How to Teach a Tenor
So you want to be a tenor?
Michael Trimble, Tenor
Frances Alda (1879-1952) titled her book Men, Women and Tenors. There are many jokes about tenors and how crazy they are and how strangely they behave in the opera house. Where there is smoke, there is fire! There must be a reason for all of the tenor-lore that has long fascinated opera fans. Understanding the tenor mentality is necessary if we are going to teach these mad citizens of the singing world how to vocally fulfill the criteria of operatic and classical concert repertoires.
Tenors are the most nervous of all singers engaged by a big opera company. A certain tenor (he knows who he is!) would get a feeling of complete sudden-onset hoarseness before performances and run around back stage driving everyone crazy with his..."I'm voiceless! I'm hoarse! Listen!" His speaking voice sounded as raspy and hoarse as any ever heard. Consternation was rampant backstage. All involved would immediately start to panic at the thought of a deadly contagion breaking out behind the curtain. The tenors vocal cords were surely afflicted with some horrible, infectious bacteria! The entire cast of the production was getting more paranoid by the minute. Why didn't the tenor cancel instead of upsetting the entire cast and chorus with his mewling? Meanwhile, the rattling in the tenors huge chest and the whistling in his golden throat were getting worse and worse as curtain time approached. "I can hardly speak! How can I possibly sing tonight?" To keep this tale of woe as short as possible, he went out on stage at the rise of the curtain for the first act, and sang like a god with a fantastic voice. He sang all four acts without the slightest hint of trouble!
I heard this tenor sing the performance mentioned above in Hartford, Connecticut. The role was Radames in Verdi's Aida, one of the most difficult roles in the entire operatic repertoire. The opera opens with one of the most difficult arias for any voice in any opera, 'Celeste Aida'. I thought at the time that his voice was one of the best tenors I had ever heard! It was beautiful, powerful, and as smooth as silk. He was simply fantastic, with ease all through the range, from the highest note to the lowest note. His command of beautiful colorings (timbres, called timbri in Italian) of sadness, heroic sentiment, and thrilling warrior-like masculinity in his pealing high notes was on a par with the greatest tenors I had ever heard. The soft singing in the last act, always difficult for the big tenors, was pure and caressing, and exactly what Signor Verdi would have liked.
So, what made him so nervous? I have a theory which we will discuss later. It is an affliction that infects tenors. We will call it "tenoritis".
Franco Corelli was infamous for being a mad tenor. Before performances he would vomit in his dressing room. Then, after scaring the rest of the cast with his desperation and fear, he would go out on the stage and sing beautifully with one of the greatest tenor voices of his generation. As Madame Olga Ryss said, "His voice was better than he was"!
One of the most famous of the mad tenors was Alfred Piccaver, an English-American tenor who was a superstar (Primo Uomo) at the Vienna state opera from 1912 to 1931. His stage fright was serious enough to cause him to repeatedly cancel performances at the last minute. A performance that was supposed to begin at 8 p.m. would be left at the mercy of an understudy because Piccaver would cancel as late as 7:45 p.m. out of sheer terror. The Management of the Vienna State Opera came to expect such behavior from their star tenor. Two tenors were standing by for every Piccaver performance. The poor covers (understudies) were kept in a state of constant fear and nervousness because of Piccaver's behavior. It was ironic and amusing---tenors being made more nervous by a tenor? It was said there were a lot of very nervous tenors in those days at the Vienna State Opera.
The audience would forgive Piccaver again and again for disappointing them. They would loyally attend any and every performance he was scheduled to sing. It became a kind of fan's delightful diversion to make the best of a bad situation. The fans, being the supporters of the opera and the singers they loved, would use the cancellations as an opportunity to become acquainted with yet another new tenor. Several young replacements got their first opportunity to sing in such an important venue as the Vienna State Opera because Piccaver cancelled at the last minute. One of the oldest maxims in the history of Italian opera is "...Se hai paura, resta casa! (If you have fear, stay home)". However, from the Management's point of view, the show must go on, even if it meant keeping a stable of young tenors ready to jump in at any time.
Unfortunately, I never heard Piccaver in person, but I certainly heard of the legendary voice and his uncontrollable behavior. The year I spent teaching in Vienna, 1970-1971, offered many opportunities to hear the wild stories of ambulances and paramedics rushing to the opera house to save the leading tenor! His records demonstrate a very beautiful and full tenor voice full of pathos and sympathetic expression. The reports by people who heard him live (when he didn't cancel at the last minute) were all rave reviews. The voice was large, mellow, and full of emotion with tremendous ringing high notes. Puccini was quoted (see Wikipedia under Alfred Piccaver) as saying that Piccaver was his ideal Rodolfo in La Boheme. That is an incredible compliment when one remembers Puccini heard Caruso sing the role.
