Ahh, the tenor - one of life's misunderstood creatures. So gallant, yet so panicked. So virtuous, yet so dumb. So virile, yet so pudgy. The tenor is a mystery and a marvel. Women love them and men want to be them, and vice versa. The thrill of their soaring, superhuman high notes spices up every great opera, and the best tenors will steal the show by displays of talent as chromatic and elegant as a peacock's plumage.
Below is a list of the ten greatest tenors in recent memory*, rated from ten to one in order of awesomeness.
10.) Jonas Kaufmann (b. 1969) This guy's super hot. And not just opera hot; real-people hot. Maybe not rummage in the garbage, learn his secrets, and Fatal Attraction him hot, but casual stalker hot. Also, he sings pretty. Kaufmann's voice has unforced richness and power that put to rest the augurs of cynical opera aficionados; far from dead, opera is hotter than ever!
He attained stardom only a few years ago, and I was lucky enough to hear him paired with Natalie Dessay in Manon at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2008. They dominated that opera, interpreting it with an almost competitive athleticism. Here you can hear him in that very production sharing a more intimate moment:
The other nine videos are after the jump.
9.) Joseph Calleja (b. 1978) There's an old-world charm about Calleja's voice that is inescapable, a warmth that harkens back to the Golden Age of singers like Gigli and Schipa. Some people hate it, but I love it! It's warm and lyrical. Plus he kind of just looks like a sweet, nice boy, which is what most tenor roles call for and absolutely no tenor physically resembles. His performance of Alfredo in the 2007 Lyric Chicago Traviata convinced me he was more than a utilitarian tenor but rather a supremely gifted artist; he enlivens the roles of Alfredo, Duca, Nemorino, and the like, de rigeur at every house every year, with nuance and passion, breathing new life into a series of characters better known for their songs than their struggles. He is also the youngest man on the list, and I look forward to following his career. Here he is in Traviata:
8. Clifton Forbis (b. ?) If you're not familiar with Forbis, that's something you must remedy. Likely the greatest dramatic tenor of the past two decades, his Tristan and Siegmund are unbeatable. I was fortunate to hear him live in both roles, and his voice was so powerful he woke up the nonagenarians at the matinée. His voice is also dark, almost unbelievably so, such that on first hearing it you are taken aback. Recordings do not do justice to the superhuman strength he can summon, but this nonetheless showcases one of his best roles:
7.) Frank Lopardo (b. 1957) Another tremendous talent that everyone should know, Lopardo sings everything. I heard his Lensky in Chicago, and when I got home I found a YouTube clip of him singing Rossini. From then on I was hooked. Lopardo's voice is like the perfect man: rich, strong, and versatile. Listen to this performance of "Ah dov'e il cimento" from Rossini's Semiramide.
That's what I'm talkin' about!
6.) Franco Corelli (1921-2003) First things first: Corelli's a babe. He's also an awesome singer, with a voice that was both heroic and plaintive. Corelli was a neurotic but brilliant vocalist who was one of the only tenors ever to have honored the diminuendo Verdi wrote on the final Bb in "Celeste Aida." Corelli worked and worked until he could do it, and a single recording of his Radames testifies to his success. Dynamic (sometimes hysterical) onstage, possessed of a finely crafted and simultaneously raw and powerful voice, Corelli ranks high on the list for good reason. And did I mention that he's a babe?
5.) Nicolai Gedda (b. 1925) Mostly I love Gedda 'cause you know that his first voice teacher told him, "Now dear, you must always smile when you sing!", and that really stuck with him. You can hear the smile. It's adorable. He's also a gifted musician, a man who could interpret Barber and Puccini with equal grace and ease, and who could sing higher than just about anybody else. If Pavarotti was King of the High C's, Gedda is King of the High D's (although I think that title officially goes to Helge Roswaenge, whose beautiful voice sadly can't redeem a reputation for being one of the most popular tenors in Germany during the Third Reich). Here is Gedda tossing off the song of the Postillon with its infamous final D:
As an aside, I've also heard that Gedda benefited from a slightly oversize head. Apparently, critics say it worked to his advantage because he was sort of "to scale" with the Mario World-like surroundings of the dramatic sets and easy to see from any seat in the house.
4.) Jon Vickers (b. 1926) Okay, so the Vick has some weird and occasionally annoying idiosyncrasies, like the way he heaves his voice or sloshes it from phrase to phrase at entrances, or during sustained notes, or at cutoffs...and all the notes in between. Still, Vickers was a superb actor, and he used the power of his voice to incredible dramatic effect. This array of gifts manifests most fully in his interpretation of the sociopathic sailor Peter Grimes, Benjamin Britten's masterpiece of musical degeneration.
