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Vocal Vulnerability: Tenors, Voix mixte and Late Nineteenth-Century French Opera

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 September 2019


It is now a historical commonplace that nineteenth-century operatic singing became generally louder and heavier over the course of the century. Early in the century, before the advent of singers such as Gilbert-Louis Duprez, tenors sang high notes with a light, mixed voice, sometimes even falsetto. Strikingly, while such singing was virtually eliminated from Italian opera by the end of the century, the vocal practice continued in certain cases in the French repertory, some of which were created with one particular tenor in mind, Jean-Alexandre Talazac (1851–1896). Talazac was praised for his unique ability to sing high notes both softly and loudly. This article investigates the physical practice of producing what pedagogues and critics have called voix mixte, an enigmatic timbre applied to moments of soft, high tenor singing. In exploring these moments of what I call ‘léger mode’, I suggest that, by singing high notes softly in a post-Duprez operatic world, tenors transcend stage gestures through their use of a formerly normative performance style to mark moments musically as representations of vocal and masculine vulnerability. The historical evidence also argues for a renewed focus on what soft tenor singing might do for opera today.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2019 

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Sean M. Parr, Saint Anselm College, Manchester, NH, USA;

An early version of this article was presented during an evening session at the 81st Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society, Louisville, KY, November 2015. My thanks to the many scholars who have kindly offered perceptive insights and comments along the way, especially Susan Boynton, Kevin Findlan, Juliet Forshaw, Giuseppe Gerbino, Karen Henson, Mark Seto, Amber Youell and the anonymous reviewers for this journal.


1 Abbate, Carolyn, ‘Music – Drastic or Gnostic?’, Critical Inquiry 30 (2004), 535CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Abbate refers to performances of Wagner's Die Meistersinger and notes the heroism of Heppner's decision to continue singing, knowing what lay ahead even though he was ‘falling from the high wire again and again’.

2 One exception to this is the soft high B♭ at the end of Radames's first aria, ‘Celeste Aida’, in Verdi's Aida (1871), though it is rarely performed softly today. Aida is one of Verdi's operas with French attributes – an originally French libretto and featuring some French musical forms.

3 This article thus builds on the work of Karen Henson and James Q. Davies on tenors Victor Capoul and Adolphe Nourrit, respectively. See Henson, , ‘Victor Capoul, Marguerite Olagnier's Le Saïs, and the Arousing of Female Desire’, Journal of the American Musicological Society 52 (1999), 419–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Opera Acts: Singers and Performance in the Late Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, 2015); and Davies, , Romantic Anatomies of Performance (Berkeley, 2014)Google Scholar.

4 Although the shift in operatic vocalism has become a historical commonplace, one might wonder about singing softly in the more intimate genre of art song. Indeed, in terms of vocal performance practice traditions, singing art songs does often involve a great deal more and subtler dynamic gradations, especially at the softer end of the spectrum of volume. However, the vocal tessitura of art song is generally and significantly lower than the operatic tessitura, across higher and lower voice types and across repertories – Lieder, mélodie and beyond. It therefore remains the operatic realm that challenges singers the most with excursions into the upper register that push the voice to its furthest reaches and makes singing high softly that much more difficult.

5 Abbate, ‘Music – Drastic or Gnostic?’ In a roundtable discussion, Abbate revealed that she thought of several of her examples as ‘breadcrumbs’ purposely leading the reader and inciting further thought and study. This discussion was held with Lydia Goehr and Suzanne Cusick at the combined regional meeting of the American Musicological Society, Greater New York and New England chapters, held at Yale University on 1 October 2005.

6 Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker, A History of Opera (New York and London, 2012).

