Tenor Fächer: What Kind of Operatic Tenor are You?

Voice Classifications for Tenors

Three Tenors
Image courtesy of Amazon

Eight main categories of operatic tenors are generally recognized (listed from light to dark): countertenor, leggero, tenor buffo or spieltenor, lyric, Mozart, spinto, dramatic, and heldentenor. In addition, the unique comic style of Gilbert and Sullivan has attracted tenors who specialize in Savoy Opera. Though understanding the various German Fachs or Fächer is helpful when starting to sing or finding recordings of music you find enjoyable, most singers do not stay in one Fach for the duration of their lives.

Voices tend to mature into warmer, tones and some singers develop techniques and styles in order to cross over into new categories.

Countertenor

The rarest type of tenor is the countertenor. These singers have developed their falsetto extensively, so the register has more color and volume choices. They sing in the soprano and alto vocal ranges and are also called treble singers. A “sopranist” is the highest singing countertenor with a range from around C4 to C6. Countertenors have a light quality and sometimes sing roles originally written for the castrati, who were grown men with the full breath and resonance qualities of an adult but whose voices never changed as their genitals were removed. The practice is abhorrent in modern culture, which left many male operatic roles meant for higher voices vacant. Countertenors are one way to fill those roles, though their lighter vocal quality is far different than the castrati.

Soubrette sopranos with bright voices also fill the roles which are referred to as pants or trouser roles. In addition, modern composers are now writing parts specifically designed for countertenors that celebrate their unique sound.

  • Range – Anywhere from G3 to C6
  • Roles – Athamas in Semele by Handel, Voice of Apollo in Death in Venice by Britten, and Annas in Jesus Christ Superstar by Lloyd Webber
  • Countertenors – James Bowman, Paul Esswood, Michael Chance, Robin Blaze, David Daniels, Valer Sabadus, and Andreas Scholl
  • Listen to clips of David Daniels singing Handel Arias

Leggero

The leggero tenor, like the coloratura soprano, has a flexible voice known for easily performing long series of arpeggios and runs. Another name for the leggero tenor is tenore di grazia, the first word meaning light and the second word meaning graceful in Italian. The repertoire for leggeros is not nearly as diverse as for coloraturas; most of their repertoire is baroque and early Italian composers, such as: Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. Arguable the most challenging role for a leggero is Arturo in I puritani by Bellini, which requires a tenor to sing the high F, above the often praised high C tenors are known for. Unlike other tenors, these high notes can be sung in a fuller head voice, rather than the lighter falsetto. Sometimes leggero tenors also have access to a few lower notes than other tenors.

  • Range – From A2 to G5
  • Roles – Ernesto in Don Pasquale by Donizetti, the title role in Le comte Ory by Rossini, Arturo in I puritani by Bellini
  • Leggere – Juan Diego Flórez, Rockwell Blake
  • Listen to clips of Juan Diego Flórez singing Rossini Arias

    Tenor buffo or spieltenor

    The spieltenor is similar to the soubrette soprano Fach. Both specialize in roles having slightly lower tessituras and a lighter quality than lyric tenors. Buffo is Italian for funny and speil is German for act, which refers to the type of operas they may sing in as well as their need to portray humorous roles. Spieloper are comical operas sung in German containing spoken dialogue such as Otta Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. Opera buffa are similarly funny, but contain recitatives rather than spoken dialogue. Elixir of Love by Donizetti is an example. The spieltenor’s roles tend to be secondary and often a tenor will age into lyric tenor roles.

    • Range – C3 to B4
    • Roles – Don Basilio in The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart, Monostatos in The Magic Flute by Mozart, The Magician in The Consul by Menotti
    • Speiltenors – William Burden, Pavol Breslik, Kanen Breen, and Gregory Turay
    • Listen to Kanen Breen sing the Australian National Anthem

    Gilbert and Sullivan and Operetta

    Gilbert and Sullivan’s Savoy Opera (a type of comic opera) as well as other operettas require the same talent for acting as the spieltenor. Unlike more serious operas, parts are not entirely sung. Roles are typically played by native speakers as understandability is paramount to the entertainment value of Savoy Opera. They are something in between opera and Broadway musicals, but require an entirely different style than the serious sung-through Broadway musicals sometimes sold as opera, such as Phantom of the Opera by Lloyd Weber and Les Misérables by Claude-Michel Schönberg. Tenor buffo and lyric tenors could easily sing the roles, as the style is similar, while Broadway stars might struggle.

    • Range – C3 to B4
    • Roles – Title role in Candide by Bernstein, Nanki-Poo in The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan, Colonel Fairfax in The Merryman and His Maid by Gilbert and Sullivan
    • Gilbert and Sullivan Tenors – Durward Lely, Neville Griffiths
    • Listen to clips of Neville Griffith singing arias from The Sorcerer, “Love Feeds on Many Kinds of Food,” “Thou Hast The Power Thy Vaunted Love,” and “Prepare for Sad Suprises.” For fun, you may want to listen to the last nine songs of the unconventional recordings by Danny Kaye who stars with Bing Crosby in the movie musical White Christmas.