Remembered chiefly as a Wagnerian, Vickers employed his ample instrument in other roles as well, among them the daunting Verdi Otello, a role I personally believe to be his best, and one I have never heard another tenor perform better (with the possible exception of Ramon Vinay):
3.) Fritz Wunderlich (1930-1966) Fritzy died at 35 in an accident, but he left a rich legacy of recordings in opera and art song that demonstrate one of the finest voices in recorded history. His voice had a distinct, heroic quality that made his Mozart magical and ennobled his Italian opera roles. He could also glide through melismas with ease and reach the highest notes while retaining the muscular core of his voice. No one combined versatility, elegance, and passion like Wunderlich. "Dies bildinis ist bezaubernd schön" is his trademark song, but to hear him charging through fioratura and popping off high notes, listen to his rendition of the thankless yet exciting "Deposuit potentes" from the J.S. Bach Magnificat:
2.) Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007) Pavarotti, or "The Pavs" as his friends called him,** was one lucky bastard. There's just no denying the sheer, natural beauty of his voice. It was simply gorgeous. The Pavs may not be remembered for being especially intellectual, but he was a very savvy singer; he knew his voice, and he used it well. Though his late career was tainted by poor artistic choices (Exhibit A: this train wreck from one of his "Pavarotti and Friends" concerts), there's no denying the loveliness of his singing even toward the end of his life. Although it was recorded in advance, Pavarotti's performance of "Nessun dorma" - a song he has owned for decades - at the Turin Olympics conveyed the untarnished beauty of the voice in a deeply moving, if slightly artificial, performance.
Desperate to sing with a tenor that didn't accentuate her Amazonian proportions onstage, Joan Sutherland is credited with discovering The Pavs. She doubtless taught him a good deal about technique that enhanced his singing, as we all know that nobody breathes like Joan. (Mercifully, she didn't impose her Thatcher-esque coiffures on him, too.) In his early years, The Pavs began to thrilling audiences in the mid '60's by singing Tonio in La Fille du Regiment with its famed nine-high-C's-aria, "Ah mes amis." He quickly transitioned into the verismo and Verdi roles that occupied the bulk (ahem) of his opera career.
His voice was special, uniquely beautiful, but perhaps as memorable was his onstage persona - larger than life in every respect, with tablecloth-sized pocket squares and over-the-top Italian diction, he presented a kind of country bumpkin whose talent alone had dropped him amidst the grandeur of an opera set. At the same time, he had the power to move, to thrill, and to impress us with vocal feats.
From Pavarotti's early days:
1.) Alfredo Kraus (1927-1999) The first word everyone associates with Kraus is "elegant." The second is "longevity." Both words suggest an interpreter of both grace and intelligence. Sadly, many opera singers possess one or the other, and only the rarest of them are blessed with both. Kraus was such a man! His selectivity for repertoire and religious adherence to vocal technique served him - and his audiences - in good stead for decades; recordings exist of Kraus hauling out high C's at age 70, and they still sound good. His physical performances were delightful, if a little old-fashioned (among my favorites is a performance - I think a Lucia he sang with Sutherland - in which he pauses after an aria to bask in tumultuous applause, lifting his hands palms outward in a gesture that clearly says, "You're welcome. Yes, I know. No, really, it was my pleasure."), but his diva demeanor was eminently watchable.
Kraus was not blessed with the innate vocal beauty of a Pavarotti or the power of a del Monaco, but he more than compensated for his deficiencies by performing with scrupulous elegance and extraordinary control. And he did make use of the advantage of easy access to high notes, which he deployed liberally in every performance: and really, who wants one loud high C when you can just have, like, twenty gorgeous ones? It's a shame that other singers who are remembered as Kings of the High C's could not deliver them as consistently throughout their career as Kraus did.
He is best known for his interpretation of Werther and other light French Grand Opera roles, this in part because his superb technique enabled his modest voice to penetrate any orchestra and fill any hall, and also because of his refined interpretations, which were elegant but not precious, passionate but not histrionic. Here a young Kraus delivers, a mon avis, the single best performance of the daunting aria "Je crois entendre encore" from Les Pecheurs des Perles:
And here he delivers a bel canto masterclass singing the ambivalent (now languid, now exuberant) opening aria from Il Barbiere, "Ecco ridente in cielo."
There are countless other great tenors - Domingo, Aragall, Schreier, del Monaco, Alagna, di Stefano, Cioni, Filianoti, Araiza, Florez - and I love them all. But these ten men, as different as they and their voices are, exhibit the essential characteristic of musical genius: self-knowledge. They knew their voices and used them to optimal effect in opera. For that, and for each of their unique qualities, these are my top ten tenors! Who are yours?
*For the sake of making this task more manageable, I have drawn a line at tenors born after 1920 to focus on those with careers beginning no earlier than the middle of the last century. In this way, I hope to make the adjudication process easier: mid-century recording quality may not equal today's, but it allows us to make reasonably good judgments about voices. Sadly, this arbitrary rule prevents me from including even those tenors who do render beautifully onto recording, like Caruso, Björling, and Gigli, each of whom is easily a contender for Greatest Tenor of All Time! Please find, listen to, and enjoy clips of those masters.
**This is a lie. I am the only person who calls him that.