Opera’s Greatest Tenor Roles
A tenor is a (usually) male singer, with the highest voice type of the usual male voice range.
We’ve compiled a list of some of opera’s most famous, challenging or beloved roles in the operatic repertoire, and had a look at their best arias. Take a look!
Calaf – Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot
Puccini‘s Turandot concerns the Princess of China, Turandot, deciding on suitors by asking them three riddles. First witnessing the unfortunate outcome of the unsuccessful (death by beheading), the youth Calaf falls for the royal immediately. Whilst he succeeds in answering her riddles three, Turandot still resists marrying her new suitor. Calaf gives her one chance by mirroring her trials – if she guesses his true name by daybreak, he is open to death, but if she fails, they will wed. The opera ends with the two lovers ascending the throne, with Turandot telling the assembled crowd Calaf’s true name: Love.
A role fitting for a spinto tenor, the music written for Calaf needs a tenor with a bright timbre and high range, whilst retaining the support of lower registers, so that the voice might be pushed to dramatic climaxes. ‘Nessun dorma’ is a great case of this, used in many films to denote moments of great dramatic impact. The aria is most famously performed by renowned opera singer Luciano Pavarotti, whose performances of the aria gaining huge popularity, with the encore performance at the 1990 Three Tenors concert (with José Carreras and Plácido Domingo) leading the record to outsell all other classical recordings worldwide.
Aria: Nessun Dorma – Let no one sleep!
Probably the most well-known aria in opera repertoire, ‘Nessun Dorma’ is an infamous example of a tenor role, with the likes of Paul Potts, winner of Britain’s Got Talent, and other uses in mainstream media cementing the status of Puccini’s aria as one of the best.
The aria opens Act 3, where Turandot has decreed that if the Prince’s name isn’t found by morning, death will follow for the populous. Whilst panic grips the streets, the Prince waits earnestly in the moonlit gardens, awaiting his victory. A chorus of women can be heard in the distance singing ‘No one will know his name, and we will have to, alas, die, die!’, reassuring the Prince even further: ‘I will win! I will win!’.
The Unknown Prince was played by Gwyn Hughes Jones in ENO’s 2009 production of Puccini’s Turandot.
Orpheus – Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld
How could we possibly do this list without mentioning one of the star roles of our Orpheus Series? Offenbach’s titular tenor role of his operetta Orpheus in the Underworld features the mythical hero in a less than traditional interpretation: Orpheus loathes Eurydice, and is convinced to go after her by Public Opinion, insisting that he retrieve her from the Underworld. Once there, he finds that Jupiter is enraptured with his deceased spouse, much to his delight. He half-heartedly tries to bring Eurydice back to the land of the living, but when the jealous Jupiter sends a thunderbolt, Orpheus jumps and turns back – condemning Eurydice to the Underworld, an ending that everyone (with the exception of Public Opinion) is rather happy with.
This Orpheus is by no means the hero of Greek myth you’re likely familiar with though – he’s a conceited, self-obsessed musician with little regard for his wife’s opinion. Not that Eurydice is much better, seeking comfort in the shepherd Aristaeus (who we later learn is Pluto in disguise). Whilst the plot of the operetta has an ensemble cast of humans, gods and thought forms, the Orpheus myth is at the centre of it, behind the bickering deities, farce and parties.
Aria: Ah! is it thus? (‘Ah c’est ainsi’)
When the adulterous pair discover each other’s infidelity (in the original staging) in Act 1, Eurydice insists that they divorce immediately. Orpheus, already familiar with the interfering Public Opinion, fears their reaction, forcing Eurydice to keep the whole situation quiet playing his violin – which Eurydice despises. Whilst she relents to not divorce, it by no means lessens her urges to seek comfort in Aristaeus, leading to her death by Pluto’s hand.
Whilst some productions play it off as Orpheus being seemingly unaware of his wife’s unease of his playing, Offenbach makes Orpheus’s character clear in the lyrics – ‘I shall take revenge on thy insolence’. But, like all characters, who Orpheus is depends on the production and the singer.
Orpheus wasportrayed by Ed Lyon in our 2019 production of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, part of ENO’s Orpheus Series.
Pinkerton – Giacomo Puccini’s Madam Butterfly
Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton is the primary male character of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly. When we first meet him, the US Navy officer has newly arrived in Nagasaki, where he has secured a marriage contract from broker Goro to marry a young bride – the 15 year old Geisha, Cio-Cio San. Whilst his friends disapprove, the selfish lieutenant sees the youthful Geisha as an amusement for his time in the city, whilst giving her every indication of his dedication – leading to the dramatic finale of the opera. Pinkerton is not a likeable character, and is by no means intended to be: he boasts that he won’t respect his wedding with Madam Butterfly even before the wedding, and does not deal rationally with the repercussions of his actions until it is too late.
