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5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Tenors

In the past, we’ve chosen the five minutes or so we would play to make our friends fall in love with classical music, the piano, opera, the cello, Mozart, 21st-century composers, the violin, Baroque music, sopranos, Beethoven, the flute and string quartets.

Now we want to convince those curious friends to love the passionate, ringing tenor voice. We hope you find lots here to discover and enjoy; leave your choices in the comments.

My dad, Loudon, has never much liked opera. But when I was 13, the opera bug struck me hard, and I’m pretty sure that in an effort to better understand what I was going through, he bought a Luciano Pavarotti CD. One of the tracks was a thrilling version of “Di rigori armato seno” from Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier,” and I became entranced with the aria. Pavarotti’s rendition also connects me to a later, magnificent experience when, during a performance of “Rosenkavalier” I was attending at the Metropolitan Opera, Luciano magically appeared — without billing — to sing the cameo role of the Italian Tenor and this aria. The audience went completely nuts. It was the first and only time I ever saw him live.

It only takes a moment to hear the command and fervor in the voice of the great Mario Del Monaco. You don’t need to speak Italian to understand who Otello is: He is authoritative; he is a commander; he has returned to Cyprus in triumph. This brief aria is notoriously treacherous, but Del Monaco attacks it with fearless abandon. When he sang this role, he often received wild applause for just these few seconds of music, which I think says a lot about the impact even a small amount of powerful music can have with the right performer.

Many years ago on tour, I found myself in the picturesque city of Borlange, Sweden. While out exploring I came across a museum devoted to the man known as the “Swedish Caruso”: Borlange’s own Jussi Bjorling. Hearing the purity, range and emotion in his voice for the first time, on that rare day off in a beautiful place far from home, was special and really touched my soul. Maybe my own Scandinavian roots were waking up! I’ve loved Bjorling’s recordings ever since — one of my favorites is “O Helga Natt,” “O Holy Night” in Swedish — and have often wondered why this gem of a tenor isn’t better known in America.

When I was about 13, it took only about three and a half minutes — the length of the aria “E lucevan le stelle” from Puccini’s “Tosca” — to fall in love with tenors. Especially Jussi Bjorling, the singer on a classic 1957 recording of the opera. Bjorling’s voice combined melting richness with throbbing intensity. His sound was so innately expressive that everything he sang, even a jaunty aria, had a melancholic tinge. And in this aria, when Cavaradossi, facing execution, drafts a final letter to his beloved Tosca, Bjorling’s plaintive, aching singing is matchlessly beautiful.

I can easily remember the first tenor aria I ever heard. I’d just decided to study voice, having been a music education and clarinet major. That last bit is important, because though I came to this aria for the stunning writing for clarinet in the introduction, I stayed for the singer. I can’t imagine a more delicious introduction to tenors than “E lucevan le stelle.” On first hearing, I was utterly captivated with its drama and beauty. The tenor turned out to be the incomparable Franco Corelli, and I have always heard great humanity in his sound: richness, joy, sadness, excitement, poignancy.

I was a young boy when someone gave me this record as a gift. The orchestra introduced Franco Corelli’s wide, vibrant voice, which was imbued with sentiment and went straight to the heart. His singing felt spontaneous: sweet at moments, roaring at others, but always commanding. In spite of my young age, I was able to grasp the extent to which music could transmit the most overwhelming emotions, much more so than just words — taking the listener to a heightened state of well-being. I also felt, in the timbre of his voice, the strength of an encounter that would mark my life: Many years later, Corelli would become my teacher.

Words and melody fuse into one in this Jacobean lute song designed to banish insomnia. I say song, but it’s really an incantation: Invoking sleep to ease a friend’s pain, the singer falls under its calming spell himself, until it is no longer clear who does whose bidding. The composer and lutenist Robert Johnson (1583-1633) must have seized on John Fletcher’s poem because its language already traces melodic contours — “easy, sweet and as a purling stream.” For the singer, the text is an invitation to lighten and smooth out the voice until it floats, curls and caresses like the “hollow murmuring wind.”

Strings shimmer in a heavenly register as the title character of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” begins to tell his story. In a distant land, he softly sings, there is a castle by the name of Montsalvat, where the purest of men watch over a sacred relic: “It’s called the Grail.” At those words the music swells to a forte like a flash of light — the skies opening in revelation, Lohengrin’s voice a clarion vessel for the Holy Grail’s power. With the right tenor, such as Jonas Kaufmann here, this transition from quiet sobriety to heroic radiance can be every bit as awe-inspiring as the treasure it describes.

