A few days ago, I came across this article, about a New Zealand gangster turned tenor, whose star may or may not be in the ascendant. The point which caught my eye was that he has been invited to audition for Opera Australia. There is nothing unusual or particularly newsworthy in that fact, but what struck me was that my mind immediately leapt from "invited to audition" to "next great shining hope". That's wildly optimistic, even for me, but it is symptomatic of the state of affairs regarding tenors in this country. We simply don't seem to have enough.
By my count, Opera Australia's 2008 season contained twelve leading or significant supporting tenor roles, shared among fourteen tenors. So far, so good. But among those fourteen, only four were singers currently under contract with the company. Of the remaining ten, two (Aldo di Toro and Julian Gavin) were Australian singers engaged as guest artists, two (Dennis O'Neill and Carlo Barricelli) were what you might call honorary Australians, and six were overseas imports. Unlike some, I see no fundamental problem with engaging overseas singers: provided they're well cast (and most were) they bring variety and vibrancy to the company's artistic output and enhance its standing internationally. Nevertheless, when Opera Australia continues to take pride in its status as an ensemble company, it must be a concern to note that, at least in this voice type, they've had to rely so strongly on singers from outside that ensemble, regardless of their nationality.
The drought is not limited to tenors. I have the sense we're running low on sopranos, particularly of the full lyric variety. However, a similar survey to that above yields rather different results. The 2008 season contained fifteen sopranos, all of them Australian and almost all of them contracted. (Though it should be noted that 2009 sees an influx of six imported sopranos, three of them for the role of Aida alone.) Our soprano pool is definitely in need of expansion and improvement, but for the moment at least, we've enough to get by. There's also the added hope of young singers, with recent vocal competitions dominated on several occasions by sopranos, some of whom are just what the doctor ordered. Meanwhile, even at that student/competition level, tenors seem few and far between. The only stand out lately has been David Corcoran, and, not surprisingly, he's been snaffled by Opera Australia's Young Artist Programme.
So, where are all the tenors? And, more to the point, why aren't they here?
The obvious answer is that they're overseas. Like many other professionals, and not just those in the performing arts, tenors could hardly fail to notice that there's a big wide world out there, and that opportunities which are scarce in this hemisphere grow rather more abundant further north. I've no doubt that there's a significant number of tenors (and singers from other fachs as well) who've moved overseas for training or for work, and have decided to stay. As they should, of course, because overseas success for Australian singers is good news for everybody. The concern is whether opera companies here are doing all they could to lure such singers back. It's all well and good to engage internationally established Australian singers as guest artists, but it would be just as worthwhile — perhaps more so — to find a way to make promising young artists an important part of company life from the outset, to allow rising stars the chance of building an Australian profile in conjunction with, rather than subsequent or incidental to, their international success. I'm not suggesting this doesn't already happen, but perhaps it needs to happen more.
Is it as simple as the age-old "brain drain", though? I'm not convinced that it is. If Australia was quietly pumping out tenors and sending them overseas to glory, I'm sure we'd have heard about it. I wonder if some tiny part of it might just be genetics, plain and simple. We'd all agree, I hope, that if one is not born with some little flicker of the operatic gift, no amount of money or world class training will cause it to materialise. (There may be singers whom you deem an exception to that rule, but mostly that comes down to personal taste in the end, and there's always somebody who adores the voice you detest.) So perhaps Australia just isn't giving birth to enough boys with the tenor gene? Judging by the current OA roster, and the singers doing the rounds of competitions, twenty or thirty years ago there must have been a baritone in every second bassinet, but tenors? Maybe not. The rest of the babies had the mining gene, or the IT gene, or the whining MySpace gene, but the Cavaradossi gene seems to have remained in Italy, where it was created.
I use Cavaradossi as an example on purpose. I'm reliably informed that Opera Australia will revive its Tosca in 2010, and it was considering this — and wondering who our tenor would be — which started me thinking about this whole issue. The brilliance of our Tosca is assured (it's Cheryl, reportedly) but could I think of a single tenor currently on the roster who could make a successful Cavaradossi? Barely. The only contracted tenor who might claim it among his repertoire is Rosario La Spina, but I expect I'm far from alone in hoping the company does not cast him. Dennis O'Neill had significant success in the role earlier in his career, and, while his voice remains strong, it's not the voice of a young, ardent artist anymore, and no longer able to compensate for the mindbending suspension of disbelief which he'd now require of his audiences. The third name is perhaps the strongest contender, the Italian (and vaguely Australian) tenor Carlo Barricelli, whose reasonably strong showing as Rodolfo suggest he is a singer with the power, presence and stylistic understanding to pull it off. The audio samples available here of his "E lucevan le stelle" and "Recondita armonia" bode well, as do — let's be superficial for a moment here, because it's the way of things and because this is theatre and it does matter — the photos.
