The 20 Greatest Tenors of all Time
Among the big-name opera stars and lower-key Lieder recitalists, who are the best tenors ever to have graced the stage? We asked an expert panel to decide. Here are the results...
Whether dramatically slaying dragons in Wagner, lyrically serenading princesses in Puccini, gracefully gliding in Schubert or even crooning for the swooning on TV, tenors capture the imagination like no other singer. It’s easy to see why.
They’re the ones who usually get to play the agile, athletic hero while the poor old bass gets cast as the big, brooding baddy. Plus, there’s the audience-wowing vocal bravado of those high Bs and Cs while, outside the opera house, tradition has long regarded suave and silky tenors as the voices of romance.
But who are the finest exponents of the tenor art of all time? Which have displayed the greatest power, range, grace and flexibility? We asked an expert panel to vote for the singers they believed to be the greatest tenors of all time. Do you agree with their choices?
The best tenors ever
20. Sergey Lemeshev (1902-1977)
One of the Bolshoi’s star tenors of the mid-20th century, Sergey Lemeshev combined an extraordinary youthful-sounding voice – even late in his career – with a level of characterisation unmatched by most of his contemporaries.
Two remarkable Russian tenors came to dominate the Soviet stage in the 1930s and 1940s. Sergey Lemeshev and Ivan Kozlovsky, born only two years apart, divided their fans into rival groups of lemeshistki and kozlovityanki.
Both possessed high lyric voices of great distinction, forward placement and impeccable diction, though it was Lemeshev who was blessed with the matinee idol looks and who cut the greater dash as the Duke in Rigoletto.
He also just had the romantic edge over his rival in his signature role, the poet Lensky in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, a part he sang over 500 times; there is touching film footage of the two men sharing a specially reworded version of the Act I aria as a birthday tribute to Chekhov’s widow, Olga Knipper, and both tenors can be compared on screen in Lensky’s celebrated lament.
Lemeshev’s interpretation in the recording of the complete opera, made in 1956, shows the voice still remarkably youthful and fresh, and he sang it for the last time at the age of 70. Good taste and impeccable musicianship mark out two cameo roles in Rimsky-Korsakov operas, the Indian Guest in Sadko and Tsar Berendey in The Snow Maiden.
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In his own words: ‘I haven’t sung Alfredo for years. But I want desperately to perform it again, if only once…’ (Lemeshev aged 63).
19. Wolfgang Windgassen (1914-1974)
A Heldentenor in a new, lighter mould, Windgassen dominated the Wagnerian stage in the post-war era.
Wolfgang Windgassen followed in his father’s footsteps, also a tenor and with whom he studied, working at the Stuttgart opera, first as a singer and from 1972, until his death two years later, as director. Although famed for his Wagnerian roles, Windgassen made his debut in 1941 as Don Alvaro in La forza del destino.
At Bayreuth he sang major tenor roles and was the Siegfried in Solti’s 1960s recording of the Ring for Decca. Although his voice lacked the baritone resonance of other pre-War greats, his exquisite tone made him one of the most valued Wagnerian singers of his generation. His Siegfried in the famous Decca Ring is unforgettable for its strength and fragility.
In his own words: ‘Gott, welch’ dunkles Bier’ (‘What dark beer’) – Windgassen on making a rapid stage exit from Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, with a stomach upset.
18. Alfredo Kraus (1927-1999)
A byword for lyrical refinement, Kraus was a perennial connoisseur’s favourite in bel canto and French repertoire.
Even pushing the age of 50, Alfredo Kraus could thrill a Covent Garden audience in Verdi’s La traviata. His secrets were a warm, effortless technique, immaculate diction, noble bearing and an intelligence informing every aspect of his art.
Coming late to opera – after qualifying as an industrial engineer in his native Spain – he rose to stardom opposite Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, making a Metropolitan debut in 1966 as the Duke in Verdi’s Rigoletto.
The elegance of his style made him ideal in Donizetti and Bellini, and later on he specialised in Massenet, particularly the role of Werther. But he was also superb as Ferrando in Karl Böhm’s classic recording of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, and in the delights of Spanish zarzuela. Rather neglected now – and suffering from deletions among his catalogue of recordings – he remains a supreme tenor aristocrat.
