A critical look at the evolution of operatic tenor singing, from the 19th century to the present.
In opera, Zucker’s bona fides are impeccable. A singer himself, he earned distinction from the Guinness Book of World Records as the “world’s highest tenor” for reaching an A above high C during a performance at New York’s Town Hall in 1972. He also hosted Opera Fanatic, the long-running program on Columbia University’s radio station, and founded the Bel Canto Society, a nonprofit opera organization. In this book, Zucker (Origins of Modern Tenor Singing, 1997) draws from conversations he had with the late Italian tenor Franco Corelli, a close friend and frequent guest on the Opera Fanatic program. Zucker offers their takes on popular tenors of the past, spotlighting each singer’s vocal stylings, physical techniques, strengths and weaknesses, as well as a consideration of the performance aspect. Even nonfans of opera might recognize the most famous tenors referenced—Enrico Caruso, Richard Tucker, Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, José Carreras, etc.—though the book by no means offers in-depth biographies. Less popular figures are given relatively brief chapters, including Jean de Reszke, Aureliano Pertile, and Mario Del Monaco. In some instances, Corelli acknowledges the tenors who influenced him, such as Beniamino Gigli: “His voice was exceptionally beautiful, warm like a lighted lamp, with a facile and inimitable emission….I remember a concert in which he gave twelve encores.” Zucker also offers frank, critical views on several singers, including legendary Caruso: “Compared with his predecessors…Caruso had less musical nuance, variety of dynamics and rubato; in short he had less musical imagination. He also had less control over dynamics. These were the prices he paid for his directness of address.” With formidable passion and knowledge from their own experiences as singers and lovers of the genre, Corelli and Zucker pick up on notes the average opera fan most likely does not. Interestingly, the book’s last portion consists of Zucker’s evaluations of several tenors’ performances as the character Radames from Verdi’s Aida based on archival recordings, such as Corelli’s from 1956, 1962, 1967, and 1972. Sprinkled throughout are wonderful archival photographs of the tenors dressed in their stage costumes. A reader not well-versed in the technical aspects of opera singing and history—let alone music theory and appreciation—might find the book a bit challenging, though die-hard opera fans and scholars will absorb it easily. Zucker and Corelli make appreciating the artistry easy, to the point where readers might seek out the actual recordings. Zucker, expert that he is, is beyond that point; of Francesco Tamagno, one of his favorite tenors, he says: “I can go for years without listening to his records physically yet play them inside of me, for his is singing heard in the soul.”
Strictly for opera aficionados, a detailed, passionate analysis of what makes tenor singing and its practitioners unique.