Category Archives: Terminology

did you know the tenor was the ‘holding’ voice?

As a word person, I’m forever curious about the origin of words. (I really should have taken Latin instead of German classes in high school. Latin would have been a stronger springboard to support my lifelong interest in etymology.)

Since we are featuring tenors all month on Operatoonity, I simply had to find out where the word came from.

Did you know “tenor” derives from the Latin word tenere, which means “to hold”? Like so many other words now in use, it came to mean something quite different over the centuries.

Apparently, between about 1250 and 1500, during the time of medieval polyphony (music with two or more independent lines), the tenor was the structurally fundamental (or holding) voice–vocal or instrumental. All other voices were normally calculated in relation to the tenor.

Until the late 15th century, the tenor was usually the lowest voice, in order to provide a harmonic foundation. It was also in the 15th century that “tenor” came to signify the male voice that sang such parts. For earlier repertoire, a line marked ‘tenor’ indicated the part’s role and not the required voice type. Indeed, even as late as the eighteenth century, partbooks for ‘tenor’ might contain parts for a range of voice types.

So when did the word tenor as we know it come to mean the highest male vocal part or one who sings that part?

According to Yale Press’s “The Prehistory of the Voice,” the notion of the modern tenor voice “accelerated rapidly from the eighteenth century onward” until it became the voice part we know it as today–the voice of princes and dukes, of lovers and their beloved, of martyrs and heroes.

Bravi, tenori!

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Filed under opera history, tenors, Terminology

lend me a tenor?

all month on Operatoonity

I’d love to, but you’ll have to be more specific. That’s like a surgeon saying, “Lend me an instrument” when he needs a scalpel.

Since it’s Talented Tenors month, I thought I’d talk about the categories of tenors determined by the range, weight, and color of their voices. Within the operasphere, not only is there ample discussion about all the different vocal types, opera lovers also argue about which singers should be where, which I suppose boils down to which roles do they sing best.

One thing is for certain–tenors know what roles they can sing. They know their categories (their Fach, as its known in German) and so do the opera houses who hire them. Below is one popular categorization of tenors. Where possible I included an opera singer I’ve seen who has been associated with the category.

Juan Diego Flórez, 'Rossini' tenor

Light-lyric tenor–depending on the repertoire, these voices are often called leggiero tenors or “Rossini” tenors. Juan Diego Flórez is one tenor I’ve seen  in the Met’s Le Comte Ory whose name comes up frequently in this category. On his website he refers to himself as a bel canto tenor or one who is ideal for Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini operas. His website says that he has distinguished himself for his  “fluid, expressive singing and dazzling virtuosity.” Now that I’ve heard him in person, I can’t agree more.

Lyric tenor–with not quite the high register of the light-lyric tenor, this voice category is well represented by many beloved roles in opera such as:

Rodolfo, La bohème (Puccini)
Ferrando, Così fan tutte (Mozart)
Elvino, La sonnambula (Bellini)
Ramiro, La Cenerentola (Rossini)
Nemorino, L’elisir d’amore (Donizetti)

David Lomeli

Mexico City native and Operalia winner David Lomeli sings lyric tenor roles. He has garnered critical acclaim for his Rodolfo, which he’s currently singing at the Sante Fe Opera Festival. I saw him sing Nemorino for New York City opera last March, for which he earned rave reviews, including mine.

Lyric-dramatic tenor–while still lyric in nature, this category of singer demands a certain brightness or dramatic color to soar over the orchestra. Light dramatic tenors are often sought for these roles:

Cavaradossi, Tosca (Puccini)
Don José, Carmen (Bizet)
Florestan, Fidelio (Beethoven)
Canio, Pagliacci (Leoncavallo)
Max, Der Freischütz  (von Weber)

Marcelo Àlvarez

Some consider Marcelo Àlvarez a lyric tenor though the weight and color of his voice was ideally suited to singing the role of the artist Cavaradossi at the Met this past winter.

Dramatic tenor–also called tenore di forza in Italian. Dramatic tenor roles that require a spinto quality–an ability to push the voice–so that it sails over heavily-textured orchestral passages. Sometimes this is also called a robusto tenor. Depending on how they are cast, roles can include:

Andrea Chénier in Giordano’s opera of the same name
Don Alvaro, La forza del destino (Verdi)
Otello in Verdi’s opera of the same name

The title role in Verdi’s Ernani and Manrico (Il trovatore, Verdi) were originally considered part of the robusto tenor tradition even though these roles aren’t often cast that way these days.

Salvatore Licitra, tenore di forza

Tenor Salvatore Licitra is commonly identified as a tenore di forza among opera cognoscenti. I had the great pleasure of seeing him sing the role of King Gustav in “A Masked Ball” at Washington National Opera‘s “Opera in the Outfield” a simulcast of the Kennedy Center production in Nationals Park. Besides wowing the crowd with his singing, he proudly donned a Nationals cap at curtain call and will forever be adored by WNO fans who are also Nationals fans.