Pinkerton is a perfect example of a lyric tenor role – a performer who possesses qualities of a full voice with a bright timbre. With a slightly smaller range than some other types of tenor voice, lyric tenor roles consist of many starring roles, including Rodolfo (La bohème, see below), Faust (Gounod), Alfredo (La traviata), etc. Despite these parameters, lyric tenor roles tend to require a versatile performer, and lead to some of the most varied roles in opera.
Aria: Farewell flowery refuge (‘Addio, fiorito asil’)
Despite a lack of solo arias (beyond one added by Puccini to satisfy a grumpy performer), the character is known as one of the great roles of Italianate tenors, attracting performers such as Plácido Domingo, Enrico Caruso and Luciano Pavarotti. Whilst it may have been written to pacify, the aria ‘Farewell, flowery refuge’ (‘Addio, fiorito asil’) is nevertheless some of Puccini’s finest writing. Sung by Pinkerton in Act 3, the aria is the moment of recognition for the officer, admitting his cowardice.
With rich, lyrical string accompaniment, the emotional and soaring melody is perfect writing for this apotheosis, giving a much needed moment of clarity to the lieutenant. Happening just after asking his friend Sharpless to tell Butterfly his developments since leaving her, his reluctance to see her in person is both understandable and shameful. This allows a performer to portray this moment with all the powerful emotions needed – truly a powerful moment in this character’s development.
Pinkerton was played by Dimitri Pittas in ENO’s 2020 production of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly.
Siegfried – Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle
The son of the incestuous siblings Siegmund and Sieglinde, Siegfried is first seen as the beginnings of the similarly titled opera Siegfried, although his conception is at the heart of The Valkyrie (Die Walküre). Siegfried is better known in Norse myth by the name of Sigurd, and appears in several Germanic epic poems, including the Nibelungenlied, the poem which was the basis of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle (also known as Der Ring des Nibelungen). Siegmund, whilst only appearing in Siegmund and Twilight of the Gods (Götterdämmerung), could be said to be the ‘main’ hero of the Ring Cycle.
Siegfried, much like many Wagner protagonists (such as Lohengrin, Siegmund, Tristan and Parsifal) is a Heldentenor role, also known as a heroic tenor role. Focusing more on the lower registers (close to a baritone register, hence why many heldentenors transition from being a baritone to the slightly higher roles), heldentenor roles are usually characterized by rich, dark and powerful writing, usually in German operatic repertoire. This by no means that a great vocal range is not required: Siegfried, possibly the most challenging heldentenor role, needs a singer with tremendous stamina to withstand playing the character.
Aria: Nothung! Nothung! Trusty sword! (‘Nothung! Nothung! Neidliches schwert!’)
Sung in Act 1 of Siegfried, ‘Nothung! Nothung! Trusty sword!’ is the dramatic climax of the first act, as Siegfried reforges his father’s sword. After his guardian Mime tells him that no one that knows fear could possibly be successful in the act, and threatening to take him to Fafnir’s lair to scare him, Siegfried disregards Mime’s warnings and successfully crafts the sword by himself.
Whilst Siegfried forges the sword, Mime sits aside, watching and scheming on how he can use this to his benefit. He plans to poison Siegfried after he obtains treasures, and claim ring, gold and sword for himself – a dastardly plan for a malicious dwarf.
Siegfried was played by Richard Berkeley-Steele in ENO’s 2004 production of Wagner’s Siegfried.
Don José – Georges Bizet’s Carmen
Don José is the central male character of Bizet’s Carmen, and the character who’s devolution we see over the course of the opera. When first we see him, Don José is the stoic corporal of the Spanish army, admired by Micaëla, whose mother wishes them wed. Carmen, enchanting the crowds of the factory workers. Before they return to work, Carmen throws Don José a rose. What follows has Don José jailed for freeing her from binds, after she attacks a fellow factory worker with a knife.
Don José follows Carmen and her band of smugglers after he’s released, attacking his superior officer when he comes to arrest Carmen. Fleeing Seville for the mountains, Carmen soon grows bored with the soldier after he has essentially given up all for her, with José growing increasingly desperate with Carmen, begging for her attention, which she has turned to the toreador Escamillo. When Carmen is attending the bull-fighter’s show, Don José makes his last pleas in vain, stabbing Carmen in his frustration.
