What Is A Tenor in Opera?

The tenor is the highest male voice in opera. Please don’t let anyone persuade you otherwise. Yes, there are castrati, countertenors and who knows what all else. For all purposes however, the tenor is the Official highest male voice in opera.

Tenors always get to sing the most satisfying parts. They are the heavyweights of opera. The composers responsible for building the three significant opera periods figured that tenors should perform all heroic and romantic roles. The tenor is the quintessential hero, the ultimate lover, the emotional darling and opera companies’ moneymaker.

While the kinds of roles for other opera voices were built during the Baroque period, the tenor came into his own (so to speak) only with the arrival of “Grand Opera” – in the Nineteenth Century. Before that, limited, insignificant roles were given to tenors in which the vocal power did not figure among the necessary requirements.

Comparision – Tenor in different nations:

Among other skills, Italian school tenors feature the ability to sing the “high C” – the highest note (to all purposes) in the tenor range. It is a million-dollar note. It is challenging to sing it naturally and powerfully without slipping into falsetto tones. German opera composers did not use this note in their operas, and German school tenors do not put it on their resume. Of the Italians, Giuseppe Verdi hated the “high C” intensely, and his operas do not stress on it. On the other hand, Giacomo Puccini seemed to have no issues with it, employing it in his opera scores where he saw fit. Gaetano Donizetti occasionally abused it (there is a tenor aria in one of his operas that features eight (!) high C’s).

Italian school tenors tend to employ (and overuse) the bel canto technique. The term had a particular meaning – a long time ago. Today, when you hear a tenor “sob” while singing, you know it’s “belcanto.” It always gets the ladies in the audience. German school tenors are far more austere. Because the text is critical in Richard Wagner’s operas, the German school features clean, faultless word delivery, phonetic clarity of the highest degree.

Tenors from all over the world follow either Italian or German schools. Some Italian-school tenors take on German roles towards the end of their careers when their voices begin to show signs of “shadowing” – when they have nothing to lose. There are however, exceptions. 

Different categories of Tenor

There are seven generally recognized subcategories within the tenor voice type category: spinto tenor, lyric tenor, leggero tenor, dramatic tenor, Mozart tenor, heldentenor, spieltenor, tenor buffo. There is a significant overlap between the various categories of the role and of voice-type; some tenor singers have worked with lyric voices but have molded with time into dramatic or even spinto tenors.

  1. Leggero: Also called the tenore di Grazia, the leggero tenor is really the male equivalent of a lyric coloratura. This voice is agile, light, and competent in performing difficult fioritura passages.
  2. Lyric: The lyric tenor is a tender, elegant voice with a bright, full timbre that is rich but not demanding and can be heard over an orchestra. 
  3. Spinto: The spinto tenor has a lyric tenor’s shine and height, but with a more complex vocal weight, it lets the voice be “pushed” to dramatic climaxes with less exertion than the lighter-voice counterparts.
  4. Dramatic: Also, “tenore di forza” or “robusto”, the dramatic tenor has a vibrant, ringing and very sturdy, clarion, heroic tenor sound. 
  5. Heldentenor: The heldentenor (English: heroic tenor) has a dark, dramatic, rich, and powerful voice. As its name reflects, the heldentenor vocal fach stars in the German romantic operatic repertoire. The heldentenor is the German equivalent of the tenore drammatico.
  6. Mozart: A Mozart tenor is yet another definite tenor type. In Mozart singing, the most crucial element is the instrumental strategy of the vocal sound, which implies: slender and flawless emission of sound, perfect intonation, diction, legato and phrasing, the ability to cope with the changing requirements of the score, elegance of timbre, secure line of singing through excellent support and perfect breath control, musical intelligence, body discipline, agility, nobility, grace and most importantly, ability for tense expressiveness within the narrow borders inflicted by the strict Mozartian style.
  7. Spieltenor or Tenor buffo: Spieltenor or Tenor buffo is a tenor with right acting talent and creates separate voices for his characters. 

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