The History of the Tenor

June 12, 2010

The above is the title of a web site devoted to tenors and their recorded legacy. It contains material compiled by the late operaphile Sydney Rhys Barker (1928 – 2005). The site, still under construction, was assembled by Mr Barker’s son Sidney. The material on the site spans most of the 20th century – 1900 to 1990.  This is the description of its purpose given by the younger Barker:

My father, Sydney Rhys Barker was an opera lover from the age of 8. Opera was his great love and he collected records his entire life.

In the late 1980’s someone asked him to put together a cassette tape of highlights from some of his favorite singers.

My father spent the next 2 years recording what was to become “The History of the Tenor”.

He produced twenty-eight 90 minute tapes for a total of 42 hours of narration with clips from his substantial record collection and had access to several others through friends and opera lovers he had known since he was a boy.

These tapes were handed over to me by my mother after my fathers death in 2005 and it seems to me that these treasures should be available to those who shared in this great hobby of his.

It is my hope to try to make all of these sound clips available to anyone who wishes to hear them, it is information he collected over 45 years – of which I have little idea.

But I thank all and everyone who may have contributed in advance on his behalf.

These are the sole opinions of my father and I can only assume that they are as comprehensive a collection as can be made.

Opera was not something I inherited from him, but I do know if he did something – he did it with great enthusiasm, integrity and passion.

Anyone interested in opera in general and tenors in particular will gain great pleasure browsing through the vocal  archives assembled by both Barkers. While there are some errors here and there (eg, Chaliapin is listed as a tenor, La Juive is translated as The Jew rather than The Jewess, Di Stefano’s recording of Federico’s Lament from L’Arlesiana is the 1944 version with piano rather than the 1947 recording with orchestra), there’s nothing serious enough to distract you from the site’s cornucopia of audio.

Highly recommended. Worth perusing.

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The Tenor of the Century – Almost

June 1, 2010

This article was written in 1997 more than a decade before the tenor’s death (Kurtzman NA: The Tenor of the Century – Almost. Lubbock Magazine (October):52-53, 1997). I’ve added a few sound files that I obviously couldn’t have put in the original version.

Of all the words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: it might have been.

In his memoirs, 5000 Nights at the Opera, Rudolph Bing wrote that the most beautiful sound he heard during his observation season at the Metropolitan Opera, prior to becoming its general manager in 1950, was the diminuendo with which Giuseppe Di Stefano took on the high C near the end of the tenor’s cavatina in Gounod’s Faust. (His statement is almost always misquoted to include every sound he heard in whole his life.) On December 9, 1955, I heard the tenor duplicate the feat at the same venue. I was as impressed as Bing had been. Unfortunately, this season proved to be the last good one left to the 34-year-old singer whose tenure at the operatic summit was as spectacular as it was brief.

Born in Sicily in 1921, his family moved to Milan when he was six. When he was a teenager, he discovered that he had an operatic voice and began vocal lessons. World War II inter­rupted his training; he was drafted. As everyone knows, the Italian Army thinks much more of singing than fighting, so Di Stefano was kept away from the front and allowed to sing. Things got much more parlous after the collapse of Mussolini’s regime when the Germans occupied the northern half of the peninsula. Di Stefano fled to Switzerland where he was interned. His con­finement was generous, however. He gave some public perfor­mances and made his first recordings, which demonstrated a beautiful voice not yet fully under control, but which showed extraordinary promise.

At the conclusion of the war, he returned to Italy where he resumed vocal studies. But not for long; he was a natural and there was no holding him back. He made his operatic debut in 1946, the following year he was at La Scala, and the year after that, he appeared at the Met for the first time. From 1948 to 1952, he appeared at the Met in more than 100 performances. After 1952, the recovery of the post-war Italian economy raised the tenor’s fees in that country’s state-subsidized opera houses to more than the Met could pay. Di Stefano accepted engagements in his home country that conflicted with his obligations to the New York house. Bing, whose managerial style was akin to that of Attila the Hun, fired him. Di Stefano brought legal action and eventually forced the Met to take him back for the season of 1955-56, which was when I heard him onstage. He was not reengaged until 1963-64 when his voice was gone and then, only for a single performance. Bing had brought him back just to embarrass him.

