Leading Tenor? : What a Bore!

When people ask what I do, I tell them I am a character tenor. They don’t understand what that means. Well, why should they? I don’t understand what a fixed-income analyst or a private equity principal does. But sometimes it seems to me that even opera fans and music professionals don’t get it.

First of all, I am a character tenor—not a “comprimario.” A comprimario generally has a solo line or two in an opera (you know, something on the order of “Dinner is ready” on middle C) and also sings along with the big boys in large ensembles. (Don’t misunderstand me—if someone were willing to pay my full fee, I’d be delighted to sing “Dinner is ready” on middle C, or any other note.) Nor am I a leading tenor manqué—I am not trying to do what he does and falling short. I don’t even know how loud I can honk out a B flat—it’s just not relevant to my life. I am doing something quite different—and succeeding!

This might be the best way to explain. The leading tenor is a specialist. He plays only romantic young men. And he sings only beautifully. What a bore that must be. My roles are totally different from one another—except that they are all in tenor range and all require acting. I can be a deaf old servant, a lecherous Moor, a venal marriage broker, a fatuous amateur poet, a Wild West bartender, the personification of arithmetic, or an idiot. I can even suppress my red-blooded virility and put on a dress to play the Witch in Hansel and Gretel!

Another big difference? Leading tenors feel that flapping their vocal folds together is quite enough movement—they resent being asked to do difficult physical things—like walking, for instance. A character tenor, however, is called upon to do more than walk. I have had to sing falling down stairs, rolling in mud with a burlap bag over my head (don’t ask), and splashing around in a pool of water. Once, as Lucano in L’incoronazione di Poppea, I had to lie on top of Poppea and simulate an act during which, in real life, singing would be next to impossible.

Explaining character tenor vocalism is complicated. We character tenors do take pride in our singing. Please don’t say to me (as some opera professionals have) words to the effect of “I know a young tenor with a small, ugly voice and no top, so I am encouraging him to go into character parts.” (A glance at the role of Brighella in Ariadne auf Naxos or Pong in Turandot might dispel that delusion!)

It is true, however, that pure vocalism is a less important component of the character tenor’s art than of the leading tenor’s. Look at it this way: if a leading tenor can sing Manrico in Trovatore with ample, luscious sound, exquisite legato, and brilliant sustained high Cs in the “Pira,” we might forgive him for lacking finesse as an actor (and Manrico isn’t Hamlet, is he?).

Let’s say a character tenor is doing Sellem in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. For convenience, we’ll refer to this tenor as Steven, with a v. This “Steven” delivers the role with panache, tap dancing (yes, literally, in one production), while projecting every rapid syllable of the wordy text with gusto, crisply executing Stravinsky’s infamously complicated, angular rhythms and creating the character of a canny, ebullient—but also philosophical—auctioneer. Could he be forgiven if his oo vowel lacks “dome”?

But beautiful singing should definitely also be part of the package. Some of my roles could be described as character Bel Canto. A few seasons ago, I sang the Fool in Wozzeck. Thirteen notes. (This was the most delightfully munificent fee I ever received—calculated per note.) Through these 13 notes, the singer must convey the Fool’s total innocence—an innocence that leads him to perceive intuitively that Wozzeck has descended into criminality. The part demands mezza voce, portamenti, and high head tones. In fact, every one of these 13 notes should be Tito Schipa singing, “A te, o cara.”

Now let me give you a case where Schipa need not apply. The malevolent Squeak in Britten’s Billy Budd sings, “Forrard you!” on G, A, and A-sharp above the staff. As I was learning the role for Paris Opera, I was perturbed; that phrase just didn’t sound good to me. I tried everything. I covered the sound, and uncovered it. I put it “in the mask.” I modified the vowels until their mothers wouldn’t recognize them. Worse and worse. Would I be fired in rehearsal? On opening night?

One morning I woke up, and it just came to me, like the celestial voice in Don Carlo: “Steven, Steven—embrace the ugliness!” I decided to teach those naughty notes a lesson. I chewed them into jagged pieces and spit out the fragments. Please note: Paris Opera re-engaged me for Squeak for two further seasons, and I also sang it at the Barcelona Liceu and the Washington Opera. I am arguably one of the preeminent Squeaks of my generation. And now I positively relish singing “Forrard you!”

Few character tenor roles are as short as the Wozzeck Fool, but most tend to be “hit it and quit it.” These parts require a different style of acting from leading roles. My characters seldom have an “arc.” Wait for them to develop, and you’ll still be waiting when the stagehands are sweeping up. These roles are a splash of bright color on the canvas.

It’s not that I’m an exhibitionist (or, rather, not just that I’m an exhibitionist). But if I don’t make myself conspicuous in my first three seconds on stage, I’m simply not doing my job. What is called for is a sort of distilled acting—acting that would be excessive if carried through a long leading part. I am not the main course; I am a condiment. And it is the director and conductor—not I—that must decide how spicy the dish as a whole should be. I have almost always been able to modify my conception to suit the individual production. In fact, if I were not, I would be singing the Tanzmeister and Franz in the shower instead of in the great opera houses of the world.

Do I ever wish I could be doing leading parts? Not in the least—I love what I do. My roles are more interesting and more varied than leading roles. But I do wish I could be paid what those guys are paid . . . yes, that would interest me!

“Una furtiva lagrima . . . . ”

Steven Cole with Joseph Smith

Steven Cole is an internationally acclaimed character tenor with over 75 roles in his repertoire. Joseph Smith is a pianist and writer. They have collaborated on a joint recital, “Animals Big and Small,” presented by the Liceu Opera in Barcelona.