7 Martha Feldman, Emily Wilbourne, Steven Rings, Brian Kane and James Q. Davies, ‘Why Voice Now?’, Journal of the American Musicological Society 68 (2015), 653–85. This colloquy adds to the scholarly discourse on voice, a discourse enriched in recent years by several important interdisciplinary studies, including Michelle Duncan, ‘The Operatic Scandal of the Singing Body: Voice, Presence, Performativity’, Cambridge Opera Journal 16 (2004), 283–306; Adriana Cavarero, For More Than One Voice: Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression, trans. Paul A. Kottman (Stanford, 2005); Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More (Cambridge, MA, 2006); Gary Tomlinson, The Singing of the New World: Indigenous Voice in the Era of European Contact (Cambridge, 2007); Norie Neumark, Ross Gibson and Theo van Leeuwen, eds, Voice: Vocal Aesthetics in Digital Arts and Media (Cambridge, MA, 2010); Martha Feldman, The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds (Berkeley, 2015); and Nina Sun Eidsheim, Sensing Sound: Singing and Listening as Vibrational Practice (Durham, NC, 2015).

8 Neither of my goals would be possible without the shrewd provocations of Abbate's article, the important work of Rodolfo Celletti on vocal performance practice and James Stark on the history of vocal pedagogy. In synthesising this work and offering a vigorous response, I also hope to amplify and advance the potential of work that considers performance practice as drastic (and, yes, absolutely necessary) and integrates that with historical and interpretive work as the gnostic. In doing so, my argument does more than report on performance and practices of the nineteenth century; it also aims to demonstrate the problem of performance practice today and advocate for a new direction – one both theoretical and practical – in tenor vocalism. See Rodolfo Celletti, A History of Bel Canto, trans. Frederick Fuller (Oxford, 1991), and James Stark, Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy (Toronto, 1999).

9 Abbate speculates, for example, on finding ‘the regime of absolute monarchy’ in a musical phrase in an aria by Mozart, in order to point out the absurdity of asking hermeneutic questions in the moment of performing music. Abbate, ‘Music – Drastic or Gnostic?’, 510.

10 For more on the story and the problems of this transition in tenor singing, see John Potter, Tenor: History of a Voice (New Haven, 2009); Gregory W. Bloch, ‘The Pathological Voice of Gilbert-Louis Duprez’, Cambridge Opera Journal 19 (2007), 11–31; and Celletti, A History of Bel Canto. Journalist and singer Auguste Laget (1821–1902) made some relevant observations on the transition to the fort sound, comparing the strength of Nourrit's falsetto voix mixte with Duprez's chested high notes. Laget also notes that Gustave Roger adopted the lowered larynx of Duprez's technique, but still performed high notes in falsetto, to great effect. Interestingly, Laget points out a complication to our understanding of Duprez's singing, in describing the tenor's ability to join the legato sound of canto spianato with the elegance of voix mixte in a particular passage from Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots. Generally speaking, one of Laget's primary arguments is that the louder, more robust sound of Duprez became increasingly (and necessarily) adopted because of the growing size of orchestras and the increasing length of operas over the course of the nineteenth century. See Laget, Le Chant et les chanteurs (Paris, 1874), particularly 20–3 and the chapters on Duprez and Roger. I am grateful to Kimberly White for pointing me to Laget's work.

11 Prime examples of early nineteenth-century opéras comiques with léger tenor roles include Boieldieu's 1825 La Dame blanche (the tenor role of Georges Brown features frequent excursions above the staff that are marked soft or dolcissimo) and Adam's 1834 Le Chalet (the tenor role of Daniel is characterised by lightness throughout the range).

12 An important study of Lalo's Wagnerian approach can be found in Steven Huebner, French Opera at the Fin de Siècle: Wagnerism, Nationalism, and Style (Oxford, 1999), 231–51.

13 On recordings, the high C is sung forte, but the C should perhaps be piano: the chorus and orchestra are marked pp; no solo vocal dynamic is given. See Édouard Lalo: Le Roi d'Ys, Alain Vanzo/Orchestre et Choeurs Radio-Lyrique/Pierre Dervaux, ASIN: B0002HMUUY (Paris, 1973); and Le Roi d'Ys: Édouard Lalo, Sébastien Guèze/Opéra Royal de Wallonie/Patrick Davin, ASIN: B008REG988 (Dynamic, 2012).

14 The term ‘aubade’ originally referred to music intended for the morning – a dawn song. In the nineteenth century, the term was used as a title for a character piece, for instance Lalo's instrumental work Aubade et allegretto (1872) for strings and winds. The alba is a distant antecedent.