In his own words: ‘A singer is more than a singer, he’s an artist, and he’s even more than an artist, he’s a maestro.’
17. Anthony Rolfe Johnson (1940-2010)
The English tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson came late to singing, but his natural talent allied to keen musical intelligence led to a great career.
Anthony Rolfe Johnson was one of the most honest singers around – about his voice, for example: ‘It’s not large, but powerful and compact, full of energy, and that’s a great weapon.’ I’d go further – his singing is virile, ardent, but there’s also immaculate musicianship, a wonderful sense of timing, that seduces the listener.
And his total immersion in every character he’s ever interpreted, from demanding operatic roles to the simplest ballad in a Songmaker’s Almanac recital, means that each performance is a new delight – to him and to us.
I’ll never forget his performance in Monteverdi’s Return of Ulysses at English National Opera: intensely moving and an unobtrusive masterclass in Monteverdian style. Listen to his CD In Praise of Woman (on the Helios label: CDH 55159) – every song lit up by his unique blend of passion, tenderness and sheer beauty of voice.
In his own words: ‘At five o’clock I stop work and become a father – I don’t believe in being the star singer who just “visits” home.’
16. John McCormack (1884-1945)
In a career spanning over 40 years, McCormack sang and recorded opera, oratorio, Lieder, popular songs and folk song from his native Ireland.
After the death of Caruso in 1921, Count John McCormack was to become the next tenor superstar – his record sales even outstripping those of Caruso’s.
Pianist Gerald Moore commented that McCormack disliked over-rehearsing or doing retakes in the recording studio, preferring the honesty of live performance. McCormack’s recorded legacy reveals an artist who combined an immaculate technique with spontaneity; charm with humility. It was his gift to communicate the very essence of a text – be it Italian opera or Irish ballad – that made his appeal so universal. In the words of US critic Max de Schauensee, ‘He could tell a story. He could paint pictures.’
One of John McCormack's most famous recordings is his rendition of 'It's a long way to Tipperary', which became a popular marching song for soldiers in the First World War as it evoked memories of home.
In his own words: ‘I like to go jumping about in my life, as the whim takes me. I don’t believe in all this pedantic arranging of things in order.’
15. Franco Corelli (1921-1976)
Franco Corelli inherited the mantle of Caruso and Gigli to become possibly the greatest Italian tenor of the 1950s and ’60s.
The combination of being tall, dark and handsome and in possession of a superlative tenor voice is rare in the opera world, but Franco Corelli had it all (his nickname, of ‘golden thighs’ gives a measure of his sex appeal).
Listening to his voice today, it can seem old-fashioned, a throwback to a former era, with a rapid vibrato and a tendency to show off. He would hold high notes far beyond their written worth (12 seconds in the great cry of ‘Vittoria!’ during a Covent Garden Tosca, for instance), and some critics made a point of disapproving of what they regarded as ‘cheap effects’.
However, his qualities as a singer shine through in the recordings and in contemporary accounts: a dark, lustrous voice with a rich palette of thickly spread colours that enabled him to explore the psychological depths in the great Verdi and Puccini roles.
In his own words: ‘Many who teach [larynx-lowering] cause their pupils to force their voices to the point of ruination’
14. Peter Schreier (b1935)
Perhaps the most refined of the post-war lighter tenors, Peter Schreier is valued for the conviction of his operatic roles, his sincerity in religious music and intelligence in Lieder.
As a chorister in the Dresden Keruzchor, his initial aspirations were toward sacred music, in particular the great Evangelist roles in the Bach Passions and Christmas Oratorio; indeed, his last appearance as a professional singer was as the Evangelist in the Christmas Oratorio, which he was also conducting, in Prague in 2005, at the age of 70.
His operatic career began with the role of first prisoner in Fidelio in 1959, but rapidly blossomed with work at the then East-Berlin Staatsoper, Vienna State Opera, Salzburg and Bayreuth Festivals. While valued chiefly for Mozartean roles, such as Belmonte and Tamino, he maintained his love of the Bach. Schreier was also one of the finest Lieder singers of his generation; his 1991 recording of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin is remarkable for its unforced insight.
