A Retrospect on The Three Tenors

by Jon Elsby

Just about everyone old enough to remember the football World Cups of the 1990s and early 2000s will remember the Three Tenors. The open air concerts they gave, cleverly timed to coincide with those World Cups, converted Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo, and José Carreras from operatic superstars into household names, and briefly catapulted Pavarotti’s rendition of ‘Nessun dorma’ into the pop charts. Never mind that he held the climactic top B for much longer than the score stipulates. Who cares when the tenor can make a sound like that a sound that gives goosebumps to just about anyone with an ear for music?

Of course, the Three Tenors, although they were undoubtedly the biggest names and the most prolific classical recording artists of their day, were not the only great tenors who were then active. But they impinged on the consciousness of the general public in a way that their competitors didn’t. For better or worse, they defined the expectations of the tenor voice for at least two generations of listeners, many of whom would never have dreamt of setting foot inside an opera house.

They weren’t the only great tenors whose fame spread far beyond the rarefied world of opera. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Enrico Caruso and John McCormack achieved comparable fame. The extent of Caruso’s renown may be judged from a story about a boxer (of all things). Jack Doyle was a colourful Irish heavyweight and a promising tenor – when he could be kept off the booze. On more than one occasion, however, he entered the ring too drunk to stand, let alone fight. Despite a few fiascos of this kind, he claimed that he could ‘fight like Dempsey and sing like Caruso’: a boast which prompted a veteran boxing reporter to remark that the only thing Dempsey, Caruso, and Jack Doyle had in common was that all three could knock out Jack Doyle.

After Caruso, few tenors, even the greatest, became well known to the general public. In Brian De Palma’s 1987 film, The Untouchables, there is a scene where Al Capone (played by Robert De Niro) is attending a performance of Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci and is moved to tears by the tenor’s singing of ‘Vesti la giubba’. Although we are not told so, it is pretty clear that the tenor is meant to be Caruso. But not many viewers identified the owner of the voice on the soundtrack as Mario del Monaco, one of the greatest tenors of the 1950s.

The relationship between operatic tenors and the movie industry is an interesting subject in its own right. Several tenors appeared in movies, including Beniamino Gigli, Richard Tauber, and Lauritz Melchior, which shows that, even in the days before Arnold Schwarzenegger, acting ability was not a sine qua non of a film career. Most tenors are indifferent actors on stage, and have absolutely no idea how to act for the cameras. They weren’t interested in learning either. As far as they were concerned, they were hired for their voices, and, as long as they sang well, nothing else mattered. Or, if it did, it was somebody else’s problem.

Part of the appeal of the Three Tenors phenomenon was the sense of friendly rivalry it generated. For a time, the question who was the greatest tenor was discussed with the animation normally reserved for debates about the relative merits of centre forwards or fast bowlers. Even dedicated opera buffs, who are apt to be scornful of that sort of thing, found themselves drawn into discussions about what a Three Tenors line-up of the past might have looked like. What about a 1930 version comprising any three of Giovanni Martinelli, Aureliano Pertile, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, and Gigli, for example? Or a 1950 line-up of Jussi Björling, Giuseppe di Stefano, and del Monaco? Or a 1960 trio of Richard Tucker, Carlo Bergonzi, and Franco Corelli? The possibilities are endless.

The Three Tenors concerts also served as a reminder that tenors are not only classical artists: they are also performers, and the first duty of a performer is to connect with his or her audience. Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carreras proved themselves consummate communicators. The hype which preceded the concerts would have counted for nothing if the tenors hadn’t delivered what the audience wanted – and what it expected. In fact, hype can be a problem if it generates expectations which are then not fulfilled. Connoisseurs of singing may have disliked the concept of an open air concert in a huge venue with artificial amplification, and may have objected that the tenors all gave full-on performances with very little interpretative subtlety or nuance, but they missed the point. On these occasions, the tenors were not performing for their normal audience of opera lovers. They were performing for the general public. If opera lovers objected, they didn’t have to watch – or listen, for that matter: a point Domingo forcefully made in several interviews. For most people, the sight of a beaming Frank Sinatra standing and applauding the tenors’ joint rendition of ‘My Way’ probably summed up how they felt. This was not so much a classical concert as a musical party to which all were invited. There was something in it for everyone, except those too precious and priggish to shed their inhibitions, loosen their ties, and enjoy the performance.

The Three Tenors were criticized by some for the substantial sums of money they made from these concerts. It is hard to see any reason other than envy for this. In the first place, other performers, like elite sportspeople and rock stars, make far more money without exciting any comment. Secondly, Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carreras, individually and jointly, have raised and given staggering sums to charity in their careers. Why should they not be properly recompensed for their work?

The criticism also overlooks the sheer precariousness of the singer’s career. It depends entirely upon a physical part of him – namely, his voice. An illness, an accident, an injury, or a surgical operation, may deprive him of his voice at any time. He has no way of knowing how long his career will last. It might span four decades, or it might be over in less than one. Tenors are not salaried, nor do they get an occupational pension. They rely wholly on the fees they can negotiate with tough, hard-nosed record company executives, opera house administrators, and impresarios for their appearances. A tenor who is not equally tough and astute in his business dealings is liable to leave the negotiating room in his underpants.

There are many cautionary tales of tenors who fell on hard times after their careers ended. One of the most poignant is that of Tom Burke (1890–1969), who was known as ‘the Lancashire Caruso’. Well, he wasn’t quite that, but he was a fine tenor and he should have enjoyed a long and successful career. Unfortunately, his gifts were accompanied by serious flaws. The son of poor, working class parents, he harboured a towering contempt for well-heeled opera audiences. He drank too hard and too often, and he was an inveterate philanderer whose womanizing got him into trouble with Jack Dempsey, then the former world heavyweight boxing champion, and (as if that were not bad enough) the Mafia. The tenor who had favourably impressed Caruso and Gigli, and sung to audiences at La Scala, the New York Met, and Covent Garden, ended his days in penury and obscurity, living in a single, rented room and working as a barman in a golf club.

So, three cheers for the Three Tenors. The concerts they gave together belong to the history of show business rather than opera. But, between 1990 and 2002, for a few hours every four years, untold millions of viewers and listeners were held spellbound as three of the greatest opera singers of their generation worked their inimitable magic. That, surely, deserves a celebration.


Jon Elsby is a specialist in opera, on which subject he has written a wide-ranging survey of operatic tenors, Heroes and Lovers, published by CentreHouse Press in paperback in 2019, and now available at Amazon Kindle and on most other ebook platforms.