15 See Heather Hadlock, Mad Loves: Women and Music in Offenbach's ‘Les Contes d'Hoffmann’ (Princeton, 2000), 9–10.

16 See the review of his performance as Gérald (‘Toute la salle était suspendue à ses lèvres’) in Henri Moreno, ‘Lakmé ’, Le Ménestrel (22 April 1883), reprinted in Pauline Girard, ed., Lakmé: Dossier de presse parisienne (1883) (Weinsberg, 2008), 193.

17 ‘avec autant de suavité que de force’; Auguste Vitu, ‘La soirée théâtrale, Lakmé’, Le Figaro (15 April 1883), reprinted in Girard, Lakmé, 17. He was lauded for this dual ability in his earlier Delibes creation as well, the title role of Jean de Nivelle: ‘Il a vraiment une voix charmante dans les passages de tendresse et d'une sonorité superbe sur les notes élevées qu'on lui a prodiguées.’ See Adolphe Jullien, ‘Théâtre national de l'Opéra-Comique: Jean de Nivelle’, Revue et gazette musicale (14 March 1880), reprinted in Pauline Girard and Bérengère de l’Épine, eds, Jean de Nivelle: Dossier de presse parisienne (1880) (Weinsberg, 2006), 131. In addition to other roles that require both types of singing, such as Gounod's Faust and Bizet's Nadir, Talazac also performed more traditionally robust tenor roles, such as Verdi's Alfredo and Donizetti's Edgardo.

18 He noted, ‘la voix mixte est charmante et conduite avec le plus grand art’. See Albert Maz, ‘Revue Musicale/Théâtre de l'Opéra-Comique: Les Contes d'Hoffmann’, L'Ordre (16 February 1881), reprinted in Arnold Jacobshagen, ed., Jacques Offenbach, Les Contes d'Hoffmann: Dossier de presse parisienne (1881) (Bietigheim, 1995), 151.

19 ‘M. Talazac est, sans contredit, le premier ténor de Paris. N'est-ce pas tout dire? Aussi remarquable dans les effets de douceur que dans la force, cet artiste est pour l'Opéra-Comique d'un prix inestimable.’ Arthur Coquard, ‘Critique musicale, Opéra-Comique: Lakmé ’, Le Monde (25 April 1883), reprinted in Girard, Lakmé, 244. By the time of Talazac's hiring in the late 1870s, the Opéra-Comique was expanding its generic reach, producing works originally created for the Théâtre-Lyrique (which closed in 1872), as well as more foreign operas. With this broadening, the Opéra-Comique also had to expand its vocal resources, hiring singers able to sing such works. A versatile tenor such as Talazac therefore allowed the company to produce a greater variety of operas.

20 Lalo's correspondence reveals this to be true for Le Roi d'Ys – the composer actually added the duet following the aria at Talazac's behest. For more, see Édouard Lalo, Correspondance, ed. Joël-Marie Fauquet (Paris, 1989); and Huebner, French Opera at the Fin de Siècle, 248, on the duet's source. Talazac also had a hand in Massenet's writing of Des Grieux. The composer recalled one particularly touching textual contribution – adding a ‘toi!’ before a ‘vous’ when Des Grieux finds Manon in the seminary at St Sulpice. See Jules Massenet, Mes Souvenirs (Paris, 1912), 253.

21 Talazac's unusual abilities were also observed by critics: ‘M. Talazac est un des rares ténors que nous possédions en ce moment. Il a une voix superbe, d'une pureté délicieuse et d'un timbre exquis. Il s'en sert en virtuose consommé.’ See Georges Ohnet, ‘Opéra-Comique: Jean de Nivelle’, Le Constitutionnel (15 March 1880), reprinted in Girard and de l’Épine, Jean de Nivelle, 138. Tenors in the mid- to late nineteenth century (such as Enrico Tamberlik and Francesco Tamagno) were more often noted for their heroic vocalism and loud, clarion high notes, than for their ability to be both softly vulnerable and loudly aggressive.

