What is a Heldentenor?

One of the problems that we in Britain have with classifying voices is that we do not have regularised terminologies in our own language, and are therefore forced to use foreign words and phrases instead. Misunderstandings or mistranslation can easily creep in to confuse things still more.

Heldentenor is commonly used in this country to describe the singers of leading roles in Wagner’s operas, but its original meaning is more precise, and there is one other term which both qualifies and clarifies it. Heldentenor implies a tenor voice of great weight and sonority, particularly strong in the middle and bottom of the voice, in fact a tenor voice with some of the characteristics of a baritone. Unlike a baritone, however, is its tenorial ability to sing high.

Jugendlicherheldentenor (youthful heroic tenor) describes a voice of less weight and dramatic capability, more lyric than its heavier brother, but which may, when set up correctly, strengthen and develop into the heavier variety. These two voices in their German classifications equate with the tenore robusto and lirico-spinto of the Italian, and the even more precise French terminology of tenor fort wagnerien and tenor fort français. Both types of Heldentenor sing Wagner and often share many parts, but there are certain roles which are specific to each, and it is rare to find a voice so versatile that all the Wagner roles are possible for it.

The German Fach system is a bureaucratic method of defining singers by the roles for which they are suited, and thereby contracting them to theatres. The Heldentenor Fach contains: Rienzi, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Tristan, Siegmund, Siegfried (both roles) and Parsifal; and the Jugendlicherheldentenor Fach: Erik, Lohengrin, Walther von Stolzing, Froh and Parsifal. Parsifal is neither too strenuous nor too dramatic or high, but of course, he does need to be a young handsome man, which explains the appearance of this role in both fachs.

The majority of Heldentenors are true tenors and will never have sung as anything else; but there is another route to the heavier voice – by way of high baritone. When young, some heavy tenors have no top to their voices, and are either wrongly classified as baritones, or may pass through a high baritone phase on the way to acquiring the high notes necessary to fulfil their tenor destiny. This can result in a short high baritone career, or a long wait and a late start as a tenor. Usually, this sort of voice ends up as the heavier variety of Heldentenor, and often starts his Wagnerian career with Loge, Parsifal and Siegmund, as these are the Wagner roles without high notes or high lines. How they proceed is a matter of skill or strength in most cases. True baritones are not among their number. These voices are rare, difficult to teach, and require both luck and will power from their owners.

The Heldentenor as has been seen is a result of post-Wagner administrative practices. Until the operas were written the classification did not exist: there were just tenors with lyric voices, with strong voices, and those whose voices were capable of both extremes. Wagner, however, wrote his music with particular singers in mind, and an examination of the careers of the four tenors for whom he either wrote the operas or were first to sing them, will clarify the development of the classification Heldentenor – or Tenorbariton as they were called in Wagner’s day.

The first, and probably most important, was the singer whose singing Wagner admired when he arrived in Dresden as Kapellmeister; and for whose voice he wrote Rienzi, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. This was the Bohemian, Joseph Tichatschek (Josef Tihacek) 1807-1886. He, the creator of Rienzi and Tannhäuser, was described by Wagner as having a “glorious voice and great musical talent”, and by Berlioz, who heard him sing Rienzi, as “brilliant and irresistible … elegant, impassioned and heroic”.

Unusually for his day, his talent was slow to develop, and his career in his twenties was occupied with chorus work and small parts. It was not until he was thirty that he secured his first solo contract. His repertoire consisted of the operas of Gluck, Mozart, Weber, Marschner, Méhul, Boieldieu, Auber, Nicolai, Meyerbeer, Spontini, Flotow and Spohr – a repertoire, much of which no longer exists on the stages of today but one which demands a much wider mastery of technical difficulty than the contemporary Heldentenor is expected to encompass. Few singers of today would be equally capable as Idomeneo, Tamino, Max – Tichatschek sang the role 108 times! – George Brown, Raoul and in the grand and high lying phrases of Spontini. Tichatschek had weaknesses as an actor – Wagner was famously upset when he addressed Elizabeth instead of Venus when singing Tannhäuser – but as a singer he trusted him completely, using him as late as 1867 to sing Lohengrin before King Ludwig, who was distressed by his unromantic appearance for he was then sixty. Tichatschek sang on until 1870. At this later period Wagner complained that he would not have made his tenor parts so difficult if he had not met him. Nevertheless, he was the prototype – the Urtenor of Wagner’s vision.

The next singer who jumps into the frame is the first Tristan, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1836-1865). The scion of a family of artists, Schnorr was a cultivated, intelligent man – his father was a well known painter. His repertoire followed a similar pattern to Tichatschek’s, but, of course, there was, by now, more Wagner to sing. Phenomenally, his first solo contract was signed at the age of nineteen in 1855, and in the next decade his roles included among others – Max, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Erik, Don Ottavio and eventually Tristan in 1865. Everything seemed set fare for a sensational and memorable career. Wagner felt he had found his ideal performer for the, as yet unperformed, Ring cycle and for Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, but three weeks after the last performance of Tristan he was dead. During his last twenty days he was taken by Wagner to sing excerpts from The Ring and Meistersinger to King Ludwig, three days later he rehearsed Don Ottavio, and four days after that he succumbed to a chill, caught on stage from a draught during the last act of the fourth and last Tristan. Wagner was distraught at the news of his death. He rated Schnorr inferior to Tichatschek vocally, but superior in dramatic power and intelligence. His voice had a baritone colour and his singing was noted for smoothness of line, legato and an elegiac somewhat veiled tone: “full, soft and gleaming” were Richard Wagner’s own words. A large corpulent man, Schnorr and his wife Malvina Garrigues, the first Isolde, had worked on Tristan in 1862, but it had proved too strenuous – not surprisingly considering he was only twenty six! But three years later, they achieved their goal in the first four performances, alas, both Wagner’s plans and their future ended in Schnorr’s death.