In his own words: 'It must be like a ride over the Bodensee, you must do it without showing any fear.’ (Schreier speaking about the coloratura Alleluia from JS Bach’s Cantata 51)
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13. Juan Diego Flórez (b1973)
The new Pavarotti? Juan Diego Flórez radiates effortless charm, while his astonishing vocal prowess has won critical praise and popular adulation.
He stole the show at the Last Night of the 2016 BBC Proms, inspiring the same rapture there as he has at opera houses worldwide. Marvellous purity of tone and breathtaking virtuosity make his singing irresistible, coupled with good looks and delight in performance.
His ability to stimulate even the most jaded opera palettes was demonstrated last year when, overturning an iron-clad tradition, the famously strict La Scala audience demanded an encore of ‘Oh, mes amis’ from Donizetti’s La fille du régiment, with its heroic sequence of nine top Cs. Since the piece was a speciality of Flórez’s hero, the late Luciano Pavarotti, the ovation gave an inevitable sense of the torch being passed.
In his own words: When you’re feeling relaxed and comfortable, you’re feeling what you’re singing. And then you just communicate. And that’s the most beautiful moment, because the audience can feel what you’re really feeling.’
12. Carlo Bergonzi (1924-2014)
Virile yet elegant, ardent yet intelligent, above all human; Carla Bergonzi was considered by many to be the greatest Verdi tenor of the mid-20th century.
After debuting as a baritone in 1948, Bergonzi’s international career as tenor took off in the 1950s, when he began long-term associations with the Metropolitan, La Scala, and Covent Garden. His 1976 three-disc survey for Philips of Verdi’s tenor roles is something of a landmark, as are complete recordings of Radames, Alfredo, and the Duke of Mantua, among others.
On stage, he was stiff and plain: ‘I know I don’t look like Rudolph Valentino, but I have tried to learn to act through the voice.’ His mastery of breath and the colour of the words allowed him to portray hot-bloods Canio and Cavaradossi without the usual gulps and groans. Now in his eighties, Bergonzi teaches and runs a hotel in Verdi’s birthplace, Busseto.
In his own words: ‘Technique enables an artist to arrive at a level of excellence where it is impossible to guess which qualities are acquired and which are innate.’
11. Tito Schipa (1888-1965)
Hailed as a true ‘tenore di grazia’, Schipa bewitched audiences with vocal clarity, musical subtlety and interpretative elegance rather than technical fireworks.
Few tenors have made so much out of relatively little as Tito Schipa. Rather limited in range and dynamic breadth, even lacking a particularly attractive vocal timbre, he still possessed the greatest gift of all – the ability to make a singing line and project it to every corner of an enraptured hall. In the lyric bel canto repertoire he reigned supreme, with an exquisite sense of shading, nuance and rubato, and miraculous diction which seemed to make every vowel speak.
A global superstar, he became a fully-fledged matinee idol in America, which even forgave his fascist sympathies during World War II. His classic version of Donizetti’s ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ remains a lesson to any singer and an expressive tour de force, crowned by the perfectly judged, swoon-inducing diminuendo which was a Schipa trademark.
In his own words: ‘I never forced my voice. I never sang what I could not sing. That is my only secret.’
The top 10 tenors of all time
10. Peter Pears (1910-1986)
Sir Peter Pears will always be remembered for his lifelong partnership with Benjamin Britten, some of whose finest music he inspired.
My parents liked Britten’s music, and I was brought up learning and loving every detail of the refinement and wit Peter Pears brought to the Folk Songs, the heroism of his St Nicholas, above all the tortured otherworldliness of Peter Grimes. Pears and Britten were together for 40 years – they began the English Opera Group and the Aldeburgh Festival, and developed an unsurpassable recital partnership.
Pears’s sound doesn’t please everyone, but his artistry is indisputable: Britten loved his conveying ‘every nuance, subtle and never overdone’. It was his voice that inspired Britten to compose opera, and his spirituality and erudition that contributed so much to works like the Holy Sonnets of John Donne.
