|Those outside the opera field and/or who don't speak German will need an explanation of the word “fach”. It means pigeon-hole, department, or branch, among other things. All it does to opera singers who display any kind of versatility is fach us up. They say the system doesn't apply to the USA, but there's an unwritten, unspoken convention here to as to what kind of voice type each of us is and thus what we should be singing. (It's similar to the typecasting in the film industry where a Robert DeNiro is unlikely to compete with a David Hyde Pierce for the same part, no matter how good an actor either is. It puts people like Laurence Olivier and Christopher Guest at a disadvantage, because they can do ANYTHING and the industry wants them to do only ONE thing. )
The system came about for practical reasons. Opera in Europe, and especially Germany, was systematized to make it easier for the opera companies to provide to their paying public singers who would fit the bill. A Fach system was developed in order to more quickly categorize singers so as to more efficiently assign them roles in their house. (For clarity and brevity I will just use the tenor example, but it applies to all voice types.) So, leaving out the character parts, and using only ten examples for each Fach, we have three tenor Fächer. A Heldentenor (heroic tenor) would be assigned roles from the following list: Peter Grimes, Canio, Idomeneo, Herodes, Otello, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Tristan, Siegmund, and Siegfried; a Jugendlicher Heldentenor (young heroic) would sing stuff like Florestan, Don José, Faust, Canio, Idomeneo, Hoffmann, Cavaradossi, Bacchus, Radamès and Lohengrin; and a Lyrischer (lyric) Tenor would do parts like Nemorino, Edgardo, Faust, Don Ottavio, Tamino, Pinkerton, Almaviva, Narraboth, Duke of Mantua, and Alfredo. Some roles, however, are in more than one fach — Faust, Canio, and Lohengrin, for example — so even the well-tuned Fach system is a bit fuzzy, but generally it serves its purpose. (It's a bit odd, though, considering the length to which they've gone to impose an order on the system, that the fachs themselves are not mutually exclusive and the singers are sometimes permitted to cross over into a neighboring fach.)
Outside Germany, the systems are slightly less rigid but similar. Italian tenors fall into the categories leggero, lirico, lirico-spinto, spinto, drammatico and buffo, the main difference being that they make a distinction between buffo, leggero and lirico that the Germans split between only Spieltenor and Lyrischer Tenor, lumping a lot of leggeros with liricos but also assigning the term “spieltenor” to roles which require rather large voices, like Mime, the only criterion being the character's dramatic attributes. Some people split this fach into Hoher Tenor and Italienischer Tenor, so there's even disagreement about the system itself. (The term “Kravattetenor” refers not to a category but to a technical aspect of the man's singing, basically that he sings with his larynx up, so it sits above his Kravatte or (as the Japanese would say) nekutai. It's not meant kindly. )
Nevertheless, many singers sing roles from two adjacent fachs (Fächer in German), and some singers have spanned more than two fachs: Maria Callas sang Lucia, Tosca and Carmen, for example. So a select few are allowed to break the mold, when their talent is so large that one category just can't hold them, or in some cases their star status allows them to tread in pastures best left for others. These former are the versatile singers. However, most of us who are cursed with SUV (Singer's Unusual Versatility) audition time and again for people who are unable to decide what we are and therefore unable to pick a part for us to do, no matter how much they might be impressed by our audition. “I see here he's done Canio. But Tamino as well? Can't he decide what he is?” is what I imagine some of their inner monologues consist of. I personally have sung roles in all four German tenor fachs (see my c. v. ) but my agent and I don't advertise that at auditions.
But wait! There's more! Things change! Tastes change!! Flavors of the Month change!!! A role is written for a certain voice, and then a singer comes along and does so well with it that everyone soon thinks that kind of voice is better suited to sing the role than what the composer intended! Two examples: 1) Madama Butterfly, which was a star vehicle for singers like Licia Albanese who also was famous for her Violetta and Mimì, after Tebaldi got a hold of it was suddenly considered so outside the realm of possibility for any lighter-timbred voice that we hardly ever get to hear a decent high D flat at the end of the Entrance Aria anymore; 2) Peter Grimes was written for British lyric tenor Peter Pears, but ever since Jon Vickers did it (rewriting some of the text as well!) only heldentenors are thought (by many) appropriate for it. Where does that leave singers who through no fault of their own — and having nothing to do with their singing and acting ability or vocal size (forget about timbre) — are excluded from consideration by impresarios who have just one sound stuck in their ears?
