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The most important event in the history of the tenor voice took place in April 1902. In a Milan hotel room, William Barry Owen and Fred Gaisberg, from the London office of the Gramophone Company, recorded the 29-year-old Enrico Caruso, using a piano perched on a pile of packing cases and a horn suspended five feet from the floor. A few days before, the two talent scouts had seen Caruso make a triumphant appearance at La Scala in the première of Franchetti's opera, Germania. Now in the course of an afternoon the tenor recorded ten songs and received £100. Within three months the company's investment had brought them revenues of £15,000. By the time of his premature death in 1921, Caruso's recording revenues were $2,500,000 a year-the equivalent of £20 million today.

Caruso combined the sweet, lyric bel canto vocalism of the 19th century with the ardent delivery and big, exciting tenor sound demanded by the contemporary composers of verismo opera (when Puccini first heard him he asked rhetorically if he had been sent by God). But with 78rpm records, his impact was enormously magnified. The influence he exerted on the tenor style remains powerful today. The Three Tenors, Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and José Carreras, are very much his heirs. There had always been tenors as international celebrities since the romantic era (when they supplanted the cult of the castrati of the 18th century), but modern mass media - records and then film - turned many into superstars.

The arrival of recording transforms John Potter's excellent narrative history of the tenor voice, too. Until then, Potter (himself a tenor, formerly with the early music specialists, The Hilliard Ensemble, as well as a writer and academic) has been obliged to reconstruct what the voice might have sounded like from singing manuals and maddeningly subjective reviews and partial accounts. We travel from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance on to the Baroque and to the Romantic era with only a muffled sense of what we might have heard from the great voices of their times. But with recordings Potter is able to produce crisp accounts of every great tenor's individuality - though ironically individuality was the one thing that recording began to smooth out.

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