The Light Lyric Tenor
Within the tenor vocal category, there is a voice that some call light lyric tenor. This type of singer must be appropriately taught. One cannot reveal or develop his specific vocal characteristics when trained as a lower-voiced tenor (even as a lyric tenor). One must pay extra attention to the singer’s body shape, his exact Passaggio notes, his fitting repertoire.
The light lyric tenor or tenore leggiero was known as tenore di grazia during the eighteenth century. His main vocal characteristics are the purity of line, the evenness of timbre, the frequent use of an exquisite mezza voce. Also typical are the extreme ease to access the highest register (often sung piano) and the stunning vocal virtuosity. These qualities may not be there yet at the start of vocal studies. The young singer can nevertheless be indeed a light lyric tenor. Remember that Alfredo Kraus began choir singing as a second tenor.
Two Light Lyric Tenor Examples
- Tito Schipa (1888 – 1965)
Tito Schipa, born in Italy in 1888, saw his professional debut as Alfredo in La Traviata (1909). He premiered Ruggero in Puccini’s La Rondine at the Monte-Carlo Opera House in 1917. He was a phenomenal technician with a flawless use of the mezza voce. His limited operatic repertoire – a typical feature among all light lyric tenors – allowed him to sing past his sixtieth birthday.
- Alfredo Kraus (1927 – 1999)
Giacomo Lauri Volpi, the legendary high tenor, described Alfredo Kraus as “a perfect example of the classical tenore di grazia“. Like Schipa, Alfredo Kraus restricted his operatic repertoire to a mere twenty parts from the Bel Canto, Verdi (Alfredo, Duca di Mantova, Fenton), and from selected French operas. Alfredo Kraus, born in 1927, was still singing in 1998 (one year before his death). Kraus used to say: “Of course I would have loved to sing Lohengrin, Radames, and Calaf. But it would have been dangerous for my voice, and unfair to the music”.
One of the main dangers for the light lyric tenor is to be taught by a professor who considers that all tenors share the same vocal specificities, the same Passaggio notes. Each voice is different and a light lyric tenor’s Passaggio notes obviously are not those of a Heldentenor. The light lyric tenor voice clearly reveals two specific breaks: the first on E flat (or even E) when entering Passaggio, the second one being on A flat (respectively A) when entering the high register. Under no circumstances does the light lyric tenor’s voice change on F (as a dramatic tenor) or F# (as a spinto tenor). Forcing the voice to behave like a lower one is an error. Alfredo Kraus would otherwise have sung Otello or Radames. In fact, Kraus only sang Cavaradossi twice (in 1956). He experienced vocal strain when studying lirico-spinto repertoire and felt fine when he first sang Duca that year. Light lyric tenors will find proper repertoire suggestions below, to help them develop their voices and reveal their specific vocal qualities.
- Head Voice, Mezza Voce and Falsettone
A genuine light lyric tenor often “cracks” when he begins to train his high register. Luckily he is unable to “push” his chest voice as high as most tenors unfortunately can. When he reaches A flat/A, his voice suddenly shifts because he does not know how to use the light mechanism or because his body won’t allow him to. He is being told that he is singing in Falsetto, that it is inappropriate, and that he cannot be a tenor because he has no hight notes. This “crack” is an unexpected benefit and a very healthy reaction of the instrument which requires a different use. It is time to give this singer a very appropriate training. How many beginners have unfortunately been wrongly directed to baritone or even bass repertoires!
The young lyric tenor is not singing in Falsetto (provided there is body support and no breathy sound). Actually, he just discovered the light mechanism, which he must use primarily on all of his vocal range, and which defines his vocal category. In the low register, the young light lyric tenor must learn to sing “with modesty” or “reserve”: volume is not what we expect from him in this area. Even a Heldentenor should not be adding weight to these notes, as in Siegmund scenes I,3 or II,4. In the middle register, the light lyric tenor must refrain from using the heavy mechanism. This often happens when the singer does not master the breathing or when his body lacks flexibility. It is paramount to develop a healthy light-lyric voice. Recommending more physical strength at that point will deprive the singer from a spontaneous use of his natural light mechanism. One can inevitably expect problems in breathing management, high notes, vibrato or timbre. An adequate technical training includes teaching the A flat/A Passaggio and learning to connect the head voice to the specific register called Falsettone. At that point the singer can easily reach an F above high C. He can then begin the study of selected Bellini and Rossini arias and make good use of his high register extension. These extra notes are needed, both vocally and stylistically. This is not exceptional, it is the obvious result of an appropriate training.