Then there's the issue of who's hearing you. I swear on a stack of 'Origin of Species'es that over my career, so far, I have been pegged as an Italian tenor, a French tenor, a German tenor, and and American tenor (meaning singing American roles, not my nationality), and one impresario thought I was perfect for Tamino while another laughed out loud when I told him that. My first voice teacher when I was 21 told me I'd be a heldentenor, my second one demurred on the subject, and my third thought Edgardo should be the center of my repertory and that the Met would never hire me for anything heavier than Tamino. One guy thought I was appropriate for all the heavy Italian parts, with the exception of Otello, and didn't find my voice suitable for Wagner, while so far the Met has hired me mostly for German and Slavic repertory: Berg, Schoenberg, Humperdinck, Wagner, Strauss, Janácek, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Busoni. (But also Handel, Poulenc and Mozart in roles clearly outside the fach of the others, covering at least three tenors in different fachs. ) If you ask the impresario at an audition what they'd like to hear, the universal response is, “Just sing what you're most comfortable singing.” Okay, I'd like to sing It's Not My Birthday by They Might Be Giants followed by Psycho Killer by Talking Heads. Would that be OK? I have slaved for 20 years to become comfortable enough to sing these arias that are outside the normal range of human vocalization, and they want me to sing what's COMFORTABLE! Nothing in the hard tenor aria category is comfortable. You are basically doing a 3-to-5 minute controlled yell. GET comfortable.
It's hard to make it in this business. On top of the fach problems, there's a pervasive myth that singers' voices get lower as they age. I'm sorry, but no: everyone ages. It's the technique that changes over time, or excessive and improper use leading a voice into thickness or a wobble over time, that has the real influence on vocal weight and/or color. Alfredo Kraus's voice never became heldentenor material, and Helge Rosvaenge never became a baritone, though both sang into their seventies. Some people like Ramón Vinay have voices that definitely sit on the edge of categories, but that doesn't mean that their voice type changed over their lifetime. My tessitura in 2006, meaning in this case where my speaking voice sits, is the same as it was in 1978. Through an improved technique, however, the color has darkened and the actual
Anton Raaff flourished in the post-Baroque era, doing cantatas and operas by people like Johann Christian Bach. By the time he created the role of Idomeneo (Mozart's) he was past his prime, but we have in the role a record of what Raaf could do at age 67, in a time when we didn't have the arsenal of drugs or knowledge of hygiene that keeps us alive so much longer. Almost no one since Jadlowker has been able to do just ice to Idomeneo. Unfortunately Raaf died way before recording or even photography was invented.
Ludwig Schnorr was the first Tristan. Legend has it that the role killed him. Poppycock. He had health problems. Tristan hasn't killed anyone else but a lot of tenors are still afraid of it. It's a marathon. The last person you want singing Tristan is a jacked-up baritone who can't handle the incessant hammering away on F and G with the occasional high A's that last forever. You want someone who has the color but who can ride high, someone who can sing Bacchus. Someone like me.
Jean de Reszke was called the greatest tenor of his generation. He sang a lot of French roles and also a good bit of Wagner, treading on 3 Fächer. He was also the teacher of my first teacher's teacher, which may be why my technique involves a Low Larynx. (There was a time not long ago when it was Taboo to utter that phrase. I submit that many light tenors would become much darker or heavier sounding or both, if only they'd learn as I did not to lift their larynges into their oral pharynges when they sing.)
Francesco Tamagno created the role of Otello. He also did Don Carlo and Ernani which puts him in at least 2 fachs. I couldn't find an extensive rep list on him. They say his voice was huge. There are some ancient recordings, but then as now relative volume can't be judged when the microphone is placed a foot in front of the singer's face and the rest of the orchestra is many feet behind that. It's this illusion of power provided by electronics that allows singers like Bocelli to sound impressive - until you put them in a live opera which isn't miked, and suddenly you can't hear them. Go figure. Opera is a sport as much as it's anything else.
