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June 2019
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2002-04-19 Tenor

The word "tenor" more often than not conjures an image of an overweight, over-sensitive and paranoid egotist (there are exceptions of course, aren't there? Who are you calling fat?). But the word actually comes from the Latin "tenere", meaning "to hold".


In the music of the Middle Ages, the tenor was the one responsible for holding the tune, and lets face it, he has never let go of it since. There are those whod argue he held onto many other things too : his high notes, his leading ladies, his applause, his good reviews, his conversations about his flawless technique and seamless passaggio(ie. a term for the break in the voice between registers), and in many cases, the tenor holds on to the entire fat content of all the food he wolfs down after the final curtain. In the medieval era the tenor (a very different tenor voice than the one we now know and love) was the main man in church music. The sound was a sort of developed falsetto voice, and it was only in the early nineteenth century that he began to explore the possibilities of the chest voice. Rossini was given a nasty shock one night when his lead tenor in William Tell sang a full-throated Top C!

In nineteenth and twentieth century opera (with Verdi, Puccini,Wagner and others) the tenor was the hero, the love interest, the man with the show-stopping arias, the sustained high notes, and often the butt of jokes by conductors and supposed colleagues (usually baritones and those with lower voices and less important roles). Wagner said that tenors have head notes where people normally have brains(I dont understand that). Hans von Bulow was even more scathing, saying that a tenor is not a man but a disease! (Isnt that a little rich coming from him?). Often regarded as the big thicko of the operatic stage, the tenor can end up a jibbering wreck wallowing alone in his insecurities and paranoias, reciting a monologue over and over, which is a tale of the glories of his career, and the splendour of his much talked about instrument!

On one hand we have the amazing spanish tenor Giacomo Aragall repeatedly throwing up in the wings before every performance. There are stories of the great Franco Corelli getting up at 3 in the morning to make sure his voice is still working, waking his three pink poodles in the process (I kid you not!).Believe it or not, Pavarotti has a very special diet on the day of his performance, and its not 10 Big Mac meals. And if you think hes chewing gum in performances, hes not, but he takes a little bit of apple now and again to keep the juices flowing. There are examples much closer to home, but Im not sure I can afford the legal bills.

We tenors are also supposed to have incredibly large, oversized even, egos! (And you know what they say about people with incredibly large, oversized even, egos?). I have to say, and it grieves me to admit it, it is true. The amount of conversations I have had to endure, and I mean endure, with other tenors as they listed their achievements, their roles, but mainly listening to them describe the beauty of their instrument, and what people have said about their incredibly beautiful instruments. Of course, needless to say, I do not fall into that category, and I would never mention names, would I Ronan? Dont worry, youre safe Finbar.

And what of the demise of some of our Tenor idols? Excessive drink sent my all-time hero Jussi Bjoerling to an early grave. Caruso died tragically on stage coughing up blood, and poor Fritz Wunderlich was mysteriously shot in an accident in his hunting lodge (there was a baritone present, and again I kid you not). Mario Lanzas heart could take no more of his fluctuating weight and heavy drinking. Even our own Count John McCormack died relatively young. And this is only a brief selection of tenor real-life tragedies.

So I urge you to bear this all in mind when you are telling your tenor light bulb jokes. Admittedly there are those who let down the side, but we are a sensitive breed with a lot of responsibility on our shoulders and need to be handled with care!