His father was a tenor, just the sort of high brassy singer that tops any choral medicine with power and vibrato. My grandfather had a record of him singing. Also a record of himself and my grandmother singing in a choir together, which is how they met, for an Easter cantata. Per his request, I played it at his funeral, almost exactly three years after my grandmother died. Before he died he told me, "Just play it, don't say anything. Make sure it's good and loud, and let 'em take it in. They'll figure it out." I did. They did. Grandpa's voice was unmistakeable. Grandma's was harder to pick out, she was an indifferent singer, but she was as much a part of the choir as my grandfather, it was the one thing they did together without fail or argument.
All my young life, I also sang in the youth choir at my grandfather's church. I suppose that's why I can still carry a tune without going flat. And my grandfather always said to me, "Boy, pray that when your voice changes, you're a tenor. That's the money voice." I never really knew what he meant, until my voice changed, and I was a rather ordinary baritone. Or maybe not - there are times when I'm just "on" and I can reach up for those stratospheric notes - but only if I give it absolutely everything, and go for broke. If my voice is in form, if the stars are aligned... But that's only happened once or twice, and I've done next to nothing to develop my voice. Like my mother, I"ve got a decent ear for a tune, but have a sort of thin and weedy singing voice. One of many things that would ultimately be such a keen disappointment to my grandfather.
Anyway, for a man who appreciate voice so much, Grandpa almost never listened to music. When he did though, there was nothing he loved more than a good tenor. His very favorite was Enrico Caruso, who was no doubt the reason he called tenor "the money voice" - a good opera tenor, or even just a tenor with strong support, gets all the plum roles, and all the good solos. Caruso was the Elvis of my grandfather's generation; a charismatic singer renowned for his passion as much as for his technical excellence. Grandpa also liked Placido Domingo and especially "Mr. Pavarotti" as he caled him; and always pronouncing it as he imagined an Italian would. He did the same thing with "marinara sauce" too, so I think it was more about his name being Italian than particularly worthy of respect...
Not long ago I saw a video for a funny little fellow called Paul Potts on "Britain's got Talent" singing "Nessun Dorma". It was astonishing; he was a little ill-favored looking man with an unfortunate dentifrice and a very meek demeanor - until he started singing. Then he opens his mouth, and this voice comes out - no - this Voice. It's bigger than him, and his whole body shakes with the effort of letting it escape from him. Little old ladies in the audience literally burst into tears. Men and women leap to their feet, roaring out their admiration for him- and even one of the presenters is so overcome she has to turn away from the camera to compose herself. It's glorious, surprising, shocking; and a reminder of just the marvellous things we upright monkeys can do. I confess, I can't watch it still without getting at least a little misty. (There's a link under the cut)
Remembering my grandfather, and after Mr. Pavarotti's death, I dug up Pavarotti on youtube singing the same song, "Nessun Dorma" which is surely one of the great tests of an opera tenor's ability. The difference is remarkable - Mr. Potts is nearly shaken to pieces by his own voice, whereas Mr. Pavarotti makes it seem utterly effortless. That, I suppose, is what a long career and perfect expertise gets you - the ability to establish the same vocal support with much less effort. I found another video of Carrera, Pavarotti and Domingo (the three tenors) singing it as well. I couldn't find Caruso anywhere on youtube, but Rhapsody has it here. And then, impishly, I decided I liked Mario Lanza's rendition the best. Grandpa didn't like Mr. Lanza, he felt he was too sensual, too scandalous to be taken seriously as a singer. I suspect it had something to do with the way that ladies of my grandfather's generation swooned for Mario Lanza, rather than an indictment of his talent. Lanza was an amazing singer, of course - but he was also more of the stereotype of the passionate Italian than his mroe technical peers were, and maybe that's what my grandfather didn't like. Still, the way his brow furrows when he sings, the way he can't quite keep his eyes all the way open - he's experiencing something in his performance that comes across as more intimate, more personal than any of the others. Heck, maybe he's just a better showman, I don't know.
So, behind the cut are some examples. Ye gods, i wish I could sing "Nessun Dorma" - what an audition song that would be! First up is Mario Lanza, and maybe you can see what I mean about his passion. Also the smouldering glances of the ladies, probably inspiring the smouldering resentment of other men of his generation. Next is Pavarotti, and you can see the difference; Pavarotti is far more elegant and refined than Lanza, goes to less effort, but is still superb, and moving. Like I said, there's no youtube of Caruso doing "Nessun Dorma" so I threw in "La Furtiva Lagrima" and a link to "Nessun Dorma" on Rhapsody. It's still a fair comparison though, and I can see why my grandfather favored Caruso. He has all the power of Lanza, but the technical perfection of Pavarotti.
Then, just in case you haven't seen it, is Paul Potts from that TV show... you can see the difference between the pros and the amateurs, but even so, when he is transformed from humble shopkeeper to a direct conduit between grace and humanity via the voice - it's moving in a way that the grand masters can never do, they're lacking the backstory to have the same punch. Lastly, for giggles, I threw in Manowar donig "Nessun Dorma" at the Gods of Metal concert. I'll say this, their singer does have a fine voice...but he just can't resist throwing in that power falsetto at the end, and it steals some of his thunder. Also the drums were entrely unnecessary. But what the heck, it's still quite creditable, and an electric guitar chorus instead of violins is pretty much three flavors of awesome.
We've all got a voice, but not all of has have a Voice. Sure wish I did! Especially that money voice..
Enrico Caruso: (Una Furtiva Lagrima)
Or you can listen to Nessun Dorma on Rhapsody, here. Paul Potts: