One of the problems that we have with classifying voices is that we
do not have regularised terminologies in our own language, and are therefore
forced to use foreign words and phrases instead.
mistranslation can easily creep in to confuse things still more.
"Tenore eroico" or Heldentenor
is commonly used ito describe the singers of leading roles in
Wagner’s operas, but its original meaning is more precise, and there is one
other term which both qualifies and clarifies it.
"Tenore eroico" or "Heldentenor" implies a tenor
voice of great weight and sonority, particularly strong in the middle and bottom
of the voice, in fact a tenor voice with some of the characteristics of a
Unlike a baritone, however, is its tenorial ability to sing
There's the "Jugendlicherheldentenor", literally, "youthful heroic tenor", which describes a voice of
less weight and dramatic capability, more lyric than its heavier brother, but
which may, when set up correctly, strengthen and develop into the heavier
These two voices in their German classifications equate with the "tenore
robusto" and the "tenore lirico-spinto" of the Italian belcanot, and the even more precise French
terminology of tenor fort wagnerien and tenor fort français.
Both types of
Heldentenor -- "tenore eroico robusto" and "tenore eroico lirico-spinto" -- sing Wagner and often share many parts, but there are certain roles
which are specific to each, and it is rare to find a voice so versatile that all
the Wagner roles are possible for it.
The German "fach" system is a
bureaucratic method of defining singers by the roles for which they are suited,
and thereby contracting them to theatres.
The Heldentenor Fach contains:
Walther von Stolzing
Parsifal is neither too strenuous nor too dramatic or high, but of
course, he does need to be a handsome man, which explains the appearance
of this role in both fachs.
The majority of Heldentenors are true tenors and
will never have sung as anything else.
But there is another route to the heavier
voice – by way of high baritone.
When young, some heavy tenors have no top to
their voices, and are either wrongly classified as baritones, or may pass
through a high baritone phase on the way to acquiring the high notes necessary
to fulfil their tenor destiny.
This can result in a short high baritone career,
or a long wait and a late start as a tenor.
Usually, this sort of voice ends up
as the heavier variety of Heldentenor, and often starts his Wagnerian career
as these are the Wagner roles without high
notes or high lines.
How they proceed is a matter of skill or strength in most
True baritones are not among their number. These voices are rare,
difficult to teach, and require both luck and will power from their
The Heldentenor as has been seen is a result of post-Wagner
Until the operas were written the classification did
not exist: there were just tenors with lyric voices, with strong voices, and
those whose voices were capable of both extremes.
Wagner, however, wrote his
music with particular singers in mind, and an examination of the careers of the
four tenors for whom he either wrote the operas or were first to sing them, will
clarify the development of the classification Heldentenor – or Tenorbaritonas
they were called in Wagner’s day.
The first, and probably most important, was
the singer whose singing Wagner admired when he arrived in Dresden as
Kapellmeister; and for whose voice he wrote Rienzi, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin.
This was the Bohemian, Joseph Tichatschek (Josef Tihacek) 1807-1886.
creator of Rienzi and Tannhäuser, was described by Wagner as having a “glorious
voice and great musical talent”, and by Berlioz, who heard him sing Rienzi, as
“brilliant and irresistible … elegant, impassioned and heroic”.
In Italy, the first Tannhauser was J. G.
his day, Tihacek's talent was slow to develop, and his career in his twenties was
occupied with chorus work and small parts.
It was not until he was thirty that
he secured his first solo contract.
His repertoire consisted of the operas of
Gluck, Mozart, Weber, Marschner, Méhul, Boieldieu, Auber, Nicolai, Meyerbeer,
Spontini, Flotow and Spohr – a repertoire, much of which no longer exists on the
stages of today but one which demands a much wider mastery of technical
difficulty than the contemporary Heldentenor is expected to encompass.
singers of today would be equally capable as Idomeneo, Tamino, Max – Tichatschek
sang the role 108 times! – George Brown, Raoul and in the grand and high lying
phrases of Spontini.
Tichatschek had weaknesses as an actor – Wagner was
famously upset when he addressed Elizabeth instead of Venus when singing
Tannhäuser – but as a singer he trusted him completely, using him as late as
1867 to sing Lohengrin before King Ludwig, who was distressed by his unromantic
Tichatschek sang on until 1870.
At this later
period Wagner complained that he would not have made his tenor parts so
difficult if he had not met him.
Nevertheless, he was the prototype – the
Urtenor of Wagner’s vision.
The next singer who jumps into the frame is the
first Tristan, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1836-1865).
The scion of a family
of artists, Schnorr was a cultivated, intelligent man – his father was a well
His repertoire followed a similar pattern to Tichatschek’s, but,
of course, there was, by now, more Wagner to sing.
Phenomenally, his first solo
contract was signed at the age of nineteen in 1855, and in the next decade his
roles included among others – Max, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Erik, Don Ottavio and
eventually Tristan in 1865.
Everything seemed set fare for a sensational and
Wagner felt he had found his ideal performer for the, as yet
unperformed, Ring cycle and for Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, but three weeks
after the last performance of Tristan he was dead. During his last twenty days
he was taken by Wagner to sing excerpts from The Ring and Meistersinger to King
Ludwig, three days later he rehearsed Don Ottavio, and four days after that he
succumbed to a chill, caught on stage from a draught during the last act of the
fourth and last Tristan. Wagner was distraught at the news of his death.
rated Schnorr inferior to Tichatschek vocally, but superior in dramatic power
His voice had a baritone colour and his singing was noted for
smoothness of line, legato and an elegiac somewhat veiled tone: “full, soft and
gleaming” were Richard Wagner’s own words.