He would have had a career without Britten – he was a compelling and successful operatic performer long before Peter Grimes – but without Pears we wouldn’t have some of the finest works ever written for tenor. His art wasn’t just about Britten, of course – Klemperer’s St Matthew Passion recording, so unfashionable these days, is dominated (but never overwhelmed) by Pears’s Evangelist. And he loved to sing Dowland, whose songs, he said, were ‘coloured with a gentle silvery sadness’ – a telling image, that.
In his own words: ‘Peter Grimes is not the most heroic title-role in all opera. He is no Don Giovanni or Otello, and the more glamour is applied to his presentation the further you get from what the composer wanted.’
9. Nicolai Gedda (1925-2017)
Gedda’s intellect, style and linguistic ability made him the most versatile and recorded of his era.
In 1952, Walter Legge auditioned a young Swedish tenor, and cabled his contacts, ‘Just heard the greatest Mozart singer in my life: his name is Nicolai Gedda’.
The former bank teller was swiftly engaged for Dobrowen’s classic Boris Godunov recording, and by 1953 it was snapped up by houses across Europe. But Legge could hardly have foreseen his discovery would become the most versatile and enduring tenor of the post-war years, triumphing in repertoire from the terrifying high notes of Bellini’s I Puritani to the heroics of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini and Wagner’s Lohengrin, and making some 200 recordings – the last only in 2003.
Nicolai Harry Gustav Gedda Ustinov possessed an elegantly lyrical sound, enhanced by polished diction. In the 1970s, when I saw him, his formerly clarion upper register was showing strain, but he compensated admirably with style and ardour. A wide-ranging intellectual, Gedda brought serious thought to his roles.
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In his own words: ‘Those to whom God has given a fine voice are also burdened with the duty of training it and caring for it.’
8. Jon Vickers (1926-2015)
A heroic tenor of unique authority and complexity, Vickers stamped his individual approach on a series of portrayals that aspired to a spiritual level.
It was his audition for Covent Garden in 1957 that pushed the Canadian Jon Vickers onto the scene. His early parts included Gustavo in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, Don José in Bizet’s Carmen and the title role in the historic Visconti/Giulini production of Verdi’s Don Carlos; but the potential of his voice to take on the most demanding roles in the repertoire led him towards Berlioz’s Aeneas, Beethoven’s Florestan and Wagner’s Siegmund, Parsifal and Tristan, plus Britten’s Peter Grimes – a role he effectively redefined.
With his dramatic presence allied to a burnished bronze tone that could ride over any orchestra, Vickers became the tenor of choice in such roles at Bayreuth, Vienna, the Met and other leading houses.
An actor of volcanic power – he was arguably the only tenor partner in whom Maria Callas found an equal match when he sang Jason to her Medea in Cherubini’s opera – Vickers’s art was founded on philosophical and religious beliefs; he withdrew from a production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, citing the work’s blasphemy. His Canio and Otello were terrifying, his Grimes a harrowing study in rejection, his Tristan unbearably moving.
In his own words: 'Whenever an artist takes his eyes off the ultimate… from what I would call “the Eternal”, then he diminishes himself, and the quality of his art is thereby diminished.’
7. Beniamino Gigli (1890-1957)
Gigli was the leading Italian tenor of the inter-war years, blessed with a honeyed tone and easy manner that made him ‘the people’s singer’.
Born in the small Italian town of Recanati in 1890, Gigli began singing as a chorister before vocal training in Rome. After a successful 1914 debut in La Gioconda, he was in demand throughout Italy and by 1920 had made it to the Met, where he inherited many of Caruso’s roles following the latter’s death the next year. He stayed in New York until 1932, when he refused a pay cut due to the Depression and returned to Italy. There he became Mussolini’s favourite tenor, though after the war this association was forgiven.
He made 20 films and 900 records which show an impeccable lyric tenor voice of remarkable sweetness, used with taste and imagination, though from the mid-1930s his voice deteriorated. He nevertheless continued to perform until shortly before his death in 1957. The verismo operas – including such heavy assignments as Puccini’s Manon Lescaut and Giordano’s Andrea Chénier – suited him, while in lyric operas such as Traviata or Bohème he was hard to match.
In his own words: ‘To sing the same aria the same way twice, that is of the schools and of the professors. Gigli is not of the schools.’