Leo Slezak sang roles including Tannhäuser, Manrico, Canio, Lohengrin, Florestan, Stolzing, Turriddu, Erik, Radames, Des Grieux, Tamino, Froh and Siegfried - spanning three Fächer. He had a very dark color as well.
Hermann Jadlowker had a long career. 51 years. He sang Almaviva and Idomeneo with the coloratura intact which is cut by some of our more famous recent overweight tenor superstars who never learned to sing fast notes. He also had a baritonal timbre, as they call it. His rep ran from Don Ottavio through Turiddu to Lohengrin, so he's a contender for the tile of most versatile tenor of all time. He created the role of Bacchus and Strauss himself told him there was no one who could sing it better. Click his link to read a thorough history of this now little-known giant.
Enrico Caruso is so famous one might wonder why I'm including him here. It's because he sang Nemorino and Federico as well as Canio and Radamès, and had one of the darkest voices ever recorded. Compare a late Caruso recording with Melchior, Hopf or Vinay and then tell me why those kinds of voices are not hired for the lighter roles anymore. Another Caruso bio.
Giovanni Martinelli sang mostly medium heavy roles, but also did such things as Faust, Ernani and Tristan. I don't know any tenor alive who would be allowed to do those three. If you do Tristan you don't get outside of Wagner rep a lot. Here is another good bio of Martinelli.
Aureliano Pertile is here because he made the first full recording of Calaf, and because he was one great Italian tenor who stayed in Italy and thus didn't become well known in the USA. He specialized in the heavy Italian stuff.
Beniamino Gigli (born the same day as Melchior) has been called Caruso's successor, but his voice was not as dark. His phrasing is universally praised, and his Canio recording can't be beat for characterization. He also spread his repertory over three Fächer. Here's another Gigli URL. And another.
Lauritz Melchior (born the same day as Gigli) is known as the best Tristan of all time. He only sang the heavy stuff, but he started out as a BASS. I heard a recording on the radio years ago of him singing some bass aria and you would never guess that he'd be able to sing Tristan. Talk about jumping fachs, here's one that went Up instead of Down in weight. Here's another Melchior bio.
Richard Tauber was known mostly for popular songs - in fact my grandmother Marjorie Windrow had a large collection of Tauber vinyl discs. He excelled in operetta, but listen to him sing an aria from Don Giovanni. Tell me of one tenor you know today with that vocal color who is allowed to sing Don Ottavio or any Mozart tenor except Armored Man, Idomeneo and occasionally Tamino. Tauber was able to run the gamut of volume and declamation from ppp to fff and from liricissimo to stentato, and he had a huge career. But who hears about him now? Would he get hired today to sing what he sang back then? Who can say. Click here to search for more Tauber clips. Click here for another Tauber biography.
The great Jewish tenor Jan Peerce, from whose recording I learned Bacchus, a Jugendlich-Dramatisch tenor part, also excelled in Bach and Handel. A Dogpile audio search of him will bring up a recording of him as Alfredo. He was a great Duca in RIGOLETTO. He was great in everything he did. He also made a lot of popular song albums and Jewish music albums. Who talks about him anymore? I do. And I'm not Jewish.
Josef Schmidt was a lyric tenor from start to finish. I mention hem here because so few people know about him and his was one of the prettiest voices ever recorded. Find a clip and hear what a lyric tenor is supposed to sound like.
Ramón Vinay sang as a tenor with my teacher Walter Cassel in the 1950s. There is a broadcast recarding of them together in Tristan at the Met. Vinay's recording of Otello is my favorite one, his voice is so DARK. (My voice is dark. I once came out of an audition having sung something from Tosca, I think, and someone outside the door said he thought I was Black from the sound of my voice. That's not it: we are TAUGHT to sound white by the teachers of today. Richard Tucker didn't sound white. ) After a while, Vinay switched down to baritone, and told Cassel, who had sung Telramund to Vinay's Lohengrin, “Telramund is high!” So was he a baritone or a heldentenor, or did his technique just not allow him to stay in the tenor range? Hans Hopf's voice is just as dark. Here's another Vinay bio.