After his operatic career petered out in the early ‘60s, Di Stefano appeared in operettas and then, in recitals almost up until the present day, seemingly oblivious of his vocal decay. He partnered Maria Callas on a disastrous concert tour in 1972-73. He still lives in Milan with a young wife and old memories.

During the decade of 1946 to 1956, Di Stefano performed onstage and on recordings with a beauty of tone and an intensity unique in this century. His lifestyle was as intense as his performing – it made the behavior of the wildest player on the Dallas Cowboys seem more sedate than that of a house-bound Baptist preacher. Like Oscar Wilde, he could resist anything except temptation.

In a recent interview, he blamed the rapid deteriora­tion of his voice on an allergy to rugs he installed in his Milan apartment in the mid ‘50s. This is denial on an operatic scale. His voice was ruined by its owner, who forced it far beyond its natural limits and who stubbornly used a vocal method which tore the voice to pieces. He had a dramatic temperament, but a lyric instrument. He insisted on singing parts that were too heavy for him. His technique, which in some respects was ex­traordinarily good, spread his tone and negotiated the transition of vocal placement that occurs in the tenor range around F above middle C in the worst possible way.

But while the voice lasted, it was unlike anything heard this century. Its sound was beautiful beyond compare and Di Stefano could manipulate it with nuanced expression of seem­ingly endless subtlety. His diction in both Italian and French was perfect. Every syllable he sang was suffused with meaning. He shaded the music so that the listener seemed to sense the meaning of what he sang without understanding a single word of Italian or French. He could also make a seamless transition from the very loudest to the softest sound without losing support of the tone, and he could do it over his entire vocal range. The diminuendo on the Faust high C (salut demeure) is an outstanding example of this ability. This effect has never been duplicated. Though he often forced his singing, he didn’t have to. His voice carried with ease through the cavernous space that was the old Met.

Music is about emotion. Opera is about the most basic of emotions. Di Stefano was the most passionate singer who ever made records. Love, hate, jealousy, despair, longing – all were communicated in his singing with the most telling urgency. When he sang something well, every other tenor’s version sounded tepid.  Consider the end of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. The tenor has spent much of the opera trying to find out the name of his wife’s lover. In the opera’s famous play-within-a-play, he portrays a jealous husband caught up in the same pre­dicament as in real life. In a jealous frenzy, the tenor stabs his wife who is playing his unfaithful wife onstage. In her dying gasp, she calls out her lover’s name, who in turn rushes up from the audience to help her.

“Ah, sei tu (Ah, it’s you),” he cries, whereupon he kills the lover with the same knife he used on his wife, leading to the last line of the opera – La commedia e finite. (Pagiacci finale) Di Stefano, who never should have sung the role of Canio in this opera because it’s too heavy, deliv­ers the line with blood­curdling ferocity and satisfaction. Listen to any other tenor say the words and you’ll think he’s calling out bingo numbers. Similarly, Di Stefano’s rendition of the work’s most famous number, Vesti Ia giubba, is miles ahead of anyone else’s, in­cluding that of Caruso. His breath control is Olympian, allowing him to convey all the pathos in a piece that is often made into a caricature. This performance, with Maria Callas as the female lead, is still in the catalog as part of EMI’s complete re­cording of the opera.

Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca was one of the tenor’s finest roles. I heard him sing it at the Met on January 13, 1956 – Friday the 13th, which turned out to be one of the luckiest days in the house’s history. Tito Gobbi made his Met debut that thy as Scarpia; he had no equal in the role. Tosca was the incomparable Zinka Milanov. Even the bit parts were extravagantly cast that night. For ex­ample, the Sacristan was sung by the world’s greatest basso buffo, Fernando Corena. But it is Di Stefano’s perfor­mance that remains most vivid in my memory across the abyss of more than four decades. E lucevan le stelle, the tenor’s familiar third act aria, was sung just the way Di Stefano sings it on the famous complete recording – again with Gobbi and with Maria Callas in the title role. This recording is also still in print, so you can hear the miracle he makes of the phrase Le belle forme disciogliea dai  veli (Oh, vanished forever is that dream of love).

