The Singer’s Library : Tenor Talk: Historical Tenors Analyzed by One of Their Towering Representatives

The Singer’s Library : Tenor Talk: Historical Tenors Analyzed by One of Their Towering Representatives

Author Stefan Zucker developed a relationship with operatic superstar Franco Corelli in the 1990s during his 11 appearances on the Opera Fanatic program, which Zucker hosted on WKCR-FM out of Columbia University in New York. The conversations they had covered a range of topics including the art and technique of singing and the interpretation of operatic roles as well as thoughts on various tenors throughout history. Through these conversations, Zucker gained an insight into the perspectives that fed Corelli’s choices as both a vocal technician and as an artist.

These viewpoints have now been archived in a three-volume set of books published by the Bel Canto Society of Key Colony Beach, Florida. The first volume available is Franco Corelli and a Revolution in Singing: Fifty-Four Tenors Spanning 200 Years.

Many chapters of the book include word-for-word transcriptions of the conversations between Zucker and Corelli relating anecdotes, explanations, and opinions. Other chapters are more formal essays by Zucker exploring all things tenor and other pertinent topics.

The book chronicles the contributions significant tenors made to the art of operatic singing, dating back to Domenico Donzelli (1790–1873), Gilbert-Louis Duprez (1806–1896), and Adolphe Nourrit (1802–1839). Chapters like “Schipa: Unaffected by Caruso” explore the great influence (or lack thereof) singers had on each other. Additional chapters, like “Nuance versus Massive Darkened Tone” and “Gigli’s Two Kinds of Chiaroscuro: Chiaroscuro of Dynamics and Chiaroscuro of Timbre,” delve into the specifics of the tenor sound.

As expected, special emphasis is given in the book to Corelli’s contemporaries, including chapters titled “Del Monaco: Corelli’s Chief Role Model and Rival” and “Polar Opposites: Corelli and Di Stefano.” Each of “The Three Tenors” (Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo, and José Carreras) is discussed, and even modern tenors like Joseph Calleja and Juan Diego Flórez receive at least a passing mention.

Besides historical perspectives, there is considerable examination of the mechanics involved in producing the tenor voice. Zucker frequently refers to the “lowered-larynx technique” used by some tenors to achieve a more dramatic sound, even if it came at the expense of vocal longevity. He investigates the degree of “head voice” certain singers employ in comparison to their colleagues and devotes a chapter to “The Fluctuating Fortunes of Vibrato.” Still further discussion considers “cover” in the passaggio—specifically, at what point in the voice tenors utilized cover and how that impacted their tone color and dynamic variation.

Given that one of the roles for which Corelli was most famous was Radamès in Verdi’s Aida, Zucker provides an analysis of four different Corelli performances of the role (two studio recordings and two live recordings) spanning from 1956 to 1972. For additional comparison, he provides similar analysis of Radamès recordings from Aureliano Pertile, Giovanni Martinelli, Beniamino Gigli, Richard Tucker, Mario Del Monaco, Jussi Björling, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Carlo Bergonzi, Jon Vickers, Domingo, and Pavarotti occurring between 1928 and 1985.

Opinions are abundant in the discussions. In one excerpted conversation, both Corelli and Zucker give “an unfavorable appraisal” of tenor Giacomo Lauri-Volpi. Therefore, in the interest of fairness, Zucker invited Dr. Gian Paolo Nardoianni—who had known Lauri-Volpi—to provide an alternate perspective in an appendix of the book. Similarly, when Björling is given “short shrift” because “neither of us was that interested in him,” Zucker asked author Robert Tuggle, director of the Metropolitan Opera Archives, to share his own perspective in an appendix as well.

Zucker calls the first volume in the Franco Corelli and a Revolution in Singing series a “think” book that studies how singing changed due to the innovations of select tenors throughout history. This story is aided by high-quality lithographs and photographs of the tenors, many of which were provided by the Metropolitan Opera Archives.

The book is published by the Bel Canto Society, an organization that seeks to keep unique, hard-to-find operatic recordings and printed materials available to the public. Acknowledging the declining market for books about opera, Zucker explains in the acknowledgments of the book that—besides years of his life—he has also contributed abundant amounts of his own money to publish the first Corelli volume. In order to publish the second two volumes of the series, he makes a plea for contributions asking readers to make tax-deductible donations to the Bel Canto Society. The end of the book includes a sampling of book titles, DVDs, CDs, and downloads that are available through the Bel Canto Society’s website,

Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach, DM (he/him), is an associate professor at the University of Utah Department of Theatre and a research associate at the Utah Center for Vocology, where he is on the faculty of the Summer Vocology Institute. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Singing, and his research, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared in numerous voice-related publications. /