6. Lauritz Melchior (1890-1973)
Lauritz Melchior was born a baritone and reinvented himself as the finest Heldentenor of the 20th century, setting standards for singing Wagner that have never been surpassed.
Melchior was born in Copenhagen in 1890 on the same day as Gigli. He made his debut in 1913 singing Silvio in Pagliacci, but on hearing the young baritone sing a high C in Il trovatore an American colleague declared him a tenor ‘with the lid on.’ And it’s the caramel colours in Melchior’s lower register that make his voice so distinctive, together with the stamina to sing Wagner’s major tenor roles without tiring.
In 1924 Melchior sang at the first post-war Bayreuth Festival and that same year triumphed in London as Siegmund in Die Walküre. It would be another five years before New York took him to its heart, but after singing Tristan at the Met he became the company’s Heldentenor of choice for almost every season until he chose ‘Lohengrin’s Farewell’ for his swansong in February 1950.
If power and stamina are the hallmarks of Melchior’s art, there is also delicacy in his phrasing and absolute sureness of tone which is never less than beautiful and always appropriately expressive.
Has any Siegfried conveyed such wonder at an awakening Brünnhilde? Has any brother wooed his sister so ardently and with such desperation? On record Melchior is at his greatest as Siegmund to Lotte Lehmann’s heart touching Sieglinde in Act I of Die Walküre recorded in Vienna in 1935.
In his own words: ‘Regard your voice as capital in the bank. Sing on your interest and your voice will last.’
The top 5 tenors of all time
5. Jussi Björling (1911-1960)
Björling’s beautiful tone and effortless technique contributed to his reputation as a paragon of the art of singing during an illustrious international career.
Finding encomia for Björling’s vocal artistry is about as difficult as finding grains of sand on a beach, but it seems extraordinary that so much of this praise comes from his colleagues and leading musicians. For his Swedish compatriot Elisabeth Söderström, ‘listening to Björling has always been my ultimate pleasure. He never made an ugly sound, and yet his voice was the most human, emotional instrument.’
Irene Dalis thought ‘he was the premier tenor in the world. Even yet, there has never been another voice equal to his.’ Arturo Toscanini – not notorious for admiring singers – exclaimed: ‘What a beautiful voice and what fine singing, all on the breath, a perfect technique. It is all tied together and his diction is very good too. Bravo!’
Regina Resnik claimed that a concert-opening performance of the ‘Ingemisco’ from Verdi’s Requiem at the Albert Hall ‘was probably one of the most beautifully sung five minutes that I have ever, ever heard in my life. So much so that I sat there crying like a child.’
Björling’s voice was not large, but was perfectly placed, possessed silvery brilliance, and permitted dynamic and coloristic shading at every point in its register – according to American critic Conrad L Osborne, Björling’s ‘mastery of line, his command of the classical (vocal) effects… is of a sort that makes even very fine singers seem faintly amateurish.’
Although his acting in staged opera sometimes struck observers as phlegmatic or perfunctory, the technical adroitness and expressive subtlety of his singing swept all before it. Best known for romantic tenor roles like Rodolfo (La bohème), Cavaradossi (Tosca), the Duke (Rigoletto), Manrico (Il trovatore), Faust, and Roméo (the latter two from Gounod’s operas), Björling occasionally performed or recorded heavier parts, and in concert his repertory also included operetta arias, Scandinavian songs and German Lieder. His many recordings document a remarkable consistency of vocal quality and high artistic standards.
In his own words: ‘I have one favourite role. It is Otello. What a part for a tenor! What an opera! What music! But you know something? I will never sing it (onstage). It would damage my voice. I would not like that to happen.’
4. Fritz Wunderlich (1930-1966)
The outstanding German lyric tenor of his generation, his life was tragically cut short as his international career was getting underway, but thanks to his many recordings his unique voice has remained unforgettable.
When Fritz Wunderlich died in a fall on a hunting vacation, just nine days before his 36th birthday in September 1966, he was at the zenith of his career as a Mozart singer. The role of Tamino, which he had recorded the year before in Berlin under the baton of Karl Böhm, framed his all-too brief career in major roles. It was in 1956, as a young member of the Stuttgart Opera, that he replaced an indisposed colleague, Josef Traxel, and gave notice of a peerless Mozartian, with an easy, limpid, virile timbre, an innate feeling for style and immaculate diction in his native language.