22 Susan McClary, Georges Bizet: ‘Carmen’ (Cambridge, 1992), 97.

23 For more on this idea from a linguistic and cultural perspective, see Nelly Furman, ‘The Languages of Love in Carmen’, in Reading Opera, ed. Arthur Groos and Roger Parker (Princeton, 1988), 168–83. Furman writes of the importance of the idea of oneness in love, pointing out that the French pronunciation of ‘je t'aime’ reflects a merging of the three words ‘I love you.’ She refers to the idea of holophrastic expression to provide linguistic support for this cultural idea prevalent in the late nineteenth century. Using a Barthes paradigm, she construes the Flower Song as structured by the alternation of ‘I’ and ‘you’ (‘je’ and ‘tu’), a poetic binary. Furman goes so far as to suggest that José is entirely narcissistic in this aria and that the poetic binary is simply a way for him to express his own thoughts and desires.

24 Hervé Lacombe laments the monotony and uniformity of today's tenors and their inability to deal with an opéra comique role such as Don José that is ‘full of subtle nuance and calls for a varied palette of vocal colors’. Hervé Lacombe, The Keys to French Opera in the Nineteenth Century, trans. Edward Schneider (Berkeley, 2001), 48. Lacombe also provides a useful picture of the evolution of the tenor during the nineteenth century, emphasising the gradual nature of the change and the variety of tenorial singing during the period.

25 ‘M. Lhérie se dépense beaucoup dans le role de José; il gesticule et se remue trop, mais enfin il joue avec feu. Il est regrettable que sa voix, suffisante mais trop accessible à l'enrouement dans les passages de demi-caractère, le trahisse absolument pour pousser les grands cris de rage et de passion qui abondent dans la seconde partie du rôle.’ See Adolphe Jullien, ‘Revue musicale’, Le Français (15 March 1875). For this and more contemporaneous material related to Bizet's Carmen, see Leslie Wright, ed., Georges Bizet, Carmen: Dossier de presse parisienne (1875) (Weinsberg, 2001), 123.

26 I have chosen to limit my examination to three French pedagogical treatises, all by teachers who began their careers as operatic performers: Manuel Garcia fils, Traité complet de l'art du chant (Paris, 1847; Geneva, 1985); Jean-Baptiste Faure, La Voix et le chant (Paris, 1886); and Gilbert-Louis Duprez, L'Art du chant (Paris, 1846), reproduced in vol. 3 of Jeanne Roudet, ed., Chant: Les grandes méthodes romantiques de chant, 7 vols (Courlay, 2005).

27 Davies, Romantic Anatomies, 140.

28 An important, broad account of historical voice treatises is Stark, Bel Canto. See also Robert Toft, Bel Canto: A Performer's Guide (Oxford, 2013).

29 That voix mixte was a phrase describing a transitional technique for connecting chest and head registers is explained by Conservatoire pedagogue Alexis Garaudé, a pupil of the castrato Crescentini. Garaudé gives vocal exercises that employ voix mixte in this fashion. See Alexis Garaudé, Méthode complète de chant (Paris, 1840), 17.

30 My observations are summarised from the treatises, but some of the more pertinent passages are found in Garcia, Traité complet de l'art du chant, première partie, 21–4, and seconde partie, 54–8; and Faure, La Voix et le chant, 32–4.

31 Translated in Donald V. Paschke, ed., A Complete Treatise on the Art of Singing: Part One by Manuel Garcia II (New York, 1975), 20. From Garcia, Traité complet de l'art du chant, première partie, 22.

32 Translated in Paschke, ed., A Complete Treatise on the Art of Singing: Part Two, 161, emphasis mine; from Garcia, Traité complet de l'art du chant, seconde partie, 58.

33 The clear and sharp timbre may refer to the colour of voix blanche or voix claire, now thought of as a bright sound characterised by a high laryngeal position. See Bloch, ‘The Pathological Voice’, 14–15 and 31.

