Head Voice and the Heroic Tenor

Urlus as Siegfried in “Götterdämmerung”

Anyone who has read a bit about vocal history has been alerted to an important change in tenor singing midway through the 19th century. It’s often localized to Paris in 1837, when Gilbert-Louis Duprez electrified the Opéra with his Ut de poitrine - a high C in chest voice. This was in the role of Arnold in Guillaume Tell, and was considered phenomenal. One is given to understand that tenors previously had made a transition at the classic passaggio - the notes around the F above middle C - and had proceeded upwards in head voice.

Like almost everything else in history, the story is more complicated than a single anecdote, but something really did change, and tenors really did - over a span of many years - come to favor the muscular adjustments we agree to call “chest voice” higher and higher in their ranges. But what did they sound like before? We are used to hearing some tenors attempt some high notes in head voice still today - but these are soft notes. What about loud ones? 

Rossini is widely said to have preferred the way his original Arnold took the high C: “Nourrit sang it in head voice, and that’s how it should be done.” Well and good, but in that case, “head voice” had to ring out at the climax of a big aria in a big theater over a big male chorus singing in the potent upper midrange of its respective voice-types, to the accompaniment of all the strings, eight woodwinds, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, and timpani, all instructed to play fortissimo. If Adolphe Nourrit’s high C was anything other than loud and exciting, he could only have been a failure, and Rossini could only have been incompetent to compose the aria as he did.

There are a few tenors from the pre-microphone era who can help us get some idea of what this might have meant - especially among the earliest ones, growing up without the influence of Enrico Caruso (who took things even farther in the chesty direction). Lots of these men could sing quite softly right to the top of their ranges, but without sounding like what we would now call “falsetto” - it is firmer and more colorful than that. A very few, though, had an identifiably “heady” sound also in the forte notes. One of the most interesting is Jacques Urlus, a Dutch tenor who lived from 1867 to 1935 and had a long career reaching practically all the world’s operatic capitals. Here he is at the age of 48 in Meyerbeer’s “O paradis”: a fresh, ductile voice, capable of pinpoint attacks and of sculpting the most elegant legato line, very full and baritonal in his lower range, very easy on the top - but easy in a different way from anything we are used to. Check out in particular the two B-flats at 1’23’’ and 3’21’’ for what is meant by “head voice” - and yet they are not piano sounds. 

As often happens when we hear through the veil of primitive recording, we might be tempted to ask “yes, but was this a big voice”?  It was. Urlus made his stage debut in 1894 - a late starter, having been a blacksmith, a steelworker, and a soldier before dedicating himself to music - and within a year his repertory included Siegmund, Tannhäuser, and Radames. Both Siegfrieds followed, along with Otello, Eleazar, Samson, José. He sang his first Tristan in Leipzig in 1900 and continued to sing it practically every season - in Berlin, Munich, Vienna, London, Boston, New York, Paris, Buenos Aires, Amsterdam - for the next 33 years. In 1924 at Covent Garden he shared the Heldentenor roles with the young Lauritz Melchior, and nine years later, when Urlus was 66 and Melchior was a household name worldwide, a critic reviewing a Concertgebouw concert could still write of “astonishment” at the “enormous, mighty volume” of his sound. Those heady notes must have had an amazing overtone-structure in real life. 

Urlus actually sang Arnold himself; I wish he had recorded more from Guillaume Tell than a brief, dim duet fragment. I also wish we could hear two of his specialties, the Evangelist in the Matthew Passion and the tenor part in Das Lied von der Erde, which he performed in the work’s Salzburg premiere and repeated often with Mahler’s protégé Mengelberg conducting. HMV was all set to record this with the Concertgebouw in 1930 when it was cancelled at the last moment as a cost-cutting move in Depression times. It could have been the most important Mahler recording ever, but what is Mahler compared to prudent budgeting?  

We do have excerpts from all Urlus’s Wagner roles except Parsifal, and a broad selection from the rest of his repertory;  all 144 items are worth attention. Here are fragments from four:  in 1903 we hear the younger voice walking effortlessly through the high tessitura of Lohengrin’s love music; in 1908 the tantalizing fragment from Arnold (did Nourrit just possibly sound something like that on the high notes?); in 1923 we hear him as Faust, putting the head voice to its more familiar task of floating a pianissimo, and finally in 1927 we arrive at the only “modern” recording he made. This was a pair of arias sung for the new microphone technology when the tenor was 60. It’s somewhat regrettable that he should have chosen the occasion to record in French for the first time, but it’s worth overlooking the pronunciation for the sake of hearing the voice in higher-fidelity sound (two fragments sequenced together here). We can catch more clearly the glint of metal that must have been there all along to sustain the roles he sang. 

Teatro Nuovo puts great emphasis on learning from the singers who had never heard, or heard of, microphone singing - primitive recordings from more than a century ago, forming a link to the traditions of opera’s heyday and the infinite potential of the natural, unassisted human voice. Check this space regularly for samples, and click here for some pointers on how to listen.