A large corpulent man, Schnorr and
his wife Malvina Garrigues, the first Isolde, had worked on Tristan in 1862, but
it had proved too strenuous – not surprisingly considering he was only twenty
But three years later, they achieved their goal in the first four
performances, alas, both Wagner’s plans and their future ended in Schnorr’s
In 1861 Albert Niemann (1831-1917), Germany’s leading heroic tenor,
was chosen by Richard Wagner to sing Tannhäuser in the revised version to be
presented in Paris.
The performances, two only, were a disaster, as the opera
was cat-called and booed to oblivion, by an inartistic cabal intent on
complaining against its lack of a last act ballet – the female dancers being the
only objects of interest to the men about town at the Paris Jockey Club.
Niemann was luckier financially
than the composer, as he was paid during the long rehearsal period by the month,
while Wagner depended on a percentage of the box office takings.
with Wagner was revived in Bayreuth in 1876 when he was chosen to sing Siegmund,
somewhat to his chagrin as he was convinced he was destined to be the first
There were a few rumbles of bad temper and temperament, but it
settled down, and Niemann became one of the 1876 artists wholly satisfactory to
the composer, although he still thought him too mature for the young Siegfried.
His voice was powerful and heroic with a baritonal colour. It could express,
said a contemporary, “not only love and hate, sorrow and joy, pain and delight,
but also anger, despair, scorn, derision and contempt” – a reclame probably
unequalled for any singer.
Unusually fine as an actor, Niemann was a giant in
stature as well as in voice; extra study with Duprez in Paris at the age of
twenty three had prepared him for thetenore robusto repertoire – Manrico,
Radames, etc – as well as Wagner: and in 1888 in New York he was given the
satisfaction of singing the Götterdämmerung Siegfried before his retirement the
next year. An outstanding singer with a truly memorable career, he was among the
most versatile of all Heldentenors.
The final singer to come into our
spotlight is Heinrich Vogl (1845-1900) whose early death deprived posterity from
hearing on record the first ever Loge and Siegmund. Vogl sang the two parts at
their premieres in Munich, but was turned down earlier by Wagner for Walther in
Die Meistersinger on the grounds that he was “totally incompetent” – not
surprising as he was only twenty three!
Of all the Heldentenors under review
Vogl’s repertoire was the nearest to a singer of today, largely because his
career started later in the century and therefore there were more Wagner roles
available for him. His repertoire comprised all the leading Wagner tenor roles
except Walther, which he never sang.
His Italian repertoire included Otello and
Canio, and his French, Aeneas and Benvenuto Cellini.
At Bayreuth in 1876 he sang
Loge, with such effect that Lilli Lehmann commented – “his Loge has never since
been equalled; he was born for the part.” Clearly, therefore, he was a
considerable actor. His voice was powerful and he had exceptional stamina: on
several occasions he sang Loge, Siegmund and both Siegfrieds on consecutive
evenings. Following Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr, Vogl and his wife Thérèse became
the next Tristan and Isolde in 1869 and remained the sole interpreters for some
time afterwards. He continued to add to his repertoire and sang until the end,
performing Canio four days before his death.
With Vogl’s demise in 1900 this
account of Wagner’s nineteenth century tenors is neatly and arithmetically
brought to a close. The close of an era, lost to us, alas, because of the lack
of a recording process in their time. The careers of very few of Wagner’s
singers lasted into the recording era, and those that did record had, by that
time, either given up the heavy parts or, by choice or on commercial advice,
recorded other material. What our singers sounded like we can only guess; but if
such guesses are made intelligently by overviewing their careers and
repertoires, I believe, by a sensible selection of twentieth century recordings
of singers who have similar vocal characteristics, we can succeed in
approaching, at least partially, what they may have been like
Franz Völker, Rienzi:Allmächt’ge
Great singers at the Berlin State Opera – Nimbus – NI 784
Wolff, Lohengrin: Atmest du nicht mit mir die süssen Düfte
Heldentenors of the past – Lebendige Vergangenheit – MONO 89975
Jadlowker, Idomeneo: Noch tönt mir ein Meer im Busen
The Great Tenors Vol.1 –
Pearl – GEMM CD 9337
Ben Heppner, Euryanthe: Wehen mir Lüfte
Ben Heppner, German Romantic Opera, RCA BIEM/GEMA 09026 636239 2
Heppner, Der Fliegende Holländer: Willst jenes Tags du nicht dich mehr
Heppner, German Romantic Opera, RCA BIEM/GEMA 09026 636239 2
Lohengrin: In fernem Land
Ben Heppner, Lohengrin (selections), RCA BIEM/GEMA
09026 68239 2
Max Lorenz, Siegfried: Nothung! Nothung! Neidliches
Max Lorenz singt Wagner, Preiser MONO 90213
Jon Vickers, Die
Walküre: Siegmund heiss ich
Die Walküre Act 1/Leinsdorf, DECCA 444270 –
James King, Die Walküre: Winterstürme
Die Walküre Act 1, Solti,
DECCA 455560 – 2
Lauritz Melchior Tannhäuser: Insbrunst im
Singers at the Berlin State Opera, Nimbus NI 7848
Völker, Lohengrin: Atmest du nicht mit mir die süssen Düfte
der 30er Jahre, Preiser MONO 90953