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The Origins of the Superstar Tenor

?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8" standalone="no"?Tenors have always been a part of opera even during the rule of the greatest castrati, but the preference at the time was for the “cut” male. In the early 19th century, however, there were a number of gifted tenors that began to have success in the principle roles and even had the great composers write for them. Giovanni-Battista Rubini (1795-1854) was unique among them. He was the first “uncut” male to garner the international reputation normally reserved for the best castrati. Besides being an excellent, natural musician, he famously mastered a vocal technique that gave him excellently-produced falsetto-like tones for his brilliant high notes, which allowed him to execute castrato-like embellishments. On the other hand, it was his wonderfully elegant vocal phrasing where Rubini really excelled and where he made the greatest impact, especially on other musicians like the iconic pianist from Hungary, Franz Liszt (1811-1886). Rubini was both a return to an earlier form of vocalism as well as a harbinger of things to come. His singing had the theatrical thrill, vocal flexibility, and artistic taste of some of the earlier and best castrati—an extraordinary accomplishment for a normal male. Moreover, that an uncut singer could become a superstar in the age of the castrati was big news and offered a good hint to the astute observer of what the future of the great tenor voice would hold.

There was another side to the early decades of the 19th century music: people yearned for more natural tension and melodrama in opera, and the great operatic composers—e.g., Mozart, Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti—soon realized that the castrati—as sublime as the greatest of them were—were going out of fashion and were not long for the operatic world. It was at this time that the natural female contralto, mezzo soprano, and soprano began to gain the star power once owned exclusively by the castrato. Since natural females shared the same ranges as their castrato counterparts, the transition was not a difficult one, and composers wrote parts for the famous, sometimes notorious, female divas. But there were other changes afoot.

The size of the average opera houses was increasing to accommodate more people, orchestras were also becoming larger and louder. All in all, singer’s having to sing to bigger houses and against noisier orchestras, as well as having to sing with more drama and high-energy pathos, meant that they had to give more voice. Additionally, the audience began to grow weary of, and even uncomfortable with, women playing the parts of heroes. Enter the masculine voice, or more particularly, the tenor voice—the “primo uomo” (first man).

As we saw with Rubini, by using well-produced falsetto or falsetto-like tones in their upper registers, the tenors of the 18th and 19th century were able to negotiate the vocal challenges of the high-note singing well enough to meet the needs of the music and audience—and the greatest composers. After Rubini, other groundbreaking tenors followed who continued to reshape the operatic world—and vocal technique—of the tenor. The most celebrated were the Italian Domenico Donzelli (1790-1873), the Frenchmen Adourrit Nourrit (1801-1839) and Gilbert-Louis Duprez (1806-1896), and the Italian Enrico Tamberlik (1820-1889).

Donzelli possessed perhaps the first truly robust—“dramatic”—tenor voice in operatic history. He was the first important opera singer to employ his falsetto voice only for his highest notes and take his big and steely natural voice higher in his range than was typically practiced (e.g., he sometimes sang an A (“A4” in his natural voice).

Nourrit, despite being a dramatic tenor, was more of a character singer than singer. His importance lay, in part, in the dramatic tenor roles that were created for him and how these roles endured throughout operatic history—operas by Giacchino Rossini, Daniel Auber, Jacques Halevy, and Giacomo Meyerbeer. Another important contribution that he made to the evolution of the tenor voice is that he used his voice as a way to be a more effective actor.

Gary Catona, photo by Issam Zejly



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