Don José is truly who the tenor makes him – he can be a sympathetic figure, lead on by Carmen’s manipulations, or he can be a demanding villain, expecting her devotion for his sacrifices. Along with the stellar writing for the character, Don José is a role that tenors anticipate playing. Carmen is interesting in that in many ways, it is Don José’s story: he is the one whose story we follow as he loses his way pursuing Carmen, who loses interest in him quickly. The tenor who plays José is the emotional crux of the opera.
Aria: The flower which you threw me (La fleur que tu m’avais jetée)
When José tells Carmen in Act 2 he must return to the barracks, Carmen reacts by mocking the soldier – he’s more dedicated to his work than to her. In response, he presents the flower she threw to him at their first meeting, to show his continued devotion to her.
Whilst she remains unconvinced by Don José, it can’t be from the gesture itself – in characteristic romanticism (up to this point), he sings a lush romantic serenade (the Flower Song), about clutching to the flower through his time in prison, that to be with Carmen became his one desire.
Don José will be played by Sean Panikkar in the upcoming 2022 production of Bizet’s Carmen.
Rodolfo – Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
Whilst in the original novel (Scènes de la vie de bohème) Rodolfo was simply one character among many in a series of vignettes, Puccini’s La bohème (with book by Luigi Illaca and Giuseppe Giacosa) focuses primarily on the relationship between Rodolfo and Mimì, relegating the character to the forefront. Now amongst the most famous operas of all time, La bohème has enraptured audiences since its debut in 1896, and engaged with its story of love and loss.
Rodolfo, a poet, meets with Mimì, a seamstress, when she comes to his apartment asking for matches. After falling in love, their story becomes twisted when Mimì becomes aware of Rodolfo’s flaws – he abandons her in the middle of the night and is frightfully jealous. Later, we learn the jealousy is his concern for her: she has been taken by consumption (a severe illness, usually thought to be tuberculosis).
Rodolfo is arguably the most famous tenor role, and once again, it could be argued that, despite La bohème having a large cast of characters, Rodolfo is the main character, whose perspective we follow.
Aria What a cold little hand (‘Che gelida manina’)
The meeting of Mimì and Rodolfo, the stunning aria happens on Christmas Eve, as Mimì seeks matches to relight her candles. Overcome by weakness. She drops her room key, and the two crawl about trying to find it. When Rodolfo grabs her hand, the profession of adoration spills out of him as he asks her to stay with him.
The glorious flowing melody make the serenade one of the most renowned in the tenor repertoire, with soaring strings accompanying a dramatic climax. The beauty of the moment is one of opera’s finest moments, just as Rodolfo is one of opera’s finest roles.
Rodolfo was played by Jonathan Tetelman in ENO’s 2019 production of Puccini’s La bohème.
The Prince – Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka
Perhaps one of the lesser known roles on this list, it is nevertheless a stellar tenor role by one of the finest eastern European composers, Antonín Dvořák, in his opera Rusalka. The Prince’s first appearance comes in Act 1, after Rusalka has made her deal with the witch Ježibaba to become human. Riding into the scene heralded by the sounds of horns and singing, the Prince rides in pursuing a white doe (a creature with an ability to supernaturally evade capture in Arthurian legend, symbolizing the spiritual quest of mankind). Sensing some intangible attraction to the water of the lake, he approaches the witch’s hut, wherein he encounters Rusalka, whom he is instantly enchanted with.
Returning to the royal palace, the Prince soon begins to tire of Rusalka’s constant silence (a requirement of Ježibaba’s enchantment), and starts to court a foreign Princess, despite being engaged to marry Rusalka. Due to his infidelity, Rusalka becomes a vengeful spirit, which causes him great regret. Finding himself back at the lake where they met, he summons Rusalka, begging for her embrace, even though it would kill him. Rusalka relents, and the Prince dies.
Aria: I see a strange glow in your eyes (‘Vám v očích divný žár se zračí’)
Coming at the end of Act 2, the Prince implores the Foreign Princess for her help, as he is destined to wed Rusalka, but their bond is based merely on physical attraction – Rusalka remains mute. In the short time he’s spent with the Foreign Princess, he has a much stronger heart to heart connection. But after Rusalka throws herself into the Prince’s arms, his pleas fall on deaf ears, with the Princess turning away from him.