Apparently, all of the fear and emotion that filled Piccaver's mind and heart ran through his voice and out to the public. His sound touched listeners in the depth of their souls and moved them to the point of tears. One of the older singers I met in Vienna compared Piccaver's ability to move the audience emotionally with the voice of another singer known for her highly emotional performances, Claudia Muzio (1889-1936). Giacomo Lauri-Volpi (1892-1979) described Muzio's voice in his book, Voci Parallele (Ricordi, Napoli 1955), as being full of sighs and tears. The old singer in Vienna referred to Piccaver as the male Claudia Muzio. "Picci", as the Viennese fans called him, left the Vienna State Opera in 1931. He was the reigning star there for twenty-one years.
Of course, a few years later, in 1936, another super tenor appeared in Vienna. Helge Roswaenge (1897-1972) had a completely different kind of tenor voice---huge, lusciously full of passion and color in the middle range with metallic, easy high notes full of ringing power and unstoppable running excitement. He immediately became the new love of the fickle Viennese opera fans. Roswaenge's voice was not velvety and sweetly lyric like Piccaver's, although he sang the entire lyric repertoire with astonishing success. It was a super-voice, ringing with the clashing sound of a golden sword, and as wide as a barn and capable of singing a full list of tenor roles with consummate technical skill. The Viennese had always called Piccaver the "Caruso from Prague" (because he had been engaged in Prague before he was invited to Vienna). Roswaenge's reputation became much broader and his recordings were sold on the international markets. Although his nationality was Danish, he became known all over Europe and the rest of the operatic world as "the German Caruso".
Perhaps the most important difference between the two great tenors was that Roswaenge had nerves as steely and strong as his voice. Like Richard Wagner's (1813-1883) young character, Siegfried in the opera Siegfried, he didn't know the meaning of fear. When I asked him to what he attributed his cool, seemingly unflappable attitude, he answered, Yoga. I do 1 ½ hours of Yoga every morning and 1 ½ hours of Yoga every night. I get as nervous as any other singer, but my breathing is so strong and my breath capacity is so great I never feel real fear. The nervousness turns into excitement instead of anxiety. My body always knows what to do, even if I don't!
The only other tenor who made people cry at every performance was Enrico Caruso (1873-1921). Gilda dalla Rizza (1892-1975), a famous lirico-spinto soprano and favorite of Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), wrote that performing with Caruso was nearly impossible because his singing would reduce even his famous colleagues to tears. Dalla Rizza discussed the subject with other singers and found the same reactions to Caruso's singing. They all felt, when performances with Caruso in the cast were scheduled, the need to arrive as early as possible before their engagements were to begin, in order to attend as many rehearsals and performances as possible featuring the great tenor. The idea was to get used to him. Otherwise, entrance cues that occurred immediately after a Caruso line would find his colleagues in a state of tears, unable to sing. Listening to the golden velvet was overwhelming and almost unbearable. There were many stories of people in the audience having heart attacks when he sang, especially in Pagliacci. Caruso's voice was always thrilling and ravishingly beautiful from the beginning of his days as a child singer in Naples. However, after his common-law wife, Ada Giacchetti (1874-1946), ran off with the chauffeur, Caruso's voice took on a new color. The terrible, deep suffering and humiliation he suffered became obvious in the sound of his voice and became unbearable for some sensitive listeners. The child's voice in the man was gone. His mind had moved to another place, away from the vulnerable state of mind and body, to a safer, defensive, protective state of mind. The full, manly voice production, no longer built on the mezza voce, with a new proportion of chest resonance, became the only way he could still function as a singer. A critic noticed the change and mentioned, in a newspaper article, Carusos inability to produce his famous mezza voce tones. Caruso became very upset by the review and threatened to leave the Met and New York forever because "...they dont like me anymore!" The Met offered him a blank check if he would stay and continue being the superstar he had been at the Met since his debut in 1903. After a weeks deliberation, Caruso decided to stay in New York. However, he would not accept a new financial arrangement. He decided any increase in his fee was out of the question. According to the Management's telling of the story, Caruso said he could not accept a raise. He was already giving the public every ounce of voice and talent he possessed. There was no more to give.
Copyright 2010/Michael Trimble