Lemme hear that high note!

May 12, 2009




I saw Paul Potts singing on TV last week and heard an announcement that his new CD would be in stores on May 4. I went to Border’s and bought a Potts CD which turned out to be from 2007. I can’t complain about that; I took it off the shelf without examining it very closely. He has a pleasant enough voice that reaches into the upper end of the tenor range seemingly without strain. I think he lacks the firepower demanded by much of the tenor repertoire, but tenors – like cigars and coffee – are a matter of taste.

I, for one, never bought into all the excitement about Pavarotti. Clearly, I’m outnumbered. My taste is affected by the fact that I’m kind of a tenor maven, so I listen to many singers that most people have no reason to know about – obscure figures like Edmond Clement, Francesco Tamagno, Leon Escalais, and Father Sidney McEwan. I think the perennial discussion about “the greatest tenor” is a pointless exercise, because there are no objective criteria on which to base such a judgement. It’s more a question of “favorite” than of “greatest.”


Giovanni Martinelli

Giovanni Martinelli

For example, I prefer some tenors over some singers whom I know to be technically superior, precisely because I prefer them. Giovanni Martinelli is an example. He was nicknamed the “lion of the opera” because of the way he sometimes roared out his notes. He had his detractors on that account, but he has me as a fan for the same reason. When he was in his 70s he made a recording of “Wintersturme” from “Die Walkure” – but sung in Italian as “Cede il Verno” – and I think it’s the equal of a recording that Lauritz Melchior made at a much younger age.

My favorite tenor altogether is Count John McCormack, a legendary Irish singer whose career included roles with the world’s major opera companies as well concert tours, many recordings, and radio appearances. When McCormack first appeared on the operatic scene, he called himself Giovanni Foli (after his wife, Lily Foley) on the theory that he would fare better if audiences thought he was Italian.




It’s part of opera lore that McCormack once greeted Enrico Caruso as “the world’s greatest tenor” to which Caruso replied: “And when did you become a baritone?” I love to listen to McCormack singing Italian and French with that lilting brogue. But I especially like to hear his Irish songs, many of which are so melancholy. I also have a few recordings on which he speaks (one is a funny radio conversation with Bing Crosby), and I find it hard to listen to McCormack without smiling.


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