Tamino was the last role he sang on stage, ten years later, again with the Stuttgart ensemble, at the Edinburgh Festival barely a month before his fatal accident. In a career that lasted barely more than a decade, he gave exemplary performances of the lyric Mozart tenor roles: Belmonte in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Ferrando in Così fan tutte and Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni.
He was a workaholic and his operatic repertoire ranged from the baroque and early classical operas of Monteverdi, Handel and Gluck, to 20th-century classics such as Pfitzner’s Palestrina and JanáΩek’s The Excursions of Mr BrouΩek and contemporary works (he created parts in operas by Carl Orff and Werner Egk).
His concert and Lieder repertoire were no less extensive and he left unsurpassed recordings of the tenor solos in Haydn’s Creation and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis under Karajan and, above all, the tenor songs in Klemperer’s recording of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, in which Wunderlich’s sappy, youthful timbre are allied to eloquent diction and freedom at the top of the voice.
In the recording studio he was a populist, recording his favourite operetta arias and songs such as ‘Granada’ which endeared him to those that never set foot in an opera house.
In his own words: ‘To earn my living, I played jazz music on the side. At night I blew the trumpet, played the accordion, sang popular songs; in the morning, after a few hours of sleep, I studied Monteverdi and Lully at college.’
3. Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007)
If some hardcore opera buffs had doubts, the general public felt Pavarotti deserved the mantle of Gigli, Caruso, Tauber and Lanza as the greatest, most popular tenor.
Pavarotti’s life could almost have been the plot of a Lanza film. His father, a baker, was a fine tenor and gave plenty of encouragement to Luciano, who was torn between music and football. The boy sang in the local choir, which won first prize on a visit to the Llangollen Festival. He made his stage debut as Rodolfo in La bohème in 1961 then, in 1963, returned to Britain to deputise for Giuseppe di Stefano in the same role at Covent Garden.
Consequently, he was booked for Sunday Night at the London Palladium, the gem of ITV’s weekend schedule. Soon, his partnership with Joan Sutherland led to his appearance in La fille du régiment, where his famed facility for singing high Cs was established. Over the years his growing bulk and the developing imperfections in his voice hampered his opera appearances, and in 1992 he was booed at La Scala when, as Don Carlos, he cracked a note.
For many aficionados, he lacked the depth of Domingo, but his common touch, his large-scale open-air concerts, including the legendary 1991 occasion before the Prince and Princess of Wales when he persuaded most of the crowd to furl their umbrellas despite rain, his adept mixture of great operatic arias with much-loved Neapolitan ballads and his relatively restrained acting earned him the love and admiration of large numbers of the public.
He always set great store by legato, his approach to which gave his performances a natural quality, but it was perhaps his exceptionally sweet and steady upper register that really marked him out. On the down side were his frequently embarrassing engagements with pop, a tendency to lose control of his vibrato in later years, and his increasingly difficulty in sustaining long performances. However, when he soars towards those final phrases of ‘Nessun Dorma’, all is forgiven…
In his own words: ‘I think a life in music is a life beautifully spent, and this is what I have devoted my life to.’
2. Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)
One of the definitive voices of the 20th century, Enrico Caruso was that rarest of creatures: a truly great artist with a mass popular following.
Caruso was a singing superstar, with a voice that was born to make recordings that would ravish the senses of an adoring public. His career among the very first to be built on that unholy, and thoroughly modern, alliance of tremendous natural talent, prowess in the recording studio, and brilliant management and PR.
Opera was, of course, his main focus, but throughout his more than 250 recordings, mostly released as 78s by the Victor Talking Machine Co., he encompassed most musical genres from Verdi, Bizet and Puccini (his contemporary) to Neapolitan song and pop music, one of his best sellers was ‘Over There’, a jaunty song for the US army in World War I.