Mario del Monaco had a voice like a trumpet. His recording of the Duke of Mantua is unbelievable. It's not subtle like Kraus's but it's just hard to believe the abmount of sound continually pouring out of this guy. But he was most famous for his Otello, two Fächer away from il Duca. He had a long career, but too far away now for anyone outside the Opera world to talk about him. But believe me, among us insiders he is not forgotten.
Hans Hopf is one of my favorite tenors, if not “thee” favorite. He was criticized as being wooden, but I don't hear that and I just can't get over that color. He started out in lyric parts, and then did a lot of Strauss and Wagner. One would not think that a sound so dark would have such easy high notes, but his hich C in Meistersinger and his recording of the Emperor in Frau ohne Schatten prove otherwise. The Web doesn't have a decent biography for him, but the link above at least has a sound clip. Decent CD stores have operas with him in them.
Franco Corelli was the world's greatest tenor in his day, if you judge it by mass appeal. Unlike other big-voiced tenors he had a pianissimo he could use on the top. I mention him here because like Del Monaco he had a wide role range, though he never did Otello. I don't care if the last high note was spliced in or what, his Di Quella Pira was the first recording of any opera that gave me chills, and very little has since. Say what you want about his interpretation or his neuroses: he was great.
Waldemar Kmentt was: who, did you say? Waldemar Kmentt. I first came across him on the Nilsson recording of Salome and I learned Narraboth while listening to him sing it. He made his name singing Mozart and Bach but sang Froh and Walther von Stolzing in the Wagner arena, so he spans three Fächer. I met him at the Met where he made his debut at the tender age of 72 or so in the speaking role of Haushofmeister in ARIADNE. Yet another great singer who made his career in Europe and so we don't know about him.
George Shirley has had an extremely varied career. He's been to the Met, New York City Opera, and the companies at Covent Garden, Glyndebourne, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Buenos Aires, Amsterdam, L'Opéra de Monte Carlo, Glasgow, Chicago Lyric, San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Santa Fe. He's done tons of Bach and Mozart. He got a Grammy for his Ferrando. I was Narraboth to his Herod in Buffalo, and 2nd Spirit to his Tamino at the Met. His softball team trounced our Central City team in Aspen in 1997. An all-around great guy, great actor, great voice, now teaching young-uns how to do it at the University of Michigan. He told me that his acid reflux condition was missed or misdiagnosed for years, leading his cords to be swollen a lot of the time and certainly affecting his career. He should be as famous as any of the big names of today, but like a lot of us in the Business, he just keeps on keeping on. What more can we do? More info on Mr. Shirley can be found here and here. Search here for what he did at the Met.
Almost nothing about Gary Burgess can be found on the Web aside from recordings he's featured on. He sang Otello and hired me for my first Luigi and Narraboth in Buffalo before returning home to the Caribbean. Makes me wonder yet again how many other singers there are who we never learn about without providential direct contact. Perhaps a show called American Opera Idol could drag some out of the woodwork...
Richard Troxell is a friend of mine. We met in a production of Il Trittico where he was Rinuccio and I was Luigi, a Lirico and a Spinto part, respectively. He excels in parts like Alfredo and serious Musical Theater roles, but since a French film director chose him to sing Pinkerton in a Madama Butterfly movie, he's been doing that role, though he told me he didn't think he was the right voice for the part, but it depends on the house, and recently he sang Don José. So who knows what he'll do before he's done?
I have been compared by operagoers who heard me to Richard Tucker, José Carreras, Plàcido Domingo, Nicolai Gedda and Jon Vickers. Take your pick. If you answer the Three Questions right, you'll have a chance to decide for yourself what kind of tenor I am, by hearing cuts from Carmina Burana to Die Zauberflöte. What kind of tenor do I think I am? I'm a tenor who wants to work.