Tenor – The lover…

Tenor - The lover...


In this article, I do not cover the highest male voice of them all… The countertenor.

The Tenor is the highest of the male voices (OK, second to the Countertenor). In many popular operas from the 19th century, he is the hero, the one we, the audience, should cheer on. He’s not always the winner in the end (… Actually. quite often he dies together with his soprano girlfriend.), but he is the good guy, stabbed in the back by the Baritone.

Tenor high notesBut it wasn’t always like that. The label is very old and it means roughly to hold or maintain. In Renaissance music, it was the main voice, the one who maintained the “melody” often with long notes without leaps. Around it (Contratenor), other voices created a harmony. Contratenor altus (over) or Contratenor bassus (under). At that time and earlier, the tenor label didn’t mean any particular range or quality of the voice. It was simply the melody line.

With the birth of opera, that changed. The Tenor became the name for a certain voice. Still, anyone who has sung repertoire from the 17th century should know about the huge differences between that repertoire and today’s. And the Tenor character wasn’t all that interesting anyway. Often he was brutally side-stepped by the Bass (Baritone) (Compare The Marriage of Figaro).

Much of the disinterest can possibly be explained by how he sounded. In the old days, the Tenor used his voice similar to how women use their voices today. Apart from being much lighter, more flexible, and with significantly less power, the highest male voice used some sort of mixing. Over a certain pitch, he would use his falsetto or a voice mixed between falsetto and chest voice… The so-called Falsettone

That typical technique came to an abrupt ending on one star-studded night in 1831.

The birth of the High C.

That night, Rossini’s William Tell was scheduled at Teatro del Giglio in Lucca, Italy. The cast was excellent with capable singers in all roles. In Paris two years earlier at the premiere, the tenor part in the opera, Arnold Melchtal, was sung by the excellent Adolphe Nourrit. His technique was flawless and he had done exactly what was expected from him. All the high notes (of which there are many) he executed in a mixed falsetto (Falsettone).

Gilbert Duprez

But in 1831, in Lucca, a whole new era was to begin. The long scene at the beginning of the fourth act ends with the Cabaletta Amis, amis, secondez ma vengeance. It has 7 high Cs of which the last one is (… or at least should be) 10 seconds long. Gilbert Duprez did what no one had ever done before. He sang all the high notes in chest voice, painting a completely new shade to the color of the Tenor voice.

Rossini hated it. 

 – It’s like the scream of a capon being slaughtered, he affirmed. 

(One could wonder what kind of impact this new singing style really had on him… After William Tell, he never wrote another opera.)

But the audience loved it. And from that moment, the Tenor voice started its transformation. From being a funny, and burlesque supporting character, he rose to become the strongest hero and most desired lover singing some of the most beautiful music (… As well as cashing in the highest wages).

In the chorus, Tenors are divided into first and second, with Tenor 1 singing the highest score.

For all you young singers out there, there are two warnings I have to issue:

  1. The classification of a voice or the distinction between different voice types is never, ever universal or even very scientific. It very much depends on preferences, size of and the acoustics in the theater, personality, etc… And it has changed a lot during the centuries.
  2. Labeling a voice this or that has to be done in person. Reading an article like this one can never substitute a voice coach, a colleague, or even a friend. And even they cannot really see what is inside of you, how you feel, what is comfortable and what is not. You are your voice’s greatest safeguard. 

The color of a Tenor. 

Here we are in a very big camp. The Tenor voice has maybe the biggest variation of all the six main voice types. A common feature for all is the silverish ring, though. A dramatic, dark Tenor should have a bit more metal and a bit less roundness than the Baritone. The highest voices within this voice type already have that timbre to them so it’s not an issue for them. 

Another important sign of the highest male voice is the power output character. Let me try to explain it like this. The Baritone has an O-like output. The most powerful register is the middle-high. At the highest notes, the brilliance is somewhat blurred. The same can be said for the Bass, or if he’s a good, low voice maybe you can picture him as an upside-down U, with his golden register lying at the bottom. 

The Tenor, on the other hand, should definitely have a V-type quality in his throat. The top notes should be the most shining. This is not only a natural character but also depends on the technique. The same technique that permits reaching the high C.

The range of a Tenor.

Traditionally the range of a Tenor is from C3 to C5. Still, depending on the voice subtype, the highest executable note can vary from A4 all the way up to F5. 

Tito Schipa Ecxellent tenor – Bad heights.