But Barricelli's appearances with Opera Australia have been fleeting and barely publicised so far, and he is not cast for anything in the 2009 season. Is Opera Australia interested enough in him to have secured his services as Cavaradossi, or in a similarly worthy role? Even if they are, we don't have an answer to our underlying problem. He's an internationally active singer with his own career path to follow, and he's only one man, with strengths only in his particular parts of the repertoire. We still need a wider range of talented resident tenors, singers who can revitalise their division of the ensemble or, if overseas engagements prevent their being contracted, at least make guest appearances with reliable frequency.
The other possibility is that this country contains a wealth of untapped latent talent. Are potential tenors receiving the education they need to put their gifts to use? At the most basic level, there's the question of young singers receiving an upbringing, and a primary and secondary education, which present opera singing, and classical music-making of all kinds, as a possible and positive career path. Every year at Idol audition time, I wonder how many secret opera singers troop past the judges, singing pop music badly because they just don't realise they could be singing Mozart beautifully.
Beyond that stage, is it possible that some conservatories, schools of music and so on are not fully equipped to foster healthy and artistically sound tenor voices? Sometimes a particular institution, by accident or by design, specialises in producing particular kinds of voices, so it could be that budding tenors are being lost in an educational environment to which they're not best suited. This inevitably brings us back to the overseas factor: so many singers, even those who've had the best possibly Australian training, need to go abroad to consolidate their talent and broaden their experience. It's little wonder if they're tempted to stay for good, and if their Australian training has not, in fact, been the best, then that temptation must be all the more irresistible.
And what about those who discovered their voices, did the training, tried the career and then decided it wasn't for them. If that's a personal choice, then of course we've no business dragging them back into our mad world. I can't help thinking, though, that there must be naturally gifted singers who made it halfway along the career path, but, seeing jobs in Australia so thin on the ground, and disinclined to try their luck overseas, simply opted for a steady income and personal life, and chose another profession. I can think of at least one Antipodean singer of some promise who seems to have decided to do exactly that. Again, there may be any number of factors influencing that decision, musical and otherwise; but if the clincher is the lack of opportunity in their home country, then surely there must be more Australia can do to convince gifted singers to stick at it. There are plenty of stories of singers who knew they had voices, but gave them up and did something else instead. The gang member I mentioned at the start is only one of them. We rejoice when these singers come back to surface, and they certainly make good press, but how many have we lost for good? In David Parkin, Australia appears to have produced a basso profundo of, pardon the pun, profound talent, but if the ABC hadn't decided that an Australian Operatunity would be good for a lark (and for ratings) — and if Parkin's friends and family hadn't persuaded him to apply at the last minute — would anyone other than David's inner circle ever have known?
Returning to the voice type at hand, Operatunity Oz did provide us with one tenor. Roy Best has made a CD of favourites, given a series of pops concerts and been engaged by Victorian Opera. Whether Opera Australia will make an approach remains to be seen, and it's hard to say whether they'd be wise to do so or not. Best is a very nice guy and he has a genuinely appealing voice, but I'd say he has some pretty significant limits too, which is hardly surprising for somebody who spent most of his life being a carpenter and a mechanic before a TV show gave him the chance to unleash his voice. If he'd been brought up as a tenor from the start, it might be a different story. But again, as with Carlo Barricelli, we're talking about one solitary tenor, when what we need is a flock of them, and, beyond that, an environment which creates and nurtures tenors and which, having done so, knows how to use them.
Over all this wondering hovers the spectre of the grievances raised by Fiona Janes and others. The tenor shortage is genuine, and I doubt we could blame it on the English even if we wanted to, but we must consider the possibility that it has been exacerbated by poor casting decisions. A company which misuses the tenors it does have should not, perhaps, be surprised to find new victims lacking. But it's a bit chicken-and-egg, because, after all, if there's no better option, then what choice does the company have? Either you cast a tenor who's not quite up to scratch, or you design a season where all the men are baritones. The latter might be fun for a few months (I know I'd enjoy it) but it's obviously absurd. So we have an overstretched Don Ramiro, or a Puccinified Prince in Rusalka, and we cry "surely it could be better than this", but perhaps it can't.
And whether it could or not, for the time being, it isn't. We have what we have, and we need more, and better. What's to be done? I've no idea. I'm the one with the questions. I'll sit patiently (and sometimes impatiently) in the stalls and wait for those who can provide the answers to do so — and to follow up on them. For the indefinite future, this opera company is my opera company and I want the very best for it, and from it. I could live by baritones alone, but an opera company and its wider audience cannot. Opera Australia needs tenors, so whether they need to beg, borrow or build them in a lab, let's hope they find some, and soon. Tosca makes us forget God. We need a Cavaradossi who can make us forget Tosca.