He was undeniably a crowd-pleaser and his showmanship was legendary, delighting his audiences in America where his career especially thrived under the guidance of Edward Bernays, an expert in ‘crowd psychology’ and one of the pioneers of
modern public relations.
Caruso’s voice had its flaws: he was never entirely comfortable at the very top of his range. A ringing top C tended to elude him, and he often had to transpose. But the recordings preserve a voice that has an effortless, easy-going flow even in the cramped confines of an early studio, with a rich and powerful low to middle register and highly charged top notes that seem completely attuned to the new, dramatic verismo style that had emerged at the end of the 19th century.
Though his life was inexorably draw to the US, Caruso’s charm and his cheek remained distinctly Italian. He scandalised New York after he was arrested for indecent assault at the New York Zoo, outside the monkey house. He was found guilty of pinching a lady’s bottom, but claimed that a monkey had done it.
Caruso is one of the earliest great singers whose voice remains alive to us today through his recordings. His influence continues to be felt even now: listen to any great operatic tenor – Domingo, Pavarotti – and there are certain mannerisms and turns of phrase which make you think, ‘Ah yes, that’s straight from the mouth of Caruso!’
In his own words: ‘I never step on the stage without asking myself whether I will succeed in finishing the opera.’
The greatest tenor ever
1. Plácido Domingo (b1941)
Domingo is that rarest of vocal phenomena, a tenor who used his voice in the service of re-creating great art, and not as a thrilling end in itself.
And the best tenor in the world - drum roll please - is Plácido Domingo. Plácido Domingo was born in Spain, officially in 1941, but many people claim that the date should be a year or more earlier than that. Even if the date he prefers is correct, he has preserved his voice in an extraordinarily energetic career for almost 50 years, having made his debut in 1959 in Mexico, where his family moved when he was eight.
He is still singing, including such demanding roles as Siegmund in Wagner’s Die Walküre, as well as in carefully selected Italian operas. During the course of this enormous career he has always looked for new roles to challenge him, and has recorded over a hundred, performing an impressive proportion of those on stage.
He began with the usual Italian operas, primarily Verdi and Puccini, but moved back in time, the earliest of his roles being in Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie. He has also sung a few contemporary operas, but only ones written in a fairly traditional idiom.
What is most surprising is that, almost alone among tenors who made their name in Italian opera, since he was about 50 he has been equally involved with German opera, primarily Wagner, some of whose greatest roles he has not risked singing in the theatre, but has recorded in part or whole.
He has even sung at the Bayreuth Festival, the ultimate accolade. Nor has he neglected either French opera, including Berlioz and Massenet, or Russian. And now he is moving into the baritone repertoire, with Gluck’s Oreste already at the Met.
A self-confessed workaholic, he also conducts opera, and is in charge of the Washington National Opera and the Los Angeles Opera, jobs which involve an immense amount of fund-raising. Quite apart from that, he was of course one of the Three Tenors, and has recorded Christmas albums and discs of popular Italian and Spanish songs.
With such a vast range of repertoire, it isn’t surprising that we don’t associate Domingo with particular roles, with the possible exception of Verdi’s Otello, of which he has been the leading performer since Jon Vickers, Domingo’s antithesis in many ways, retired. But even then, when one thinks of that role and the kind of voice and presence it requires, Domingo’s isn’t necessarily the first name to come to mind.
It’s inevitable that he has been criticised for giving a standardised account of many roles – but then it’s hard to see how individual you could be in many of Verdi’s less famous works. The fact remains that when you listen to Domingo, you are guaranteed a flood of gorgeous sound, sensitive musicianship, the security of a voice so well looked after that nothing will go wrong and, if you are seeing him, a decent standard of acting. Warmth, taste, commitment, understanding: these aren’t the first things that spring to mind when you think of a tenor, but they are when you think of Domingo.
The operatic scene since the mid 1960s is inconceivable without him, and the gigantic treasury of opera recordings will bear witness to future generations of his greatness. In an age when ‘celebrity’ has rightly become a word of contempt, Plácido Domingo’s fame is an example of how once a huge name was built on solid foundations.
In his own words: ‘My motto is “When I rest, I rust”.’
This article was first published in April 2008.
Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s Deputy Editor, a role he has held since 2004. Before that, he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book.