In November of 1956, Di Stefano recorded 22 mostly Neapolitan songs. These were among the last recordings he made that are worth listening to. The popular songs of Naples are the world’s longest-running pop tunes. They deal mainly with the Neapolitan man’s three chief preoc­cupations: the sun, women, and his re­gion. The most famous of these little gems, O sole mio, is a paean to the south­ern Italian sun. Luciano Pavarotti has recently taken to performing it in a rather clownish version. Di Stefano’s rendition is a passionate love affair. After hearing it, you’ll pick up the phone and call Alitalia. Marechiare describes the beau­tiful bay for which the song is named. This bay is said to be so intoxicating that when the moon shines on it even the fish make love. Core ‘Ngrato, the most pas­sionate of these songs in which passion is as plentiful as gasoline at an arsonists con­vention, relates how the singer’s former lover has left his heart a piece of ground meat. You do not have to understand a word of the Neapolitan dialect to feel the despair that Di Stefäno communicates. If you would really understand the meaning of suspension of disbelief, listen to these songs sung by a performing genius.

Unfortunately, the complete collec­tion of 22 songs is not available on CD. Twelve of them, however, can be found on a disc entitled Giuseppe Di Stefano, Voce ‘e notte on Replay Music RMCD 4032. The label is obviously not a house­hold name, so you’ll have to hunt to find the disc. But try – it’s worth it. Also, stay away from the Neapolitan songs the tenor recorded a few years later.

Recently, both Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti were interviewed during the intermission of the broadcast of the opening night performance at the Met. They were asked which tenors had influenced them. They both named the same two—Enrico Caruso and Giuseppe Di Stefano. The recently published biogra­phy of Jussi Björling written by his wife describes how taken that great tenor was by Di Stefano’s singing, how Björling said that if Di Stefano kept going the way he had started, he would leave everyone behind. Bing said that Di Stefano’s career should have been one that people talked about in the same breath as Caruso’s. Alas, it wasn’t to be, but what was, was sensational enough.

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Aureliano Pertile

December 12, 2009

Aureliano Pertile was born in 1885 in Montagnana near Padua. Interestingly, Giovanni Martinelli was born in the same town in the same year. Pertile’s career was mainly based at La Scala where he had the reputation as Toscanini’s favorite tenor, though the great maestro did not ask him to sing at the prima of Turandot. I’m not sure why; his voice was perfect for Calaf.

Martinelli was, of course a fixture at the Met. Pertile sang only one season in New York which during the 20s was blessed with an overabundance of great tenors. All things considered, I think Milan got the better of the deal.

His New York career was limited to 15 appearances at the Met between Dec 1, 1921 and  January 26, 1922. His debut coincided with Maria Jeritza’s first Met appearance as Tosca. He got lost in the stir caused by her memorable performance. The New York critics were lukewarm about Pertile. Several thought his high notes were white. Reading his reviews make me wonder if the New Yorkers were hearing the same singer who was so highly thought of in Milan. Regardless, he never returned.

Pertile’s voice was large and to some not appealing. It was very big and had a dark baritone-like timbre.  What made him a great singer was his musicality. This was a tenor who sang Donizetti and Bellini and the spinto Verdi parts as well as the dramatic Otello. Regardless of what he sang, at his zenith, he phrased beautifully and spun out a smooth and lyrical vocal line.

Listen to Pertile’s 1925 recording of the Improvviso from Giordano’s Andrea Chenier. This is an aria that spinto tenors typically belt out. If they are Richard Tucker or Mario Del Monaco the effect is irresistible. But with Pertile we get all the fire and power of his great successors combined with sensitivity and emotion. This is a great reading of this showstopper.

