The Voice | Opera Voices | Contemporary | Classical


Baritones, it is said, sing and act, while tenors merely sing. That may tell us more about the roles they take than about the singers themselves, but certainly the finest baritones excel in both skills, none more than Tito Gobbi, whose most noted roles were Falstaff in Verdi’s eponymous opera, and Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca. By contrast, Fischer-Dieskau was at home in Wagner and Strauss, while in Verdi he was thought stern and unsmiling.

If Gobbi and Fischer-Dieskau are the most celebrated baritones of the last half-century, they have not occupied an empty stage. While the United States produced such fine baritones as Robert Merrill (1917–2004), Sherrill Milnes (b. 1935) and, more recently, Thomas Hampson (b. 1950), the former Soviet Union nurtured two of the most exciting singers to be heard today, Sergei Leiferkus (b. 1946) and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (b. 1962). In Britain the young Bryn Terfel launched a successful career after making a great impression at the 1989 Cardiff Singer of the World competition.

Singers as diverse as Hans Hotter (1909–2003) and José van Dam (b. 1940) have been labelled ‘bass-baritones’, but it is debatable whether this denotes a separate voice-type, or simply indicates perceived extra weight, depth or colour. What is not in doubt is that, baritones or bass-baritones, these men have been uncommonly talented as singers and as actors.


Although he made his début in the pre-war era, the Swedish tenor Jussi Björling (1911–60) was thought among the finest if not the most imaginative tenors of the post-war years. A fellow Swede, Nicolai Gedda (b. 1925), proved able to encompass virtually the entire tenor repertory from the Baroque to the twentieth century, though he was most impressive in Italian opera.

Through the 1950s, a succession of Italian singers dominated in their national repertory. Carlo Bergonzi made his début as a baritone but, switching to tenor in 1951, he proved one of the most elegant singers of his day. Mario del Monaco (1915–82), Franco Corelli (1921–2003) and Giuseppe di Stefano (1921–2008) sang more brashly, but for many listeners, that was what the music required. Di Stefano made many notable recordings and appearances with Callas. The Spaniard Alfredo Kraus (1927–99) was perhaps Bergonzi’s equal in refinement.

Peter Pears had a distinctive voice that is inseparably linked to the music of Britten, who wrote several operatic roles especially for him, including Peter Grimes. When the Canadian Jon Vickers took that role at Covent Garden and on disc, Britten was reportedly unhappy with his interpretation. Vickers was nevertheless a tenor of genuinely heroic timbre, able to sing Monteverdi and Handel with the same intensity he brought to works by Verdi.

Leading Wagnerian singers have included Wolfgang Windgassen (1914–74) and Siegfried Jerusalem (b. 1940). Had he not died so young, the German Fritz Wunderlich (1930–66) might have become a fine Wagnerian; as it is he is particularly remembered for his elegance in Mozart. For two decades and more after...

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