Enrico Caruso began as a lyrical tenor in the late 19th and the first several years of the 20th century (the lyrical tenor voice is relatively light as compared to “heavier” voices). His voice, however, became deeper, more powerful and resonant as his career unfolded. When he reached full artistic and tonal maturity toward his mid to late forties (1913-20), his new “dramatic tenor” voice caused both amazement and controversy.
How could Caruso’s voice resemble a baritone’s in both its color and energetic substance, yet could also have, when artistically required, the range, agility, and smooth, silken finish of a highly polished lyrical tenor? Not only could the Caruso voice be exceptionally “dark” and robust in its lower register, his explosive and big high notes also resounded with burnished tonal hues. It’s always startling to listen to recordings he made with a number of baritones and to hear how closely Caruso manages to duplicate their vocal color. Listen to the duet Si, Pel Ciel from Verdi’s Otello with the incomparable baritone Titta Ruffo, as an example, and you will hear that Caruso’s baritone-like timbre often matches Ruffo’s.
So how did Caruso create his deeper, bigger, and more brilliant sound, while retaining his capacity for tonal nuance and vocal flexibility? My view is that, aside from his natural gifts, the royal road to Caruso’s fully realized voice began and continued on the footpath of the oo and ee vowels—the divine couplet of singing. As he started singing vocally challenging roles, the back, down, and open oo and ee vowel sound configurations began taking shape, which, in turn, reformed all his vowel sounds. Interestingly, these vowels are prominently displayed in the Italian language and, as such, they are an integral part of the famous Italian Bel Canto singing tradition. In Caruso’s case, however, the two vowels gained in responsibility and function. They weren’t simply pure sounds to be sung following the aesthetic principles of the Bel Canto style; they also became “voice building sounds” and, as such, were responsible for establishing new actions and configurations in the musculature of Caruso’s larynx, pharynx, soft palate, and oral cavity. The overall result of Caruso’s building his vocal musculature, following the lead of the divine couplet, was his monumental voice—awe-inspiring both in its sound and athletic ability.