Pertile was at his best in the big Verdi parts. He had sufficient subtlety to temper the very large sound he had easily under control. Don Alvaro in La Forza Del Destino could have been written for him. O tu che in seno agli angeli was recorded without the great recitative that precedes it. Pertile’s reading is at the top of the short list of great interpretations of Verdi’s inspired aria. An equally great Verdi aria is Quando le sere al placido. Boito was driven almost to the limits of ecstasy by it.

Pertile was equally comfortable with Puccini. His rendition of Donna non vidi mai from Manon Lescaut is notable for the ease he has with the tune’s high tessitura. He had the perfect vocal apparatus for Dick Johnson from La Fanciulla del West, but he never recorded either of the score’s two tenor arias.

Pertile as Lohengrin

Italian tenors who wander into Wagner usually light on Lohengrin. Pertile was no exception. He recorded In fernem Land in Italian (Da Voi Lonton). It sounds better in Italian than in German as it does when it’s sung by an Italian tenor who has a firm middle range and who can manage the legato phrasing it demands.

The last example of Pertile’s singing I’ll add is the concluding duet from Andrea Chenier – Vicino a te. The rich voiced soprano is Margaret Sheridan. The Irish singer was a star at Covent Garden and La Scala at about the same time Pertile was at his peak.

After his retirement from the opera house, Pertile gave concert performances for a few years. After he completely ceased singing he taught until his death in 1952. His memory endures both through the numerous recordings he left and because of his association with Toscanini. His voice and style gives us a deep insight into what the 20th century’s most important opera conductor  thought the ideal tenor was.

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Recording of the Week: Joseph Schmidt – Live Recordings

June 7, 2009

Schmidt Album Cover
The album contains previously unreleased live recordings by one of the 20th century’s greatest tenors. Joseph Schmidt’s career was spent almost entirely in front of a microphone. His small stature, 5 feet +/-  an  inch, kept him off the opera stage. He did give recitals. His American debut was on March 7, 1937 at Carnegie Hall. General Motors (just mentioning the company’s name today summons a surge of conflicting emotions) broadcast the recital and fortunately for us recorded it. The first number he sang in the US was “Una Furtiva Lagrima“. Schmidt interpolates an 11 second trill and a high note at the end. The singing that precedes the dazzling display at the end is a model of bel canto perfection.

I’ve written about Schmidt before. For sheer beauty of sound among tenors only Gigli, Björling, and Di Stefano, are comparable. As for technique, elegance of line, and high notes he stands alone. He had the most complete vocal technique I ever heard; all was at his command. I suspect his voice was not large, but he sang everything during his years on Berlin Radio before the Nazis expelled him from Germany.

Listen to his “Di quella pira’ (sung in German – Lodern zum Himmel). It’s sung rather than belted. He sings the first part before the chorus twice and adds an extra high C. The recording was made in 1930 when the tenor was not yet 26.

Finally, from the too often ridiculous to the sublime here is Schubert’s song Du Bist Die Ruh’ . The performance speaks for itself. Schmidt’s voice was not Italianate. It belonged to central Europe. It’s “brown velvet” sound represents the ultimate of its type. The sound quality on some of the tracks is poor, but we’re lucky to have them so no reason to complain.

The sad facts of Schmidt’s life (1904-1942), especially its premature end are too painful for me to relate again. All that need be said is that he was a supremely gifted artist.

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The Recordings of Enrico Caruso 1919 – 1920 The End

May 4, 2009

caruso-canioThis is the eighth and final installment of my cursory tour through the recorded legacy of Enrico Caruso. The last two years of Caruso’s recording life contained relatively few operatic numbers. As mentioned, there wasn’t much left for him to put to disc. In February of 1919 he got together with Giuseppe De Luca and recorded a spirited version of Venti scudi from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore. Even at this late stage of his career he could muster the lightness of tone needed for Nemorino. The same easy vocal production is evident in his recording of Tosti’s A vucchella.

