to Cavaradossi and even Calaf. 

I’ve loved Beczala ever since he broke into the international scene.  In a blogpost here at the time, I referred to him as a mix between Björling, Gedda and Wunderlich.  He may have arrived at the point of his greatest potential.  From the sidelines, if I could give the great tenor some advice, it would be the following:

1) Now that you are the heir-apparent, as Kaufmann becomes less and less reliable, be careful what projects you take on!  I’ve written on this blog as well much about Kaufmann.  I admire him for his extraordinary, multifaceted talent (musical, theatrical and vocal) but cautioned often the choice of lower tessitura roles, from Parsifal to Siegmund to Otello. It’s no question that a great lyric tenor can sing an Otello or two and get away with it (Pavarotti did the Konzertant performance in Chicago and even though he was battling the flu (had his head under a steaming concoction when he was not singing), it was unforgettable and worth the expense to see it.

But doing it often is a mistake! 

Siegmund and Parsifal lie in a fundamentally lower tessitura and require great power on F4 and G4.  Higher tessitura voices like Kaufmann do not have sufficient thrust on those notes to make a real case. Tristan and Siegfried are punishingly long roles but in some ways (tessitura) easier for the lyric dramatic than the lower voices like Melchior and Vinay (they did memorable performances regardless).  Windgassen, a lyric dramatic tenor, has one of the most satisfying Tristans on recording and the voice sounds elastic.  Developing power in that range takes time but a lyric dramatic would have an easier time in terms of stamina if the voice is trained to handle the pressure, although it might be underwhelming with a bona fide Wagnerian orchestra. But Siegmund, Parsifal, Otello, Max, Canio, and Tannhäuser (3rd Act) are fundamentally low-lying parts not suited to the lyric voice. 

Therefore, avoid low tessitura parts

2) The great lyric dramatic singers of the past from Leontyne Price to Pavarotti spoke often of the wisdom of going back to more lyrical roles to makes sure that a fundamentally lyric voice does not lose its native quality.  What an event it would be to hear Piotr Beczala as Tamino, the way we heard Pavarotti in his later years sing one of the most inspiring Nemorinos in memory?  This is not going back, it is about preserving the balance of the voice! 

3) A story that we tenors know well:  During his co-25th Anniversary performance with Domingo at the MET singing Otello first act and Domingo singing Walküre first act, the two tenors were interviewed during the intermission.  When they discussed Tosca, Pavarotti said he met di Stefano who was performing in the same theater as he.  Di Stefano told him he had a beautiful voice and wanted to know what Pavarotti was singing next.  Pavarotti mentioned Cavaradossi and di Stefano cautioned  that Cavaradossi is a a dangerous role for a lyric tenor.  Pavarotti said he cancelled the performances and would not sing Tosca again for another 13 years. 

Is that even possible today?

For the average tenor, maybe not! We have to take whatever gives us some professional credits and earn a living if possible.  But for one of the most important voices in the operatic world, it should always be a choice.  Beczala, who a few years ago made news for deciding he would no longer do productions he felt where in violation of the score, eschewing the excesses of Regie Theater, hits me as an artist of principle.  I hope he will keep the same level of integrity relative to his fundamentally lyrical instrument, because I would love to enjoy that beautiful voice for many more years and in these uncertain times, be able to point to a tenor at the top of the game who manages this awfully anti-singer operatic world with intelligence and manages to last longer than the rest. One can only dream!

2 thoughts on “The Erroneous Transitions Into Dramatic Repertoire: Part 1 The Tenor Edition

Add yours

  1. Claude Heater sang the second act of Götterdämmerung so brillantly with Maazel in 1967 that I wonder how you explain this extreme focusing of tone.
    But I can see how you would explain that the first rate lyrical tenor Hermin Esser (excellent David in Meistersinger) failed as Tannhäuser. However, you do not explain why Gedda feared Lohengrin; he sang the first evening and insisted that his boss Set Svanholm do the following 47 evenings. Gedda said it would darken his voice if he went on doing it.


  2. Ulrik, you answered the question yourself. Heater was a great singer and might have managed one act of a Wagner opera without problem. Singing the heavier rep regularly is another matter. Gedda understood this, so I didn’t have to address it.


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