The high C is sometimes regarded as a magic lighthouse… It’s lightened, sending its white light out over the sea, or it’s turned off leaving us all in darkness. But the reality is that not every great Tenor has it. And some have it but not a good one. The great Placido Domingo has never had a decent high C. Enrico Caruso convinced Puccini to lower the famous Che gelida manina in La Boheme half a tone because he couldn’t do the C. Even the otherwise fantastic Tito Schipa was famous for not being able to reach the high notes.

And there are whole repertoires that do never ever include the high C. The Wagnerian Tenors specialized in, yes, Wagnerian roles normally don’t have much to give above A4. (Although there’s a short high C in Götterdämmerung…).

Still, much like the low notes in the Bass category, the high notes for a Tenor can mean the difference between a success and a failure. A not deservingly big focus on one or two notes. A dramatic Tenor can sing the whole Turandot perfectly. If he cracks the high B in Nessun Dorma, he probably still won’t be acclaimed by the audience.

On the low end, very few roles require notes under C3 and if they’re there, they can often be omitted. Something should be said about the color of the older type of Tenors. They often had a more Baritonal timbre. Since they used falsetto or a mixed voice to reach the high notes anyway, they could afford to have a darker base color. The lowest notes for Tenor are from the 1700s century (Otello in Otello by Rossini and Sempronio in Lo Speziale by Haydn. And the lowest ever, Ab2 in Richard Lionheart from 1784 by André Grétry)

The roles for the Tenor.

All this should be seen as a totally objectionable generalization.

Maybe a little more caution than with other voice types is in place. With the very high subglottal pressure that is applied for the high register, it is crucial to not sing in a style or in a repertoire that is unnatural for the particular voice, be it too heavy or too light.

Enrico Caruso as Radames.

Often the Tenor is the hero in the story. And even if he’s not, he is more often than not, of young age. The clear, high sound automatically gives him that quality. He’s the first lover. The more dramatic the voice, the older he is. 

Sometimes the Tenor plays the insidious second to a main character (Spoletta in Tosca, Goro in Madama Butterfly, Mime in The Ring of the Niebelungen). 

We’ve already covered some of the development of the Tenor voice. There’s a stark difference between the repertoire in the 17th and 18th centuries on one side, and the Belcanto, and romantic roles of the 19th and 20th centuries on the other. Singers who specialize in old operas, often do just that.

Singing the Tenor part in an opera by Henry Purcell, Jean-Philippe Rameau, or Claudio Monteverdi requires a completely different emission compared to later operas. This old-style needs softness, agility, and long phrases. Volume is much less important. 

The different types of Tenors.

Warning! This is not an absolute classification, and I probably do not agree with some of you. How the voice is supposed to be handled, and what singer should sing this or that repertoire is a constant argument among experts. These are my thoughts, and I acknowledge any contradicting opinion. Still, at the end of the day, a singer can cross over any boundary as he/she finds suitable.

I also apologize for not mentioning many great artists who undoubtedly deserve to be on my, or anybody’s list.

Light Tenor.

This is the typical Donizetti, Bellini, and Rossini voice. It is light and agile, sometimes with a warmth to it but often quite sharp. Here we find the highest notes… the D5, and even up till the F5 (Arturo in I Puritani by Bellini. Though this note, as was the style of the time, was not meant to be sung in chest voice.)

Here I would place most of the Mozart roles as well, although they do not require nor extreme heights, neither any particular agility.

Example of roles for Light Tenor.

Example of famous Light Tenors.

  • Giovanni Battista Rubini
  • Cesare Valletti
  • Luigi Alva
  • Lawrence Brownlee
  • Rockwell Blake
  • Juan Diego Flórez
  • John Osborn
  • Michael Spyres… Though he seems to be able to sing almost anything. 
  • Nicolai Gedda… Though he was outstanding in the lyric fach too. 

Lyric Tenor.

This is the go-to voice for the typical main character in the typical 1800s opera. The most famous Tenor arias are for this voice type, and I would say the internationally most famous opera singers are mostly in this category.  The voice should be warm and flowing with a significant ring to it. It needs volume enough to penetrate the thick Puccini orchestration. 

But most of all, it has to be beautiful, much like its female counterpart, the Lyric Soprano. 

Example of roles for Lyric Tenor.