Being flexible both vocally and physically is crucial for the light lyric tenor. He is unable of great vocal and physical efforts because of his slender, relatively slightly built figure. His rib cage usually is rather underdeveloped in the early stages of his training. Forcing the voice and the body, suggesting more support is counterproductive. In most cases, the body will stiffen (and so will the voice), fatigue will appear, and finally the singer will “crack”.
Typically, the young light lyric tenor engages too much support, as strange as it may seem. There is too much physical strength involved, and not enough energy or flexibility allowing him to sing in light mechanism. The more breath he inhales, the more he has to engage muscles to hold the breath back. This leads him to sing in heavy mechanism. As always, the Golden Rule of singing is not the quantity of breath but the quality of the breath management. The noble posture (see article on ‘Posture and Breath‘) allows the singer the full use of his physical abilities and to avoid tension. The solar plexus, for example, must not be rigid but allow for a reliable Appoggio; the lumbar muscles must provide an antagonistic response to the abdominal area. The hips must be flexible enough to pivot, especially when singing legato and high. Working on breathing, on staccati, and on rapid exercises will prevent excessive efforts and the inevitable fatigue. Flexibility and energy allow the young light lyric tenor to understand what support really means.
The physical image must also be briefly mentioned. The greatest tenori di grazia of the last century often looked unduly elegant, somewhat dandyish. The modern light lyric tenor is as masculine as any other, even when he decides to develop the physical and vocal aspects of his voice, especially elegance and softness of tone. To achieve this, he must see himself as he really is and understand that these are assets to be used.
During a 1995 Masterclass, Alfredo Kraus stated that learning to sing merely means to look for an ‘i vowel’-based natural vocal production. The “least vocally tiring vowel” – according to Kraus – “opens the throat” and avoids darkening the voice.
Since vocal flexibility is essential for the light lyric tenor, it seems appropriate to select staccati exercises. They will expand the light mechanism. Furthermore, legato singing is more difficult for light lyric tenors. Staccato is a logical introduction to a more legato and slower singing. Read Richard Miller’s notes on the topic.
The Bel Canto and some French operas are ideal; here some general ideas:
- Adam Le Postillon de Lonjumeau (Chapelou)
- Bizet Les Pêcheurs de perles (Nadir)
- Gounod Mireille (Vincent)
- Massenet Manon (Des Grieux)
- Mozart Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Pedrillo)
- Rossini Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Almaviva)
- Verdi La Traviata (Alfredo), Rigoletto (Duca), Falstaff (Fenton)
The following arias are especially appropriate:
- “Una furtiva lagrima” by Donizetti (Nemorino)
- “O Colombina” by Leoncavallo (Beppe/Arlecchino)
- “Vainement, ma bien-aimée” by Lalo (Mylio)
- “Ach, so fromm” ou “M’appari” by Flotow (Lionel)
As well as songs, mélodies and Lieder:
- “Ma rendi pur contento” by Bellini
- “Die schöne Müllerin” by Schubert.
Every singer must discover his/her voice, appreciate its qualities, and learn not to sing louder and larger than the instrument permits. In addition, it is highly recommended that vocal tutors – particularly those who rarely or never sang on stage – listen to their students’ performances, possibly in a large theater. One is suddenly very surprised by the smaller size of the voice, in comparison to the sound heard in the studio, even if the voice carries well. The repertoire must be carefully and deliberately chosen. Several options exist: according to his physical abilities, the light lyric tenor can sing leading and/or secondary roles. He can be Werther or Monostatos, Pedrillo or Monsieur Triquet, and of course a superb recitalist.
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