34 For more on Garcia's idea of vocal physiology and voix sombrée, see Bloch, ‘The Pathological Voice’, 14–18 and 25–31.

35 See Henson, ‘Victor Capoul’, 437. In her recent book, Henson also observes that Verdi and Wagner wanted tenors who could handle both light and dramatic singing, but were disappointed at the lack of such ‘all-rounders’. She also refers to the heavier, louder singing as ‘post-Duprez heroic tenor mode’. See Henson, Opera Acts, 129 and 135. As more and more tenors learned the technique to sing high notes more loudly, fewer tenors remained capable of singing softly generally, but especially in those moments of vocal vulnerability set in the highest register. Thus repertory operas that had originally called for lighter tenorial singing – for instance, the Italian bel canto operas – were sung with more robust tone by the end of the nineteenth century. And new works – by Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, etc. – also requested less delicate singing from tenors in their high range.

36 See Faure, La Voix et le chant, 43.

37 Mixed voice is listed only as a term synonymous with the head voice register in Francesco Lamperti's treatise. Lamperti's son Giovanni Battista, however, notes in his own treatise that few tenors can sing softly or perform a true messa di voce. See Francesco Lamperti, Guida teorica-pratica-elementare (Milan, 1864), 2, and G.B. Lamperti, The Technics of Bel Canto with Maximilian Heidrich, trans. Theodore Baker (New York, 1905), 25.

38 Summarised from Faure, La Voix et le chant, 32–4. Interestingly, Talazac was also considered by some to belong to the Duprez school of singing, further evidence of his ability to sing in both the older and the newer styles of singing. See, for example, Philbert Joslé’s review of his performance as Hoffmann in L’Événement (13 February 1881), reprinted in Jacobshagen, Jacques Offenbach, 66. The case of Talazac and more recent tenors such as Jon Vickers and Jonas Kaufmann argue convincingly that singing in a léger mode is possible for all tenor types, rather than just the premier ténor.

39 Gerhard, Anselm, The Urbanization of Opera: Music Theater in Paris in the Nineteenth Century, trans. Whittall, Mary (Chicago, 1998), 15Google Scholar.

40 Duprez also divides singers into two broad types that further polarise light and heavy sounds: agile and dramatic. This is made manifest in the overall organisation of his treatise into separate sections: one for power and one for agility. See Duprez, L'Art du chant, 60.

41 La Presse ‘used the example of the “new tenor” both to question Nourrit's masculinity and attack the high voix mixte’. The correspondent wrote, ‘we have a horror of those little fluted falsetto notes, that make one doubt the virility of he who produced them, and prefer, as in modern drama, to hear a man's voice from a man's chest’. Quoted and translated in Davies, Romantic Anatomies, 124.

42 Henson, Opera Acts, 141.

43 See the reviews cited in this article and in Henson, ‘Victor Capoul’, 437–9.

44 Interestingly, in practice, the loose phonation of mezza voce often results in a degree of breathiness, not a quality associated with voix mixte.

45 Chorley based his writings on having heard Nourrit in 1836. Quoted in Kelly, Thomas Forrest, First Nights at the Opera (New Haven, 2004), 221Google Scholar.

46 ‘Au quatrième acte, il a subi toutes les conséquences fâcheuses de sa nature; il a eu beau faire pour se ranimer et se rajeunir, nous pouvions bien consentir à voir en lui le huguenot guerrier, mais non pas l'amant éploré. Cependant il a lutté courageusement contre l'impression défavorable qu'il avait d'abord produite; il a modéré les sons de tête qu'il prodigue trop souvent, et qui impriment à sa voix le caractère du troisième sexe.’ See Gustave Planche, Chronique de Paris (6 March 1836), 261–4. Partially quoted and translated in Kelly, First Nights, 195. For more on Duprez and Meyerbeer, see Armstrong, Alan, ‘Gilbert-Louis Duprez and Gustave Roger in the Composition of Meyerbeer's Le Prophète’, Cambridge Opera Journal 8 (1996), 147–65CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

47 See Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, MA, 1990). Gilbert Herdt has also noted the growing symbolic equation in the nineteenth century between sex traits (anatomic identity) and sexuality traits. This resulted in males suppressing any sign of femaleness or desire for someone of the same sex. The third sex would not be equated with bisexuality but with homosexuality, sexual inversion or a symbolic go-between. See Herdt, ed., Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History (New York, 1994). Herdt locates the term ‘third sex’ as emerging in the early nineteenth century with the rise of scientific classification and studies of physiology. He writes that ‘virtually all known forms of third sex or gender suggest transformation of being and practice: the alteration of qualities or essences of the body and person with time’. See Herdt, ‘Introduction: Third Sexes and Third Genders’, in Third Sex, Third Gender, 63.

