Marcelo Alvarez: Living the high life

As Marcelo Alvarez attempts to rival Pavarotti as 'king of the high Cs' at Covent Garden, Jessica Duchen explains why hitting the top notes can make or break a singer's career

King of the high Cs: it's a handy pun. But why are operatic high Cs such a big deal? The high C - actually, any inordinately high note sung long and loud - has a mystique all its own. Watching the Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez soaring through the nine Cs of the show-stopping aria "Ah, mes amis" in Donizetti's La fille du régiment at Covent Garden recently, I couldn't help thinking that it's about adrenaline. We're pre-programmed to respond to high, loud noises with that old fight-or-flight instinct, an adrenaline rush. A tenor's top notes, however refined, still provoke it. All he has to do is stand and deliver them, and the public goes bananas.

Verdi's romantic blockbuster Il trovatore, currently showing at the Royal Opera House, features one of the most famous high Cs of the lot, in the aria "Di quella pira". "There's something apparently superhuman about a tenor singing a long, high note," comments Marcelo Alvarez, the barrel-chested Argentinian tenor who's singing it in the role of the troubadour Manrico. "Everyone responds to this astonishing sound that they feel they'll never be able to make themselves."

Sometimes, though, the public goes a lot more bananas if the tenor misses. "Singing the high notes is enjoyable as long as it's easy," Florez tells me. "But it's not nice if you go to a performance and you hear someone struggling for that note." And certain audiences like to express themselves on this subject more forcibly than others - notably at La Scala, Milan.

Alvarez once fell foul of the booers at La Scala, allegedly because he didn't quite get a top note. He attributes the incident to a variety of other factors: "The audience there, if it doesn't like a production, often waits until the radio broadcast to make its feelings known on air," he declares. "Besides, in such cases it's only a tiny handful of people who are booing while many more clap and cheer, but of course it's the boos that make news."

But in December, the tenor Roberto Alagna made the news in a big way when he walked off the La Scala stage during the first act of Aida after his aria "Celeste Aida" was booed. He refused to go back. The combination of below-par performance and way-below-par behaviour led to the kind of virulent row that can only happen in opera: threatened lock-outs, law-suits and mud-slinging from everybody from the director Franco Zeffirelli ("Radames isn't exactly a role tailor-made for him") to the ballet dancer Roberto Bolle, who appeared as a slave in a gold thong ("I realise Alagna envies my body").

Many suggested that Alagna - who declared that the trauma of being booed had brought on hypoglycaemia - just didn't have the right voice for the role. Few were impressed by the handful of bars he sang, very quietly and into a microphone, in a subsequent television interview. "In the present market, a true Radames does not exist, so it's useless to search," declared Zeffirelli, interviewed in Il Giornale. "We have plenty of baritones, mezzos, but there's such a lack of dramatic tenors. In fact, nobody stages Il trovatore any more, because we live in the world where you don't have the singers for that kind of role."

In Mozart's day, tenors weren't supposed to belt out top level top notes like this. His tenor roles, like Tamino in Die Zauberflöte or Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni, are restrained, noble and rather elegant; plenty of singers have considered Don Ottavio the wrong side of wimpish. Beethoven's Florestan in Fidelio is dramatic, but never for the sake of it. So, was tenore molto con belto an Italian invention? Not quite - the first tenor to perform a high C with a full "chest" voice, Florez tells me, was actually a French tenor named Gilbert Duprez (1806-1896). "Before that, it was produced in a softer way, with a head voice," he adds, "and when Duprez first began to sing like this, some people were shocked, including Rossini, who didn't like it. But then it became the fashionable way to sing, because the public said: 'Wow, what a sound!'"

Those notes have to arrive more or less naturally, or not at all. For the lyric or leggiero tenor (the tenors with the highest voices on the fach scale) - singers like Luciano Pavarotti and Florez - they're a piece of cake. Lower-voiced dramatic tenors, though, have always had a harder time of it. High notes weren't on the menu for Enrico Caruso, the most revered tenor in history, who once warned Puccini himself not to expect him to sing the high C in La bohème. Caruso's tone was dark and baritonal, though he worked hard for the upper register. Today, Placido Domingo is among the tenors in the same boat. When I interviewed him in the summer of 2005, Domingo told me that he "wasn't a natural tenor" and has always had to work hard to keep his range in shape. Now, in his mid-sixties, he's about to go further, coming out as a full-fledged baritone in one of Verdi's biggest creations for this voice, the title role in Simon Boccanegra. He's scheduled to sing it in London in the 2009-10 season.

Pavarotti in his heyday was another matter. The original "king of the high Cs", he stunned Covent Garden audiences 40 years ago with that famous aria in La fille du regiment and has never looked back. It's interesting that while Domingo is one of the most multi-talented stars in the musical world - being singer, conductor, opera house director and consummate actor in one - Pavarotti isn't. He's never done much except sing, his operatic repertoire has never been as broad as Domingo's and his physical size has sometimes handicapped his acting; yet when the high notes emerged, the rest didn't matter any more. Pavarotti, though, also got booed at La Scala when he cracked a top note. His reputation recovered; whether more recent victims will do so isn't yet clear.

The high notes syndrome isn't limited to tenors. The role that can kill off a high soprano is the Queen of the Night in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte. Plenty of singers have made their names in the role - Edita Gruberova, Sumi Jo and Diana Damrau are some of the best - but you only had to see Maureen Lipman's recreation of the ear-crinkling Florence Foster-Jenkins, the wealthy would-be soprano of the 1930s and 1940s, in Peter Quilter's play Glorious! to realise just how dreadful the famous aria could sound. Foster-Jenkins had a cult following all her own, but it was said that when Caruso heard her he said he'd "never heard anything like it" - once you've heard her, you know what he meant.

At best, effortlessness - or at least an illusion of it - is required in sopranos' high notes every bit as much as in tenors'. Natalie Dessay, the French soprano who's just starred opposite Florez in the high-set role of Marie in La fille du regiment at Covent Garden, declares: "High notes are a pleasure. It's a game. It's almost like a drug - being 'high'! You know the audience likes it, you can do it and you do it because it's natural. It's as if you offer something very beautiful to somebody and you know it will be appreciated."

It's a little ironic that, while the top notes get the top ovations, for the singers who really have the voice for them they're not the hardest part of the show - nor even the most rewarding. "When I sang my very first Manrico in Parma last season, I had a wonderful response after 'Di quella pira' and I was very pleased to hear an enthusiastic reaction from this difficult audience," Alvarez recounts. "What gave me even more satisfaction, though, was what happened in the opera's final scene." During a particularly impassioned phrase in the last duet, Alvarez took the volume down instead of up. "Someone in the audience shouted 'grazie'. This one expression of thanks meant more to me than the whole audience screaming 'bravo' at the end of 'Di quella pira'. It meant so much to me to know that they had understood what I was trying to communicate.

"Later, people actually thanked me for 'helping them discover the fourth act' of Il trovatore, in which the duet between Manrico and Azucena is perhaps the best music in the opera. Too often they hadn't looked beyond the big note in 'Di quella pira', although it arrives at a rather emotionally silly moment in the story. When you know that the audience has 'got' what you are trying to achieve, it makes it all worth it," he says. "I guess that's what singing is really all about."

'Il trovatore' is at the Royal Opera House, London WC1 ( www.royaloperahouse.org; 020-7304 4000) to 23 February

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice