As far as the evolution of the tenor voice is concerned, Gilbert-Louis Duprez’s contribution is both momentous and mildly humorous. In a word, he was the first famous tenor in history to sing a high C (C5), full voice, without resorting to falsetto tones. While singing in Rossini’s opera William Tell, and being fearful that his small voice would not be able to perform adequately a difficult passage, Duprez decided to go for broke: “It required the concentration of every resource of will and physical strength. So be it, I said to myself, it may be the end of me, but somehow I’ll do it. And so I found the high C…” This impulsive act of vocal desperation changed the history of the tenor voice (non-Wagnerian) forever. Eventually, a tenor using full voice to sing his high notes became normal practice, and, in fact, it was what his audience came to demand. And what if a tenor did not possess that fearsome note in his vocal compass? Well, as so many tenors have done throughout modern tenor history, they could lower the key of the aria and sing a lower, more manageable note. Because of Duprez, the operatic world had shifted in a radical way: with occasional allowances, resorting to falsetto-like tones for high notes eventually became a relic of the past.
With Enrico Tamberlik we have the first fully formed “modern” dramatic tenor who sang all his roles, and notes, in his natural voice. Although he was not reputed for being a versatile artist with the talent for effective tonal and dynamic modulation, his big and resonant voice was, nevertheless, very moving in performance, despite his limitations. Not only did he possess a shattering high C, he also could deliver a high C-sharp with a similar effect.
Rossini was not impressed with Deprez’s—or anybody else’s high Cs, for that matter—but rather preferred the softer, falsetto-like tones in the higher registers. But the great composer was fighting an unstoppable tide of social and musical change that demanded more realism and guts, and less recourse to the artificial and unnaturally feminine. There was no turning back. This not only meant that singers must now demonstrate a more natural vocal style, but they must also show less in the way of florid—ornamental—singing. What a development in the evolution of the Bel Canto style! In the Old School tradition, thrilling vocal acrobatics, with a light vocal quality, was a primary requirement of all singers who wanted to perform in opera, now it could be a liability. This break with tradition occurred not only because opera itself had evolved and became more realistic and earthy, but also because of the undeniable fact that natural male singers are not well suited to florid singing. Hence, operatic composers wrote more manly parts for their tenors, basses, and baritones—voices that could assume their rightful places along side of real female contraltos, mezzo sopranos, and sopranos.