In 1861 Albert Niemann (1831-1917), Germany’s leading heroic tenor, was chosen by Richard Wagner to sing Tannhäuser in the revised version to be presented in Paris. The performances, two only, were a disaster, as the opera was cat-called and booed to oblivion, by an inartistic cabal intent on complaining against its lack of a last act ballet – the female dancers being the only objects of interest to the men about town. Niemann was luckier financially than the composer, as he was paid during the long rehearsal period by the month, while Wagner depended on a percentage of the box office takings. His association with Wagner was revived in Bayreuth in 1876 when he was chosen to sing Siegmund, somewhat to his chagrin as he was convinced he was destined to be the first Siegfried. There were a few rumbles of bad temper and temperament, but it settled down, and Niemann became one of the 1876 artists wholly satisfactory to the composer, although he still thought him too mature for the young Siegfried. His voice was powerful and heroic with a baritonal colour. It could express, said a contemporary, “not only love and hate, sorrow and joy, pain and delight, but also anger, despair, scorn, derision and contempt” – a reclame probably unequalled for any singer. Unusually fine as an actor, Niemann was a giant in stature as well as in voice; extra study with Duprez in Paris at the age of twenty three had prepared him for the tenore robusto repertoire – Manrico, Radames, etc – as well as Wagner: and in 1888 in New York he was given the satisfaction of singing the Götterdämmerung Siegfried before his retirement the next year. An outstanding singer with a truly memorable career, he was among the most versatile of all Heldentenors.

The final singer to come into our spotlight is Heinrich Vogl (1845-1900) whose early death deprived posterity from hearing on record the first ever Loge and Siegmund. Vogl sang the two parts at their premieres in Munich, but was turned down earlier by Wagner for Walther in Die Meistersinger on the grounds that he was “totally incompetent” – not surprising as he was only twenty three! Of all the Heldentenors under review Vogl’s repertoire was the nearest to a singer of today, largely because his career started later in the century and therefore there were more Wagner roles available for him. His repertoire comprised all the leading Wagner tenor roles except Walther, which he never sang. His Italian repertoire included Otello and Canio, and his French, Aeneas and Benvenuto Cellini. At Bayreuth in 1876 he sang Loge, with such effect that Lilli Lehmann commented – “his Loge has never since been equalled; he was born for the part.” Clearly, therefore, he was a considerable actor. His voice was powerful and he had exceptional stamina: on several occasions he sang Loge, Siegmund and both Siegfrieds on consecutive evenings. Following Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr, Vogl and his wife Thérèse became the next Tristan and Isolde in 1869 and remained the sole interpreters for some time afterwards. He continued to add to his repertoire and sang until the end, performing Canio four days before his death.

With Vogl’s demise in 1900 this account of Wagner’s nineteenth century tenors is neatly and arithmetically brought to a close. The close of an era, lost to us, alas, because of the lack of a recording process in their time. The careers of very few of Wagner’s singers lasted into the recording era, and those that did record had, by that time, either given up the heavy parts or, by choice or on commercial advice, recorded other material. What our singers sounded like we can only guess; but if such guesses are made intelligently by overviewing their careers and repertoires, I believe, by a sensible selection of twentieth century recordings of singers who have similar vocal characteristics, we can succeed in approaching, at least partially, what they may have been like …


Franz Völker, Rienzi:Allmächt’ge Vater
Great singers at the Berlin State Opera – Nimbus – NI 784

Fritz Wolff, Lohengrin: Atmest du nicht mit mir die süssen Düfte
Four German Heldentenors of the past – Lebendige Vergangenheit – MONO 89975

Hermann Jadlowker, Idomeneo: Noch tönt mir ein Meer im Busen
The Great Tenors Vol.1 – Pearl – GEMM CD 9337

Ben Heppner, Euryanthe: Wehen mir Lüfte Ruh
Ben Heppner, German Romantic Opera, RCA BIEM/GEMA 09026 636239 2

Ben Heppner, Der Fliegende Holländer: Willst jenes Tags du nicht dich mehr
Ben Heppner, German Romantic Opera, RCA BIEM/GEMA 09026 636239 2

Ben Heppner, Lohengrin: In fernem Land
Ben Heppner, Lohengrin (selections), RCA BIEM/GEMA 09026 68239 2

Max Lorenz, Siegfried: Nothung! Nothung! Neidliches Schwert
Max Lorenz singt Wagner, Preiser MONO 90213

Jon Vickers, Die Walküre: Siegmund heiss ich
Die Walküre Act 1/Leinsdorf, DECCA 444270 – 2

James King, Die Walküre: Winterstürme
Die Walküre Act 1, Solti, DECCA 455560 – 2

Lauritz Melchior Tannhäuser: Insbrunst im HerzenGreat
Singers at the Berlin State Opera, Nimbus NI 7848

Franz Völker, Lohengrin: Atmest du nicht mit mir die süssen Düfte
Berühmte Tenöre der 30er Jahre, Preiser MONO 90953

© 2008, Neil Howlett