(Talk Like An Opera Geek attempts to decode the intriguing and intimidating lexicon of the opera house.)
In the opera world, when it comes to male singers, the tenor is the big star — think Pavarotti and Domingo. They get to play kings, heroes, swashbuckling lovers and high-maintenance romantics. They also get to sing the high notes, with a range generally from C below middle C on the bottom, and up two octaves to the so-called "high C." But tenors didn't always hog the limelight with their pinging notes and plum roles.
First, a quick history lesson on the word itself, which comes from the Latin tenere, or "to hold." And that explains the importance, early on, of the tenor line (or register) holding firm in comparison to the other vocal lines in polyphonic vocal music of the late medieval and Renaissance eras. The tenor part acted as a musical spine, a compositional foundation, even in non-vocal works.
The idea of the tenor might have been important in old church music, but that status did not immediately transfer to opera when it was invented around 1600. There were a few significant tenor roles from opera's earliest important composers, like Monteverdi and Caccini, but as musical tastes shifted, the powerful, ethereal, higher-flying voices of the castratos began to dominate. Composers from Handel through Mozart wrote starring roles for these surgically altered singers, who became the rock stars of the 1700s.
In the early 19th century, plum tenor roles become more plentiful, thanks to composers like Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi. And that's when the tenor began to acquire the characteristics we think of today — and not all of them necessarily good ones.
Tenors have a reputation for being headstrong, high-strung and erratic. Perhaps it's because so much is asked of them. Composers eventually required the voice to go higher (up to the F above high C in Bellini's I Puritani) and, as orchestras increased in size, louder. The tenor voice is, like all voices, a fragile instrument, and opera singers are asked to do a lot of heavy lifting with those two little vocal cords.
Below is a sample of a few kinds of tenors, based on the size and timbre of the voice — from the agile and light to the large and dark.