A young woman knocks on her neighbor’s door, seeking a light for her candle; the neighbor introduces himself as a poet and flirts a bit. It couldn’t be simpler, but in the music of Puccini and the golden voice of Pavarotti, rising to rapture with steady ease, it’s sublime.

After months of barely leaving my house, I’ve been drawn to a song from Emmerich Kalman’s operetta “Countess Mariza” in which the impoverished Count Tassilo sits somewhere in Hungary remembering his glory days in Viennese society. It’s a slow waltz — a memory of faster waltzes and a nostalgic sound picture of pre-World War I Austria. (The operetta premiered in 1924.) As Tassilo is briefly transported to “my Vienna,” the minor verse moves to a brighter major refrain and a succession of high notes. I love the richness and simplicity of this recording by Fritz Wunderlich; his tragically short life makes it even more bittersweet.

Fritz Wunderlich’s recording of “Granada” is one of my desert island discs. His singing is incredible, absolutely bursting with energy. He sang everything with such love and hope, such passion and fire, that it made you think it was the last performance he was ever going to give. Whenever he sang, he was not just 100-percent an artist but also 100-percent a human being; there was always a direct link between his feelings and those of his listeners. With him, even shallow music and slushy lyrics sounded like the most beautiful thing in the world.

There is no more purely thrilling moment in all of Wagner than the end of the first act of “Die Walküre,” as Siegmund pulls the sword Nothung from a tree and with it wins himself a bride, Sieglinde — who, this being Wagner, just happens to be his twin sister. And there has been no more purely thrilling tenor in Wagner’s music than Lauritz Melchior, the Danish-born darling of the Met Opera in the 1930s and ’40s. Ringing through the microphone from Vienna in 1935, Melchior’s Siegmund is ardent, intelligent, crisp — complete in every respect.

Peter Pears is, strangely, probably the most important tenor in musical history. Strangely, because he was by no means a typical tenor. Caruso, Pavarotti, Domingo: These are the models, and Pears’s strange timbre doesn’t really fit with theirs. But he inspired more great music from his partner, the composer Benjamin Britten, than any other 20th century singer: operas like “Peter Grimes” and a whole lot of amazing songs. Pears also sings Schubert very beautifully.

In difficult times, I often turn to Schubert’s “Der Leiermann” for comfort. The final movement of his famous song cycle “Winterreise,” it feels vulnerable and strange, intimate and alien. This is especially true in more recent recordings, like this 2009 release in which Paul Lewis teases evocative dissonance from the piano and the tenor Mark Padmore floats above, gliding. They perform with a hushed quality you might expect to hear in an emotionally exposed pop song, giving Schubert a sense of the warmth and chill of melancholy, simultaneously modern and timeless.

When I hear someone say that the 20th century avant-garde was a graveyard for melody, I always think of Hans Werner Henze as a prime counterexample, particularly the end of his opera “The Bassarids.” In adapting Euripides’s “The Bacchae,” Henze took on the challenge of writing music with Dionysian range: terrifying in its power, but also credibly capable of leading pleasure-seeking souls astray. Its singers must nail the score’s modernist complexity while also pulling on its seductive threads. When I heard the tenor Sean Panikkar sing Dionysus at the Komische Oper in Berlin in 2019, I was ready to sign up for the wine god’s army.

When he sang “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” from “Carmen,” Jon Vickers was the first tenor to completely draw me into the moment and what felt like his heart. His interpretation is filled with soulful tenderness and an honest power, shaped by a myriad vocal colors and dynamics. As he seamlessly rises to the top of his register, he reaches from the full-toned depth of his soul to the spinning heights of pure honesty. He takes us on an emotional journey where, without having to look at a translation of the text, we completely understand his passion.

This aria from “Aida” is one of the most beloved and feared (by singers, at least) in opera. It has a heroic introduction, then rapidly changes in emotion; sweeping lyrical phrases convince us of the sincerity of the soldier Radamès’s devotion to his love, Aida. Just listen to the final note here: a high B flat, sung pianissimo. Most tenors scream it out, but to do it softly, as Verdi wanted, is very difficult. The great Johan Botha, who died in 2016, was one of the few tenors who could bring it off with such beauty and conviction.

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