Vocal Heroes

Tenor: History of a Voice by John Potter

Books History Music

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.

It began a process of standardisation of the voice: young tenors would model themselves on the most popular singers. The wide variety of different voices and styles which the earliest recordings reveal at the turn of the last century began to shrink as the public and critical sense of what a tenor was began to narrow considerably. By the 1950s the Italian style dominated the market – a tenor was expected to be rich, full-sounding and dramatic. Mario Lanza pre-eminently hypnotised a generation of singers; with Caruso he is the formative influence on the Three Tenors. Other traditions – such as the light and lyrical French and the Wagnerian Heldentenor – began to decline.

Potter is very good at the physicality of singing: the difference between the chest and head voice, for example, and the transition between the two and the placing of the larynx. As I learnt myself when I took singing lessons a few years ago, the process by which a voice is constructed is akin to working out in a gym as one’s muscles, posture, breathing, internal spaces and vocal cords are strengthened and reconfigured.

There are also excellent chapters on national styles – French, Italian, German, English, Russian and American – and how they have grown out of very different vocal traditions and institutions. Our own has been shaped by the training of young voices in cathedral choirs and Oxbridge colleges, as well as by the lucky accident that one of the most important 20th-century opera composers, Benjamin Britten, was English.

Potter’s accounts of the lives and work of the great tenors are enlivened by entertaining anecdotes. I was particularly delighted to read of James Joyce’s infatuation with the voice of his compatriot, John O’Sullivan. In Paris, in 1929, to the singer’s great embarrassment, Joyce, an amateur tenor himself, began a campaign of letters to promoters and conductors to boost O’Sullivan’s career and complain of plots to end it. He even led an Irish claque at the Opera, shouting and wildly applauding his hero and booing and insulting his Italian rivals.

Reading the book makes one long to know more and, of course, if possible to hear the voices described: more than 70 pages are given over to a very useful directory of nearly 500 tenors of the last 400 years, listing relevant articles, books, websites, recordings and films, from Lorenzo Abrunedo (1836-1904) to Giovanni Battista Zingoni (1720-1811). This biographical list is available on the web at www.yalebooks.co.uk