How William Tell transformed tenor singing

3 Jul 2018

More than just affirming his reputation in the Parisian opera scene, Rossini’s masterwork Guillaume Tell had an unexpected effect on tenor singing and Irish writer James Joyce.

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Tenor Carlos E. Bárcenas who sings Arnold in Victorian Opera's production of William Tell.

In the 1820s, Paris was the place to be for opera. After Semiramide – his last work composed in Italy – Rossini was at the height of his fame. He moved to the ‘City of Light’ in 1824 and wrote Le Voyage à Reims, followed by Le Comte Ory, Le Siège de Corinthe and Moïse et Pharaon, most of them inspired by his previous Italian operas.

On 3 August 1829, Rossini’s first real French creation Guillaume Tell premiered in Salle Le Peletier. It was not the first time that Schiller’s version of the story of the iconic Swiss hero was adapted to the stage, but it is the only one that is still performed almost 200 years later.

However, despite the fantastic cast for the premiere and an immense respect for the composer that would see a Légion d'Honneur conferred upon him by King Charles X, it would be fair to say that the opera brought Rossini esteem rather than an actual triumph. Some would say it was because of its five-hour duration and, indeed, it has rarely been programmed in its entirety since the premiere.

No one could guess at the time that this masterpiece would find a way to irrevocably change the way tenors sing to this day.

Following the Paris premiere, Guillaume Tell was performed in London (1830) and New York (1831), but ironically it was in Lucca, Italy that Guglielmo Tell found its destiny. The Italian premiere revealed a young French tenor, Gilbert-Louis Duprez (1806-1896) who demonstrated his sensational ut de poitrine (high C in chest voice) as opposed to the falsetto (head voice) commonly used at the time. Regardless that Rossini abhorred this vocal technique – comparing it to a chapon egorge (butchered capon*) – this new and spectacular way of singing would be taught and used by generations of tenors, astonishing operagoers around the world.

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Carlos E. Bárcenas sings 'Asile héréditaire' from Act 4 of William Tell. Listen out for the high C in chest voice at 3'03s.

Despite a few vicissitudes, Guillaume Tell kept being programmed by Opéra de Paris until 1932 and Arnold’s role remained a reference for the extraordinary vocal tour de force it demanded. Irish poet James Joyce was beside himself when he first heard the ease with which legendary tenor John O’Sullivan could reach the high Cs of the role. Yet, Joyce was resolute about his opera expertise:

‘I have always insisted that I know little about literature, less about music, nothing about painting and less than nothing about sculpture; but I do know something about singing, I think.’


Undoubtedly Joyce was exhilarated by Arnold’s role and the ut de poitrine technique; if not, he wouldn’t have scoured the Guillaume Tell score himself to count the number of Gs, A flats, B flats, high Cs and high Cs sharps.

Joyce praised O’Sullivan’s extraordinary talent everywhere he could, directly contributing to the success of both the tenor and Tell. He even defended O’Sullivan against an imaginary Italian conspiracy preventing him from receiving the roles Joyce believed he deserved in an exaggerated article titled ‘From a banned writer to a banned singer’, causing the star tenor some embarrassment. One could argue that at times Joyce went too far but nevertheless it is proof of the power the role of Arnold held over him.

When we asked Victorian Opera tenor Carlos E. Bárcenas about performing Arnold in our production of William Tell, he replied ‘I am extremely excited to perform the role. This is a very challenging score that requires months of careful preparation. It is like a sporting feat; you must commit to constant practice to have a chance to succeed in this legendary role. I would say the biggest difficulty is to make the audience feel that it is easy, to stay natural, in tune and credible, when it is actually a huge challenge for the voice.’

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Singing powerfully within the highest sphere of the male tessitura is the biggest challenge for any adventurous tenor tackling this role. Experiencing it live surely fills the audience with a similar level of breathtaking exhilaration normally reserved for the most iconic high female roles such as the Queen of the Night or any Bellini diva. Knowing that the William Tell score contains 19 ut de poitrine, there will be no respite. Be prepared to hold your breath. It is now your turn to be mesmerised.

*A capon is a castrated, fattened rooster that is a gourmet delicacy in France. Not a surprising reference from Rossini who was a real foodie.

Victorian Opera performed William Tell (Guillaume Tell) as part of Season 2018.