All the legendary voice masters from the classic Bel Canto era of the 18th century point to one vocal characteristic as being the most potent weapon in the singer’s artistic arsenal: beauty of tone (a close second was spectacular, florid singing). They understood that beauty draws the listener near—that is, it fascinates the mind, seduces the senses, enchants the human spirit, and opens the heart. In fact, the most beloved singers of any era of music history have always had, above all else, a vocal quality that their admirers found irresistible. Enrico Caruso was famous for his legendary “golden voice.” Many stories have been told about his glorious tone and the effect that it had on his listeners. It wasn’t uncommon for fans, as well as fellow singers and conductors, to be emotionally swept away by the sheer sound of his voice.
Distinguished soprano and colleague of Caruso, Geraldine Farrar tells of one occasion when she was singing with the great tenor. At one point, when Caruso was singing a particularly passionate aria, she become so overwhelmed by the breathtaking beauty and emotional impact of his voice that she literally broke-down on stage, in the middle of an actual performance, and began to cry. These sorts of Caruso anecdotes were not uncommon. His “golden and velvet” voice—as well as its large size and thrill-value—immortalized his name and made him the most admired and imitated opera singer in history. Whether his singing was expressing tender pathos or violent passion, he mastered a way to modulate—subtly vary—the tonal shades of his voice to paint emotionally captivating vocal pictures. His mezza voce (singing full voice but softly) was legendary. His classic rendition of Donizetti’s Una Furitiva Lagrima, from his opera Elisir D’amore you will hear his exquisitely mezza voce in full display. In his signature aria Vesti La Giubba, from Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, by contrast, we are presented with his dramatic voice—penetrating both in emotional intensity and tonal brilliance. In La Donne è Mobile, from Verdi's Rigoletto, we hear—in the cadenza at the aria’s end—the versatile tenor demonstrating his remarkable capacity for Bel Canto coloratura singing—singing flamboyantly with rapid but musically precise flexibility. (Although he started calling on his coloratura voice less and less the more he began to give himself over more fully to the spirit of verismo operas.)
As we cited earlier, larger voices typically do not shine in nuanced, tonal, or elastic singing. Caruso’s voice, to the contrary, was large and supple, vibrant and warm. He was the quintessential chiaroscuro tenor—a voice with interpenetrating, contrasting light and dark qualities. The advantage of a singer possessing such a colorful voice is that he can express with greater fidelity the rich variety of human emotions. From this perspective, Caruso’s voice was unique among all other tenors in history. For all his purely physical gifts, communicative power, and natural musical ability, however, it is fascinating to note, as Caruso himself said more than once, that his vocal accomplishments—both technical and artistic-—were the result of many years of thoughtful study, diligent practice, and continuous experimentation. He claimed that, contrary to popular opinion, he was not born with “the voice,” but instead, worked tirelessly to build his skills and vocal quality over the course of his career.
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