Howard Jacobson: They sing of love, betrayal, and death far from home. No wonder tenors die young

I don’t think it matters if you confuse the singer with the song. Their ruined lives are in the script
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"It feels so strange here sometimes," the great Swedish tenor Jussi Bjorling complained after a performance, pointing to his chest. "It feels as if my heart were standing still." A few weeks later, it did. Bjorling was 49. Not a bad age for a lyric tenor.

Caruso only made it to 48. "Doro, I can't get my breath," he told his wife, and that was that. The world wept. He'd been weepy himself for some time. Great tenors are meant to be weepy. He'd been weepy in Sorrento, looking across the bay to Naples, then weepy in Naples looking across the bay to Sorrento.

I do the same when I visit Naples or Sorrento, and I'm not a Neapolitan. Nor am I a great tenor, though it's my deepest regret that I am not, for there is no more wonderful thing to be – even if it means you don't live long. I've always believed I have the temperament for it. Being weepy when I visit Sorrento, for example. Or falling into moods of deep depression as Bjorling did. Or eating 30 breakfasts at a sitting like Mario Lanza. It's only in the voice department that I don't quite cut the mustard. (Tactless of me: Lanza could get through three jars of mustard at a sitting, too.)

Doro, as Caruso called her, was Dorothy Park Benjamin, an American woman he'd met in New York. When Caruso asked for her hand in marriage her father told him he objected to Caruso on three grounds – difference in age, difference in nationality, but "principally because of your artistic temperament". A potential father-in-law said the same about me once. He'd caught me reading D H Lawrence whom he confused with T E Lawrence and supposed me to be a pain-seeking homosexual Arabist. He had the details wrong but he was right in principle. Men with artistic temperaments don't make good husbands.

Bjorling drank heavily to find relief from his morbidity and then went missing for days at a time, regardless of the concerns of his family or indeed the opera lovers who had bought tickets to hear him sing. Lanza made love to his leading ladies in closets on the sets of movies without always remembering to close the door, pushed whatever he could find inside his mouth, and was dead at 38.

As tenors go, Caruso was reasonably well behaved, whatever Doro's father thought of him. He'd been up to his eyes in scandal before meeting Dorothy, but it wasn't, strictly speaking, scandal of his own making, unless carrying on with the sister of your mistress can be said to be a scandal of your own making. It just sounds Italian to me, and as melodramatic as you'd expect considering that all three parties to it were opera singers. But that wasn't how the mistress – the soprano Ada Giachetti – saw it. "Try marrying my sister and you die!" she warned Caruso, pulling a revolver on him. What happened next, causing Caruso to pull a revolver on her, was that she ran off with his chauffeur. No sense of proportion, these sopranos.

The succeeding court battle between Caruso and Ada – for custody of their children, for libel, for damages, for anything you care to name – was front-page news. Throughout it all, Caruso cried like a baby. In this, again, I see myself as Caruso-like. I would have done the same. But Caruso at least had opera into which to pour his jealousy and rage. "Vesti la giubba," he sang, as Canio the betrayed, face-painting clown. "On with the motley" – the show must go on, for all that the woman you love (leave out the sister) has run off with the man who drives your car. And wherever he sang it audiences sobbed like babies themselves.

Long before I knew its inspiration I would put Caruso singing Canio on my record player and turn out the lights. My friends were out ripping up cinema seats to "Rock Around the Clock", but all I wanted was to blubber in the dark. "Where did we go wrong?" my father asked my mother. "He doesn't wear drainpipes, he doesn't own suede shoes, he doesn't get into trouble with the police." "Artistic temperament," my mother told him.

I didn't go to the opera much but I loved listening to it at home. The great tenors in particular. I'm not saying the great sopranos didn't move me, but they moved me differently. They made me feel guilty, somehow, as though their sorrows were all my fault. But with the tenors I felt, as I still feel, only solidarity. They sing of what it is to be a man – of how women betray us with our chauffeurs, of how our hearts must break, of how we will die before our time and far from home.

Though I am a stickler, in most instances, for keeping biography out of everything, including biography, I don't think it matters, in the case of tenors, if we confuse the singer with the song. Their ruined lives are in the script. Almost half a century before Caruso was born, Adolphe Nourrit, the leading singing-actor of his time, succumbed to tenor melancholia and self-doubt, mistook the audience's applause for derision and, at the age of 37, threw himself from the roof of an apartment house in Naples. (Ah, Naples!) Since then, a fragile temper, a weak character, and a propensity for making the wrong career choice have gilded tenors' voices and led them into early graves.

Pavarotti didn't do too badly, then, living to 71. He disrespected his voice, but that too is an old story. Tauber made his reputation singing Mozart and ended up beloved as a monocled old roué in Léhar operettas. Lanza was never able to decide between grand opera and Hollywood and died successful in neither. Pavarotti's fleshly misdemeanours are well known, and a costermonger with a cloth ear could hear he was screaming his once lovely voice out at the last, but his great mistake, aesthetically speaking, was going global. It demeaned him more than it demeaned the music – "Nessun Dorma" was always a crowd-pleaser after all, and Bjorling sang it better anyway, drenching its anticipation of victory in the most exquisite expression of defeat. (And what's a tenor for if not to sing of loss?)

What counted against Pavarotti finally was his jubilant omnivorousness – football, pop, appearing with the Spice Girls. He wanted the whole world to love (and pay) him, forgetting that on the way to universal adoration you forfeit greatness. Excellence must content itself with a smaller slice of the action. That's the condition on which you own it. That's why, as a tenor, you cry.