The hero who gets the girl – or dies trying. That’s generally how we think of the tenor role. This is the highest male voice type in the modal range – that is, in a singer’s normal voice. The countertenor is higher, but this isn’t a ‘natural’ voice.
A bit like soprano, tenor is the cool kid in school – the one that everyone wants to be or least be close to. The one that everyone recognises. But don’t let that put you off. It’s just as complex and interesting as all the other voice types.
The tenor’s normal vocal range is from C3, the C one octave below middle C, or C4, to C5, the C one octave above C4. In scientific pitch notation, C4 is so called because it’s the fourth C key from the left on a standard 88-key piano keyboard.
At the highest extreme, some tenors can sing up to the second F above C4, or F5. At the other end of the scale, the lowest pitch is generally agreed to be the second B below middle C, or B2.
Tenor is from the Latin ‘tenere’, which means ‘to hold’. This is because in very early music – from about 1250 to 1500 – the tenor’s job was to ‘hold down’ the melody, providing the foundation for the music. At the time, the term didn’t really refer to the voice type, rather to its role. It was later, in the 18th century, that the term came to signify this male singing voice.
That foundational role persists today. Many lead singers in pop and rock groups are tenors – from Roy Orbison to Ronnie James Dio to Olly Alexander – while the lead parts in operas and musical theatre are also usually sung by this voice type.
The tenor voice is further broken down into seven subcategories. These subtypes aren’t an exact science – in fact assigning voice types in general is more an art than a science – and they are based on many subjective qualities of a singer’s voice, which can themselves change over time.
These qualities include the singer’s tessitura, that is the range of the voice where they sing most comfortably, and the timbre, or tonal quality of the voice, often described as the texture or colour of the voice – is the voice dark and rich, or bright and clear? Qualities such as vocal weight – is the voice light or heavy? – and dexterity – how fast the voice can move from note to note – also play their part.
The leggero tenor (lightweight in Italian), or tenore di grazia (graceful tenor), is light, agile and capable of executing difficult passages of flourishes and arpeggios. The leggero tenor has a wide vocal range, often extending from as low as G2 (the second G below middle C) up to the E above high C. It’s this higher range that defines a voice as a leggero tenor. The singer can perform this upper extension in his full chest voice, not as falsetto.
Many tenor roles in 19th century Italian opera were written for leggero tenors. These include Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love, 1832) and Ernesto in Don Pasquale (1843), both by Donizetti, and Don Ramiro in La Cenerentola (Cinderella, 1817) and Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville, 1816), both by Rossini.
The Italian Giovanni Battista Rubini was one of the most famous leggero tenors of the 19th century; Bellini wrote nearly all his operas for the singer. More recent examples are American Rockwell Blake and young Peruvian singer Juan Diego Flórez.
The lyric tenor is warm, graceful and bright. It lacks the virtuosity of the leggero, but still has a wide range, approximately from C3 to D5. This is a strong voice, but not heavy.
The leading male roles in some of the most famous operas are written for lyric tenor. These include Alfredo in La traviata (The Fallen Woman, 1853) and Il Duca in Rigoletto (1851), both by Verdi, Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) by Donizetti, and Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.
Many of the world’s most well-known tenors were lyric tenors. Examples include José Carreras, Enrico Caruso and Placido Domingo – known collectively as the Three Tenors.
Similar to the lyric tenor in range, is the spinto. However, this voice type has a heavier vocal weight and darker timbre. Its greater power allows it to be ‘pushed’ – ‘spinto’ means ‘pushed’ in Italian – to more dramatic climaxes with less strain than its lighter-voiced counterpart.
Well-known spinto roles include Don José in Bizet’s Carmen (1875), Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca, and the title role in Verdi’s Don Carlos. Luciano Pavarotti, Jonas Kaufmann, Giovanni Martinelli, Georges Thill and Jussi Björling are all spinto tenors.
Also known as tenore di forza (‘strong tenor’ in Italian) or robusto (‘robust’), the dramatic tenor has an emotive, ringing and very powerful, rich, heroic sound. This voice is bigger and darker than the spinto tenor – almost similar in quality to a baritone, but with the ability to sing higher pitches. The dramatic tenor’s range is approximately C3 to C5.
Dramatic tenor roles include Canio, the leader of a troupe of comic actors in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (Clowns, 1892), Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio (1805), and the title role in Peter Grimes (1945) by Britten. An early successful dramatic tenor was Italian singer Francesco Tamagno, born in 1850; fellow Italian Mario Del Monaco was born in 1915.
The heldentenor – or heroic tenor – has the richest, darkest and most powerful and dramatic tenor voice. This is a strong, thick and deep voice. It is found in the German romantic operatic repertoire, in which the roles require the singer to sustain a powerful sound over long periods.
Many of Wagner’s operas feature heldentenor roles, such as the eponymous hero in Siegfried (1876), Siegmund in Die Walküre (The Valkyrie, 1870), Walther von Stolzin in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Master-Singers of Nuremberg, (1868) and Tristan in Tristan und Isolde (1865). Canadian Ben Heppner and Brit Ian Storey are both heldentenors.
The Mozart tenor is a distinct tenor type who specialise in the composer’s operas. Mozart’s works place particular demands on his tenor roles, requiring perfect intonation, diction and phrasing. The Mozart tenor will have greater breath control than his counterparts, as well as a wide dynamic range and knowledge of specific stylistic considerations.
There are, unsurprisingly, many examples of the Mozart tenor in the composer’s operas. Tamino in Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute, 1791) is especially characteristic of the type. Other roles include Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni (1787), Ferrando in Così fan tutte (Women are Like That, 1790) and the title role in Lucio Silla (1772).
Anton Dermota, born in 1910 in the village of Kropa in what was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and is now Slovenia, was best known for his Mozart roles.
A tenor buffo or spieltenor is a high-range tenor who specialises in smaller, comedic roles. ‘Buffo’ is Italian for ‘funny’ and ‘speil’ is German for ‘act’, and this singer requires good acting skills and the ability to create distinct voices for his characters.
The tenor buffo tends to be found in humorous or more light-hearted operas containing spoken dialogue or recitatives. They tend to be secondary roles – the comic relief. The role of Slender in Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor (1849) is a good example.
Gilbert and Sullivan wrote so many parts for the buffo tenor that they could almost have their own subcategory. Frederic in The Pirates of Penzance (1879), Nanki-Poo in The Mikado (1885), Colonel Fairfax in The Yeomen of the Guard (1888) – the list goes on.
Americans William Burden and Gregory Turay, Slovakian Pavol Breslik and Australian Kanen Breen can all be described as spieltenors. Scot Durward Lely is particularly known for his Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire.
The list of tenors in rock and pop is extensive. It includes the late Freddy Mercury, Years and Years’ Olly Alexander, Paul MacCartney, Prince, Don Henley of the Eagles, Lenny Kravitz and far too many more to list here.
Luciano Pavarotti, seen here singing at the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille, was one of the world’s best-known spinto tenors (Stade_Pavarotti, via Wikimedia Commons.