The role is one of indecision: having committed to marriage so quickly, he is soon plagued by doubts when a woman with whom he has a better connection appears. The finale of his story is as tragic as Rusalka’s – finally returning to the water spirit even though it means his death. Whilst being in every respect an archetypical ‘Prince Charming’, the ending subverts the expectation of a ‘happily ever after’, and is a great platform for a tenor to demonstrate their emotional vulnerability.
The Prince was played by David Butt Philip in ENO’s 2020 production of Dvořák’s Rusalka.
Otello – Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello
Adapted from the Shakespeare play of (almost) the same name Othello, Verdi‘s Otello features the titular general arriving back to Cyprus after a naval battle, envied by his ensign, the treacherous Iago. Constantly undermined by Iago, Otello is deceived into believing his wife Desdemona may be deceiving him, and being unfaithful to him with the captain Cassio. When Otello kills his wife, Iago’s plot is revealed – that his wife was always faithful, and Iago just manipulated events and Otello’s insecurities. The general, struck by grief and guilt, stabs himself in the heart. He sings one more aria before dying next to Desdemona.
A role requiring strength in both voice and acting, Otello is a role any tenor approaches with caution. Renowned as a ‘voice killer’, the part is a rigorous workout for the voice, requiring a huge amount of stamina as well as a massive range. From an acting standpoint, in a single performance the performer needs to show a huge dramatic range, from the stoic hero of Act 1, to a heartbroken, vulnerable wretch at the end. Verdi’s orchestrations are likewise unforgiving, with dense textures that the tenor’s voice must cut through to deliver a memorable performance.
Aria: God, you could have thrown every evil at me (‘Dio! mi potevi scagliar tutti i mali’)
This sorrowful aria follows the scene where Otello first confronts Desdemona with accusations of infidelity, demanding to see her handkerchief she keeps (which has been sneaked into Cassio’s possession by Iago). Sending her away, Otello laments how his life has descended with this beautiful aria, calling on God to ask how it has come to this: ‘That sun has been snuffed out, that smile, that ray, which gives me life and happiness!’ – evidently not a happy chappy.
Otello is known as one of Verdi’s most demanding roles, both vocally and dramatically. Perhaps the Italianate tenor most associated with the role is Mario del Monaco, a 20th Century tenor who performed as the character over 400 times.
Otello was played by Stuart Skelton in ENO’s 2014 production of Verdi‘s Otello.
Peter Grimes – Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes
The titular protagonist of Britten’s tragic opera is quite a different portrayal from that found in the story’s original incarnation in poet George Crabbe’s The Borough (1810). Whilst Crabbe’s Grimes was a cruel, sadistic and mean-spirited man, Britten’s Peter is more sympathetic, depicting him as a victim of public scrutiny and vindictive persecution. Peter Grimes was an opera (and by extension character) close to Britten’s heart. As an allegory of homosexual oppression, Grimes’ struggle of the individual against the masses was something Britten resonated with, and his writing for the character was particularly effective in portraying this.
The role of Peter Grimes fits in the category of a dramatic tenor (in every sense of the word), also known as ‘tenore di forza’ or ‘robusto’. These roles used an emotive, ringing singing sound with a specific approximate range, however the tone could vary from performer to performer. Most notable to take the role was likely Peter Pears, Britten’s life partner. Pears didn’t just create some of Britten’s best roles: they were written specifically for him: roles such as Grimes, Peter Quint (Turn of the Screw) and the Earl of Essex (Gloriana). Renowned for his clear, reedy timbre, (a distinctive quality in performers at the time), Pears regularly performed with Sadler’s Wells Opera Company, which later became English National Opera.
Aria: Great Bear and Pleiades
In Act 1, Scene 2 of the opera, the residents of the Borough are taking shelter in the Boar tavern from a raging storm when Grimes stumbles in. Having heard about the cliff falling into the sea by Grimes’s hut (which later is the cause of his apprentice’s death), the villagers react with hostility to him. Retreating into himself, Grimes sings the soaring and haunting reverie ‘Now the great Bear and Pleiades’.
Giving the tenor an excellent chance to demonstrate their emotional (and vocal) range, the aria shows just how much the ill intent towards Grimes has affected him, making him insular, moody and precisely the type of person the village think he is. Playing around in the upper register (on the E below high C) for extended periods, the aria often falls within a tenor’s transition area between middle and head voice (also known as passaggio), making it particularly challenging for many tenors.
Peter Grimes was played by Stuart Skelton in ENO’s 2014 production of Britten’s Peter Grimes.