September 9, 1994

Two Tenors

A singer able to sing so much as sixteen measures of good music in a natural, well-poised and sympathetic voice, without effort, without affectation, without tricks, without exaggeration, without hiatuses, without hiccuping, without barking, without baa-ing -such a singer is a rare, a very rare, an excessively rare bird.

Hector Berlioz, 1862

In every field of endeavor there are always a few people who are a cut above the rest. This is especially true in opera singing where, in order to be successful, a person has to have a natural vocal instrument as well as musicality. No one knows what makes for a beautiful sounding voice or musicality, but some have it and some don't. Of all who are blessed with a beautiful voice, only a few are willing to do the immense amount of work that is necessary to develop it to professional status. An opera star does little else but music; he starts his day singing, sings for a good part of the day and studies roles and songs for the rest of the day. When he doesn't sing a lot, the same thing happens to his voice that happens to a baseball pitcher's arm when he doesn't use it. When he isn't singing, he is listening to opera. Many sing and speak several languages.

Barbara Streisand has to be concerned with the interpretation and phrasing of a song. In her younger days, when she was on stage, she had to be able to really belt out a song, but now the microphone and the sound engineer take care of the volume. Even in these days of amplification, an opera singer is still expected to be able to project to the back of an immense opera house without electronic assistance. I once went to hear a tenor whose recordings I liked, only to find that I could barely hear him over the orchestra. I heard him later, singing in a small hall, and his voice sounded as immense as it did on records.

About 15 years ago, Lu and I were in Verona, Italy on a day when they were performing the double-bill of Pagliacci and Cavelleria Rusticana. We bought tickets from a scalper and found ourselves in the top row of an outdoor Roman arena. It was so far from the stage that the players looked like small puppets. Management provided neither binoculars nor oxygen masks. The tenor was doing something that would be unheard of in the U.S.; he was singing the lead in both operas. His name was Placido Domingo and his voice soared above all of the rest. It was as powerful as the orchestra.

Domingo is an accomplished musician, who has even tried his hand at conducting. He seems to have boundless confidence, and once learned a new opera in two weeks. He started his singing career as a baritone and his voice is mellow and resonant. He was told that he was a tenor when he auditioned for acceptance to a music school. He sings most things full voice; that is he rarely sings with those soft sweet tones that characterize Irish tenors. His high notes are powerful and seem to be just a continuation of his middle register. If you are a musician with perfect pitch, you can tell when he is singing a high A or a high C. If not, you can't tell, because the tonal quality of both are almost the same. Domingo is sublimely confident that he can sing anything well and powerfully, even at 53; an age when most singers are thinking of packing it in. There are exceptions: the tenor Carlo Bergonzi just gave his farewell concert at 70. I know of one tenor who started taking singing seriously at 67, but that is extremely rare.

Many years ago, I tuned in an opera on the radio. The opera was La Favorita and when I heard the tenor aria Spirto Gentil I thought that the singer must be having a hot night. It was perfection, and the high C near the end of the aria literally soared. I later found out that he wasn't just having a good night, but that he usually sung it that well. That was my introduction to Luciano Pavarotti. I now have all of his recordings. If you want to hear him at his most glorious, there is a CD called Luciano Pavarotti; King of the High Cs.

Other than in dedication to their art, Pavarotti and Domingo are as different as it is possible to be. While Domingo is confidence personified, Pavarotti, who doesn't read music, is often frightened when singing opera, and sometimes he is so terrified that his voice might crack on certain high notes. Interviews and Italian folk songs don't frighten him. Yet, it is almost as if that fear gives his voice a special color that makes it marvelous. I have never heard Pavarotti in person, but I have been told that his voice will carry well, even in the largest opera houses.

While Domingo and Pavarotti can probably both sing the same roles, Domingo prefers the heavy dramatic roles, so he is considered a dramatic tenor, while Pavarotti prefers the so-called lyric roles, which are just as difficult, but require less stamina, so he is considered a lyric tenor. I suspect that the only thing that kept Pavarotti from the heavier dramatic roles was fear. He also has a tendency to put on weight (which now is under control). While a bit of a belly is an asset to a singer, enabling him to push his viscera deeper into his chest cavity and expel more air, too much fat can be suffocating.

So the world is blessed with two great tenors. They are alike only in their dedication and in the exquisite beauty of their singing. We know about Enrico Caruso's wonderful voice because he sang into a horn and a needle scratched grooves into a wax cylinder or disc. Domingo and Pavarotti's singing is well preserved, thanks to marvelous electronic techniques. They will be ours to listen to forever.

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