48 See Gert Hekma, ‘“A Female Soul in a Male Body”: Sexual Inversion as Gender Inversion in Nineteenth-Century Sexology’, in Third Sex, Third Gender, 235.

49 For more on this tale, see Henry Pleasants, The Great Tenor Tragedy: The Last Days of Adolphe Nourrit as Told (Mostly) by Himself (Portland, OR, 1995). Pleasants and Gregory Bloch are quick to note that Nourrit's suicide stemmed from the complicated psychological reactions to both his lack of vocal success and the illness (liver disease) that chronically impaired his health during his last years. See Bloch, ‘The Pathological Voice’, 11–12 and 27.

50 Quoted and translated in Radomski, James, Manuel García (1775–1832): Chronicle of the Life of a Bel Canto Tenor at the Dawn of Romanticism (Oxford, 2000), 271Google Scholar. For the original French, see Quicherat, Louis, Adolphe Nourrit: Sa vie, son talent, son caractère, sa correspondance (Paris, 1867), 290Google Scholar.

51 Davies, Romantic Anatomies, 140–1.

52 Clark, Maribeth, ‘The Body and the Voice in La Muette de Portici’, 19th-Century Music 27 (2003), 128CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The two sources are Louis Quicherat's biography, Adolphe Nourrit, and an account of the singer in a book on Meyerbeer by Bury, Blaze de, Meyerbeer et son temps (Paris, 1865)Google Scholar.

53 See Henson, ‘Victor Capoul’, 439, and Opera Acts, 140–2.

54 It would be interesting to consider the rejection of light tenor singing as the final of three aesthetic rejections of the operatic hero – first the castrato, then the female alto, and finally the pre-Duprez tenor. It would seem that the operatic hero needed not only a male gender, but also a loud, robust vocal sound to gain lasting acceptance.

55 See Miller, Richard, The Structure of Singing: System and Art in Vocal Technique (New York, 1986)Google Scholar and Training Tenor Voices (New York, 1993).

56 Even with greater scientific understanding, it remains difficult for pedagogues to be rigorous and conclusive about sound quality, which relies greatly on subjective evaluation and descriptors such as ‘warm’, ‘metallic’ and ‘full’.

57 Miller, Training Tenor Voices, 65–70. Interestingly, in an earlier book, Miller notes that the French national school of singing ignores registral breaks in the male voice. He adds that the open and less energised sound of French singing is typical of the ténor léger, ‘the French tenor par excellence’. See Miller, , English, French, German, and Italian Techniques of Singing: A Study in National Tonal Preferences and How They Relate to Functional Efficiency (Metuchen, NJ, 1977), 156–7Google Scholar.

58 Celletti, A History of Bel Canto, 167.

59 Although I often hesitate to categorise voices, my own voice might be labelled a tenore robusto, or a large tenore lirico. But I have found in teaching other tenors that the approach to voix mixte via a reinforced falsetto works well for all types of tenors, from those with a light voice to those with a more dramatic vocal weight.

60 It would seem that critics are ready for a return to a more regular use of voix mixte high notes. When Roberto Alagna attempted this in Carmen, he was lauded for his efforts, and when Jonas Kaufmann and Matthew Polenzani have incorporated different approaches to singing high notes softly, critics and audiences have reacted with acclaim. See Anthony Tommasini, ‘That Daring Gypsy Strikes Again, and Anew’, New York Times online (1 January 2010); Stephen J. Mudge, ‘Carmen’, Opera News 80/4 (October 2015, review of performance of 11 July 2015); and the many reviews cited on

61 Davies, Romantic Anatomies, 141.

62 Wilbourne, Emily, ‘Demo's Stutter, Subjectivity, and the Virtuosity of Vocal Failure’, in ‘Why Voice Now?’ Journal of the American Musicological Society 68 (2015), 659–63Google Scholar.