The opera stage is saturated with sidekicks to assist the leading men in their romantic conquests. They may not be as notorious, but operatic characters such as Beppe, Pedrillo, Mime, Don Basilio, and the many other character tenors of the operatic stage are just as significant. “Character tenor” has become synonymous with other labels, including “spieltenor,” “comprimario,” and “buffo tenor.” Spielen in German literally translates into “to play”; comprimario is derived from the Italian “con primario,” or “with the primary” and buffo in Italian translates into “comic.” These ideas shed light on the functionality of the character tenor in opera. There are other labels for the tenor fach, including lyric tenor, which indicates an importance of the beauty of vocal color. It is not to say that character tenors should not sing with a beautiful tone, but often the stress of the role lies in the text declamation and acting ability.
So why would a young singer choose to pursue a career singing “secondary” character tenor roles? Villians, drunks, dwarfs, gypsys, servants, idiots, “foppish” characters, and many other types are included in the character tenor repertoire. The vast array of characters provides the young performer the opportunity to develop not only a solid set of vocal chops, but also an ability to physically and dramatically portray an abundance of physical and emotional characters. A character tenor must have the ability to move easily from a gnarled grotesque Mime in Siegfried to a fluid and foppish Tanzmeister in Ariadne auf Naxos. The tasks seem quite bipolar at times, but that is certainly part of the job and adds a wonderful element of fun to this repertoire.
The character repertoire is also some of the most appropriate and vocally healthy repertoire for young tenors. Frequently, one of the first assigned tenor arias is “O Columbina” from I Pagliacci. In addition to the wealth of characters there is certainly a wealth of legitimate vocal challenges. For example, the Tanzmeister in Ariadne auf Naxos must have a solid high B-flat at the end of his aria. Pedrillo must be able to tackle with ease ascending lines through the passaggio with a multitude of high A’s in “Frisch zum Kampfe!” Even Mime’s grotesque characters must be accompanied by moments of lyric vocal beauty.
The dramatic challenges of the repertoire are infinite, and it seems like a life-long journey to master to multitude of characters in the repertoire. While vocal technique is important for vocal beauty and longevity, it is certainly not a stretch to say the acting ability is more important in this repertoire. These “secondary” roles must be able to adapt quickly in a rehearsal and bring clear ideas and “bits” to rehearsals. Rehearsals periods are usually very quick and character singers must come with developed ideas. Stage Directors rarely have the time to work intimately with comprimario roles as they do with the leading men and women.
When I began singing, like many other young tenors, I envisioned myself as a leading man, wooing the dying sopranos in my arms. Ever young tenor has grand dreams of singing arias with handfuls of high notes followed by thunderous applause and “Bravos!” I would never have guessed I would have found my place singing sidekicks, dwarfs, and villians, and loving EVERY minute of it.
Marc Schapman, Associate Professor of Voice and Director of the Musical Theater program