Adolphe Nourrit, Gilbert Duprez, and the high C: The influences of operatic plots, culture, language, theater design, and growth of orchestral forces on the development of the operatic tenor vocal production
Doctor of Musical Arts in Performance
First Committee Member
Alfonse Anderson, Chair
Second Committee Member
Third Committee Member
Graduate Faculty Representative
Number of Pages
The operatic tenor voice has evolved from a variety of influences. This document identifies four influences involved in the development of the operatic tenor voice and describes their impact on performance practices including the chest voice high C (C5). Modern tenors’ performance practices originate in the nineteenth century ascendance of an Italian singing technique. This particular singing technique achieved popularity when Gilbert Duprez sang the role of Arnold in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell with a do di petto (i.e. from-the-chest) production of sound rather than the mix of falsetto and head voice that was traditional at the time. The role of Arnold was written for this type of vocal production and was traditional at the time. It was in this role in which the performance of the aria “Asil héréditaire” that Duprez sang the first do di petto C5 as was noted by critics. This feat shocked and impressed the Parisian public (who were predisposed to view Duprez unfavorably), which then thunderously applauded their approval of Duprez’ performance.
In 1837, after a combined ten years in Italy among Italian singers, Duprez performed for the Parisian public, his do di petto high C. The ability and skill to perform iv this well grew to be an in indicator of consummate vocal ability among tenors.
When Duprez performed the first do di petto high C, he created a shift in vocal technique and tenor performance practice. Italy and France were the dominant cultures in opera at this time. The two aforementioned cultures valued different qualities in vocal performance. The French culture of restrained passion highlighted the already singing quality of the language itself. According to Richard Miller, sung French corresponded to the spoken French more than any other European language. This necessary equivalence of spoken and sung French tended to limit its musical expressivity. This limitation had effects on the vocal technique of the tenor, which as a result tended to favor a traditional head voice and falsetto mix that had its origins in the vocal technique and acoustic properties of the castrato. The Italian culture, on the other hand, valued a more fiery and passionate approach to unleashing the power of an operatic performance and the expressive power of the voice. For the Italians, the sound of the voice should come first in importance while the declamation of the language should come second in importance. Miller observed that this was due in large part to the relative simplicity of the Italian language that is centered on pure vowels as compared to the French language, which is centered on a balance of nasal vowels and soft consonants.
The approach this document takes in discussion of these influences on the changes in technique and performance practices of the tenor is one that looks through the lens of the culturally emblematic lives of two of the most famous French tenors of the early nineteenth century: Adolphe Nourrit (1802–39) and Gilbert Duprez (1806–96). Both were involved in this sensational and decisive event: Duprez’ debut at the Paris Opéra as Arnold in Rossini’ Guillaume Tell, in which he sang most, if not all of the notes v above A4 in a full voiced—from the chest—production of sound. This event and Nourrit’s distaste for and inability to accept any comparison or competition between the two tenors led him to attempt the same journey to Italy in hopes of acquiring the technique that gave Duprez his success. Unfortunately, Nourrit’s attempt at acquiring an Italian technique was mostly unsuccessful. In order to gain facility in the technique embodied by Duprez he lost the French singing skills that were the keys to his fame and success. His subsequent failure to acquire an Italian technique of singing left him without a musical home. This along with chronic illness drove him mad to the point where he took his life at the age of thirty-seven. However, the question remains, why was Nourrit unable to find a suitable teacher in France to help him discover the do di petto vocal technique, which appeared to be such a success for Duprez?
There has been little research done to determine the influences on the change in vocal technique, performance practice, and audience expectations of what created this masculine tenor sound. John Potter’s Tenor: History of a Voice speaks in general terms of the history of the tenor voice. He notes changes and contemporaneous states of tenor vocal production and differences in timbre, but does not identify the causes for the changes. There are a small number of doctoral dissertations and documents that tangibly addresses this evolution in performance practice, but do not identify the reasons and causes for the change. Therefore, this document proposes answers to the following questions: was the adoption of Italian vocal technique (that remains the standard today) a result of the necessities of physical and vocal demands of the tenor roles and repertoire being composed over time? Was it a result of changes in audience tastes for a natural tenor sound to embody the heroic roles? Did the interaction of the French and Italian vi language and culture play a part in this technical change? Could it simply have resulted from advances in vocal technique and pedagogical expertise that occurred as a result of a more scientific approach to vocal technique in the early nineteenth century? Finally, were there economic concerns that influenced choices in the design of operatic venues resulting in acoustical adversity for the tenor? And consequently, did the diverse acoustic qualities of theaters—notably in France and Italy— affect the tenor vocal production. I propose that it was a combination of all of these factors.
Adolphe; Architecture; Communication and the arts; Duprez; Gilbert-Louis; 1806-1896; Impresarios; Nourrit; Adolphe; 1802-1839; Opera – History; Tenor; Tenors (Singers); Theater design
European History | French Linguistics | History | Italian Linguistics | Music Performance
Smith, Micheal Lee Jr., "Adolphe Nourrit, Gilbert Duprez, and the high C: The influences of operatic plots, culture, language, theater design, and growth of orchestral forces on the development of the operatic tenor vocal production" (2011). UNLV Theses, Dissertations, Professional Papers, and Capstones. 1273.