    Lyric

    The lyric tenor has a higher range and lighter tone quality than the other tenors who sing with chest, head, and mixed voice.

    It is the most common tenor part. Many of the most well-known tenors sang lyric tenor roles for most of their careers, for instance from the Three Tenors: José Carreras, Enrico Caruso, and Placido Domingo. The leading tenors in some of the most famous operas are all lyric tenor roles. Though roles are abundant, competition is stiff for lyric tenors. Their roles are often given to the heavier spinto tenor voice. Many find they must develop their acting and movement skills in order to stand out from the competition and earn a living as an opera singer.

    • Range – C3 to C5
    • Roles – Alfredo in La traviata by Verdi, Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni by Mozart, Il Duca in Rigoletto by Verdi, Tamino in Die Zauberflöte by Mozart
    • Lyric Tenors – José Carreras, Harold Meers
    • Listen to clips of José Carreras when he sang lyric tenor

    Mozart

    Mozart tenors specialize in his operas. Mozart arias require greater breath control than much of the rest of the lyric repertoire. In addition, the classical style of Mozart requires a wide dynamic range and knowledge of specific stylistic considerations. His arias are more beautiful with less scooping than his Italian opera contemporaries. Expressiveness in the Mozart style is achieved by much different means than in Italian opera.

    • Range – C3 to C5
    • Roles  – Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni by Mozart, title role in Lucio Silla by Mozart, Tamino in The Magic Flute by Mozart, Belmonte in Die Entführung aus dem Serail by Mozart
    • Mozart Tenor – Anton Dermota
    • Listen to clips of Anton Dermota you may especially here the Mozart style when listening to Die Zauberflöte (1999 - Remaster), Act I: Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön (Tamino)

      Spinto

      The spinto tenor has the same range as a lyric tenor and lies in weight between the lyric and dramatic tenor. Spinto in Italian means “pushed,” which denotes the power and warmer quality of the voice, though not as heavy or dark sounding as the dramatic or Heldentenor. This Fach is also sometimes referred to as Jugendlicher Heldentenor, meaning “young Heldentenor,” because a younger dramatic tenor often develops into a Heldentenor as they age. Likewise, lyric tenors often become spintos as they age. A spinto tenor has the ability to be heard over a fuller romantic orchestra with a larger number of string, brass, woodwind, and percussion instruments. Though some repertoire is more appropriate for a spinto tenor, they often successfully sing lyric and lighter Wagnerian roles.

      • Range – C3 to C5
      • Roles – Don José in Carmen by Bizet, Dick Johnson in La fanciulla del West by Puccini, Cavaradossi in Tosca by Puccini, and the title role in Don Carlos  by Verdi.
      • Spinto Tenors – Luciano Pavarotti, Jonas Kaufmann, Plácido Domingo, Giovanni Martinelli, Georges Thill, and Jussi Björling
      • Listen to clips of Jonas Kaufmann

      Dramatic

      A dramatic tenor has a larger, more powerful, and darker voice than lyric and spinto tenors. Some have a quality similar to a baritone, but with the ability to sing higher pitches. Other dramatic tenors are described as “tenore robusto" or "tenore di forza.” These voices are likened to a trumpet. Some of the roles cross over with Spinto tenors, but less often with the heldentenor roles that require the most stamina, volume, and power of any of the tenors.

      • Range – C3 to C5
      • Roles –Dick Johnson in La fanciulla del West by Puccini, Florestan in Fidelio by Beethoven, title role in Peter Grimes by Britten, Samson in Samson et Dalila by Saint-Saëns
      • Dramatic Tenors – Francesco Tamagno, Mario Del Monaco
      • Listen to clips of Mario Del Monaco

      Heldentenor

      The Heldentenor is the most powerful, darkest, loudest, and brilliant type of tenor. Their voice is hardest to train and they tend to reach their highest potential a bit later in life than lyric or spinto tenors. Once they do, good Heldentenors are well paid and highly sought after. “Helden” means hero in German, which is appropriate as most of the roles played by Heldentenors are heroes of Richard Wagner’s operas. These tenors find power, glory, often riches, and always get the girl. The role of “Siegfried” from Richard Wagner’s “The Ring Cycle,” is the greatest and most demanding Heldentenor role.

      • Range – B2 to C5
      • Roles – Title role in Otello by Verdi, title role in Tristan und Isolde by Wagner, Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger by Wagner
      • Heldentenors – Ben Heppner, Ian Storey
      • Listen to clips of Ben Heppner singing arias by Wagner