  • Alfredo, La traviata (Giuseppe Verdi)
  • David, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Richard Wagner)
  • Ismaele, Nabucco (Giuseppe Verdi)
  • Il Duca di Mantova, Rigoletto (Giuseppe Verdi)
  • Edgardo, Lucia di Lammermoor (Gaetano Donizetti)
  • Faust, Faust (Charles Gounod)
  • Hoffmann, The Tales of Hoffmann (Jacques Offenbach)
  • Lensky, Eugene Onegin (P.I. Tchaikovsky)
  • Pinkerton, Madama Butterfly (Giacomo Puccini)
  • Rodolfo, La Bohème (Giacomo Puccini)
  • Roméo, Roméo et Juliette (Charles Gounod)
  • Werther, Werther (Jules Massenet)

Example of famous Lyric Tenors.

  • Giuseppe Di Stefano
  • Aureliano Pertile
  • Carlo Bergonzi
  • John McCormack
  • Fritz Wunderlich
  • Plácido Domingo
  • Luciano Pavarotti
  • Josè Carreras
  • Jussi Björling
  • Benjamino Gigli
  • Ferruccio Tagliavini
  • Jerry Hadley
  • Giuseppe Di Stefano
  • Jonas Kaufmann

Lyric-Dramatic Tenor (Spinto).

The Spinto Tenor has a lot in common with the lyric. In fact, most famous singers in this fach alternate between the two categories.

The Lyric-Dramatic voice should have I bit more power. It’s not really a question about color or brightness, but more about stamina. The Spinto Tenor has to be able to push more and to stay for longer times in a high register. All to be able to be heard through the thicker orchestra. All kinds of Tenors cover this repertoire in concert or on discs. But a lighter voice could find himself in trouble if he tried to sing these heavier roles in theatre.

Example of roles for Lyric-Dramatic Tenor.

  • Andrea Chénier, Andrea Chénier (Giordano)
  • Calaf, Turandot (Puccini)
  • Des Grieux, Manon Lescaut (Puccini)
  • Don José, Carmen (Bizet)
  • Erik, Der fliegende Holländer (Wagner)
  • Ernani, Ernani (Verdi)
  • Hermann, Queen of Spades (Tchaikovsky)
  • Manrico, Il trovatore (Verdi)
  • Mario Cavaradossi, Tosca (Puccini)
  • Max, Der Freischütz (Weber)
  • Radames Aida (Verdi)
  • Turiddu, Cavalleria rusticana (Mascagni)

Example of famous Lyric-Dramatic Tenors.

  • Enrico Caruso
  • Franco Corelli
  • Giacomo Lauri-Volpi
  • Franco Bonisolli
  • Richard Tucker

Dramatic Tenor.

This one is even heavier than the Lyric-Dramatic. He also has somewhat lower notes. Not necessarily lower average pitch (Tessitura), but he needs a good punch already between E2 and C3. The color is often more shiny… Steel instead of gold.

Example of roles for Dramatic Tenor.

  • Florestan, Fidelio (Ludwig van Beethoven)
  • Pollione, Norma (Vincenzo Bellini)
  • Otello, Otello (Giuseppe Verdi)
  • Samson, Samson et Dalila (Camille Saint-Saëns) 
  • Canio, Pagliacci (Leoncavallo)
  • Dick Johnson, La fanciulla del West (Puccini)
  • Don Alvaro, La forza del destino (Verdi)

Example of famous Dramatic Tenors.

  • Giacomo Giacomini
  • Mario del Monaco
  • John Vickers
  • Thomas LoMonaco
  • Gianfranco Cecchele
  • James McCracken
  • Nunzio Todisco
  • Francesco Tamagno
  • Ramón Vinay


Lastly, a jump into the more or less strictly German-speaking opera world. The word helden means hero. The voice is a dramatic tenor with extraordinary endurance. Many of these roles are in the Wagner repertoire, and some have you standing on stage for five hours straight. It’s a marathon. On the plus side, you do not really need any height. Anything over A4 is a bonus. 

Examples of roles for Heldentenor.

Practically all of the great Tenor roles in Richard Wagner’s operas are heldentenors. Plus…

  • Bacchus, Ariadne auf Naxos (Richard Strauss)
  • The Emperor, Die Frau ohne Schatten (Richard Strauss)
  • Apollo, Daphne (Richard Strauss)
  • Drum Major, Wozzeck (Alban Berg)
  • Paul, Die tote Stadt (E.W. Korngold)

Examples of famous Heldentenors.

  • René Kollo
  • Hans hopf
  • Laurenz Melchior
  • James king
  • Hans Beirer
  • Peter Hofmann