Ernesto De Curtis’s Neapolitan staple Tu, ca nun chiagne was also recorded in 1919. Caruso, singing in his native dialect, brings passion and ringing high notes to this song about separation. His cry of “Voglio e te!” (“I want you!”) is very moving. The insertion of a high note on the repetition of the phrase is particularly effective, especially when the note has enough ping to shatter glass. Every Italian tenor sings this number, but only Di Stefano in his prime is in the same class with Caruso.

He again turned to the Brazilian Antonio Carlos Gomes. Mia piccirella is from his 1874 opera Salvator Rosa (the 17th century Neapolitan painter). Set to a libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni, the first act takes place in Salvator Rosa’s studio in Naples in 1647. The aria is a song that the young Gennariello who has attached himself to the painter has composed as a seduction aid. Gershwin had a similar song which for obvious reasons he never published. Originally written for a soprano Caruso sings a transposed version. There’s no gender problem since the soprano was playing a young man.

In January 1920 Caruso recorded a rather grave version of Handel’s “Ombra mai fù“. The only aria in opera that I know of which is sung to a tree. If anyone knows another I’d love to hear about it. If you listen very carefully you can hear a brief trill.

Caruso as Eléazar

Caruso as Eléazar

Caruso last appeared at the Met in Halévy’s La Juive. The opera had been brought back to the Met in a new production in November of 1919. Caruso appeared in it 13 times. The unlucky 13th performance was on Christmas Eve 1920. Immediately following that performance he became seriously ill. He died the following August. At his penultimate recording session in September 1920 he recorded Eléazar’s great aria Rachel, quand du Seigneur. The voice is dark and rich. The interpretation is noble, but there is the barest hint of strain in his high notes. After 25 years of singing and more of two pack a day cigarette smoking it’s not surprising. Someone once described him as the world’s most spectacular case of emphysema.

Caruso made the ultimate good career move. He died while he was still at the top. He had done everything that it was possible for him to do.  There was no period of sad decline or annoying hanging on. Imperfect as acoustic recordings were, the resplendence of his voice still connects with listeners both casual and serious. No tenor after him had the brilliance and richness of tone that was his. None the complete control over range and dynamics that he had. There have been many great tenors after him, but none at his height.


Caruso’s recordings have been issued many times by many companies. Any serious opera lover will want a complete collection of them. The best one I know of is the 12 disc set released by Naxos. The recordings have all been remastered by the brilliant sound engineer Ward Marston. This is the set I advise you to buy. The only problem is that it is hard to find. Marston has gotten as close to the original sound as I think possible. His rendering of the recordings is vastly superior to any other I’ve heard.

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Update on David Morgan

May 3, 2009
David Kent Morgen

David Kent Morgen

Young tenor David Morgan, now 18 years old and about to graduate from high school, won the vocal competition at The Schubert Club Bruce P. Carlson Student Scholarship Competition in his home state of Minnesota. Below is an interview made after his win. It includes him singing “Dies Bildnis ist bezaurbernd schön” from The Magic Flute and “O del mio amato ben”, an earlier version of which is on the previous post about this developing singer. According to the interview he’s heading for the Eastman School of Music next fall.

David Morgan interview

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New Voices

May 1, 2009

A new tenor who is beginning to make an impact is the young Mexican Arturo Chacón-Cruz. What is there about Mexico and tenors? They seem to be popping up south of the border like viruses. Last night Chacón-Cruz appeared as Pinkerton in Florida Grand Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly. My source there says his voice is a light tenor with a brilliant top. That his sound is reminiscent of Carlo Bergonzi. Below are a couple of You Tube clips

A visit to the tenor’s web site will add more samples of his voice.

Another singer to watch is the Chinese soprano Shu-Ying Li. She scored a stunning triumph in the Miami Butterfly. My Miami correspondent says she was the best Butterfly he’s ever seen; his experience goes back more than four decades.

Below is the love duet from that opera taken from the performance at the New York City Opera last year. The tenor is James Valenti.

Tomorrow may be a better day.

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