Stuart Skelton, heldentenor

Heldentenor–this is the dramatic tenor voice of the German repertoire that demands a distinctive ‘ring’ and weight for roles such as:

Siegfried, Der Ring des Nibelungen (Wagner)
Parsifal, Parsifal (Wagner)
Tristan, Tristan und Isolde ( Wagner)
Walther von Stolzing, Die Meistersinger ( Wagner)

Stuart Skelton is widely considered one of the pre-eminent heldentenors of his generation. Though I didn’t see Skelton in ENO’s Parsifal, David Karlin at Bachtrack.com did and said his singing nearly blew the roof off the London Coliseum. See David’s review here.

What about you, Operatoonity readers? Whom have you observed who define this classification? Any delights or surprises? Do you have a favorite type of tenor voice?

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meet the soubrette, a stock soprano role

Soubrette is wonderful word I was introduced to last year from the world of opera. A term associated with stock characters in the performing arts/theater world, a soubrette is a minor female role in comedy, often that of a pert or flirtacious lady’s maid [from the French for maidservant, from Provençal soubreto]. A soubrette can also be a country maid or a character with beguiling country innocence, as illustrated in the accompanying painting. Soubrettish is the adjective form.

When I first heard soubrette, it reminded me of coquette, another word for a flirtatious girl or woman, that I was introduced to through the literary world–perhaps from reading Regency romance, but I’ve since forgotten. 

Soubrette by Depouilly

 The difference is that soubrette is more of a character type, just like an ingenue, the cad, or a romantic lead.

Famous soubrette roles in opera include Papagena from The Magic Flute, Adina in The Elixer of Love, Susanna from The Marriage of Figaro, and Zerlina, in Don Giovanni, which happen to be some of the most popular and entertaining soprano roles around and certainly have to be fun to play.

In my opera book, the character who wants the role of Zerlina is a soubrette herself–the pert, yet virginal type. This character, Oriane, who is twenty-nine when the story begins, whines that if she doesn’t get to sing Zerlina, she’ll be too old to play it when the next role comes around, which could be five years later. Many companies don’t repeat productions inside five years.

There is some truth to her complaint. A young singer may begin her career as a soubrette, but as she ages and her voice matures she may be reclassified as another voice type, such as a light lyric soprano. A singer rarely remains a soubrette for an entire career. Although in watching video productions of stage performances of Don Giovanni, I noticed a few Zerlinas who were too long in the tooth and wide in the waist to portray a pert country maid. More like madams, they were, IMHO.

So, Oriane is being mostly truthful when she claims that if she doesn’t get the role at twenty-nine, her voice might never be suited to the role of the soubrette again. What she neglects to mention is that she’ll now be eligible for different roles because of the mature timbre of her voice.

Here’s a You-Tube clip of the very famous seduction duet between Giovanni and Zerlina, “La ci darem la mano.” While the Giovanni is in fine (if heavy) voice, for my taste, he’s too old and oily to be very convincing as a seducer of woman of all ages–strictly my opinion. Zerlina is capably sung. Even though she’s clearly middle aged, her voice retains the proper timbre for a soubrette. By contrast, their are many, many YouTube clips of Zerlinas who need to put themselves out to pasture because their voices and bodies are too mature. I also chose this version of “La si darem la mano,” because it skips the recitative and gets right into the song. Let me know what you think of Angelika Kirchschlager as Zerlina. Is she a proper Zerlina, IYHO?  

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Filed under Character from DEVILED BY DON, Classic Opera, DEVILED BY DON, Don Giovanni, Mozart, Performers, Terminology

“best of” countdown #3 – high-note-itis?

 (first published February 19, 2010)            

Montserrat Caballé, Spanish soprano

“High-note-itis” is a virulent condition that strikes opera singers hungry for audience approval. At endings of arias or after a long  cadenza (an ornamental passage written to display a singer’s virtuosity), singers afflicted with high-note-itis take the note that’s written, ratchet it up by a fifth (like from do to sol), or an octave  and hold onto it, before descending to the last note, to a chorus of bravos or bravas. This illness afflicts singers dying to show off their pipes, to wow the audience–that sort of thing.            

Composers want their works to be sung as written. If they wanted a certain note sung a fifth or an octave higher, they would have written it that way.            

Luciano Pavarotti, Italian tenor, occasionally afflicted with high-note-itis

Needless to say, high-note-itis is not a flattering term nor a desirable condition in a singer. It is a form of vocal gymnastics that has nothing to do with the music that’s actually written. According to J. Merrill Knapp, author of The Magic of Opera, occasionally taking a high note other than the one written can be “a legitimate operatic practice.” But when these extra notes become too numerous, it negatively impacts the entire performance.            

Ten-year-old Jackie Evancho

 

Addendum to the original post: Even America’s new darling, the delightful ten-year-old opera prodigy Jackie Evancho, exhibited a minor case of high-note-itis  to conclude “O Mio Babbino Caro,” which she performed on “America’s Got Talent.”  But if I had her pipes and were bringing an audience of hundreds to their feet, I might succumb to the temptation of singing the last two notes an octave higher, too. (I almost interrupted this countdown to write about Jackie–who delivered an incredible performance–likely the first time many if not most Americans ever heard “O Mio Babbino Caro,” but a countdown’s a countdown. So, I snuck her into this post instead.)

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