The 20 Greatest Tenors of all Time

Among the big-name opera stars and lower-key Lieder recitalists, who are the best tenors ever to have graced the stage? In 2008 we asked an expert panel to decide. Here are the results...

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Whether dramatically slaying dragons in Wagner, lyrically serenading princesses in Puccini, gracefully gliding in Schubert or even crooning for the swooning on TV, tenors capture the imagination like no other singer. It’s easy to see why. They’re the ones who usually get to play the agile, athletic hero while the poor old bass gets cast as the big, brooding baddy. Plus, there’s the audience-wowing vocal bravado of those high Bs and Cs while, outside the opera house, tradition has long regarded suave and silky tenors as the voices of romance. But who are the finest exponents of the tenor art of all time? Which have displayed the greatest power, range, grace and flexibility? Back in 2008 we asked an expert panel to vote for the singers they believed to be the greatest tenors of all time. Do you agree with their choices?

 

20. Sergey Lemeshev (1902-1977)

One of the Bolshoi’s star tenors of the mid-20th century, Lemeshev combined an extraordinary youthful-sounding voice – even late in his career – with a level of characterisation unmatched by most of his contemporaries. 

Two remarkable Russian tenors came to dominate the Soviet stage in the 1930s and 1940s. Sergey Lemeshev and Ivan Kozlovsky, born only two years apart, divided their fans into rival groups of lemeshistki and kozlovityanki. Both possessed high lyric voices of great distinction, forward placement and impeccable diction, though it was Lemeshev who was blessed with the matinee idol looks and who cut the greater dash as the Duke in Rigoletto. He also just had the romantic edge over his rival in his signature role, the poet Lensky in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, a part he sang over 500 times; there is touching film footage of the two men sharing a specially reworded version of the Act I aria as a birthday tribute to Chekhov’s widow, Olga Knipper, and both tenors can be compared on screen in Lensky’s celebrated lament. Lemeshev’s interpretation in the recording of the complete opera, made in 1956, shows the voice still remarkably youthful and fresh, and he sang it for the last time at the age of 70. Good taste and impeccable musicianship mark out two cameo roles in Rimsky-Korsakov operas, the Indian Guest in Sadko and Tsar Berendey in The Snow Maiden. David Nice

In his own words: ‘I haven’t sung Alfredo for years. But I want desperately to perform it again, if only once…’ (Lemeshev aged 63).

 

19. Wolfgang Windgassen (1914-1974) 

A Heldentenor in a new, lighter mould, Windgassen dominated the Wagnerian stage in the post-war era.  

Wolfgang Windgassen followed in his father’s footsteps, also a tenor and with whom he studied, working at the Stuttgart opera, first as a singer and from 1972, until his death two years later, as director. Although famed for his Wagnerian roles, Windgassen made his debut in 1941 as Don Alvaro in La forza del destino. At Bayreuth he sang major tenor roles and was the Siegfried in Solti’s 1960s recording of the Ring for Decca. Although his voice lacked the baritone resonance of other pre-War greats, his exquisite tone made him one of the most valued Wagnerian singers of his generation. His Siegfried in the famous Decca Ring is unforgettable for its strength and fragility. 

Jan Smaczny

In his own words: ‘Gott, welch’ dunkles Bier’ (‘What dark beer’) – Windgassen on making a rapid stage exit from Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, with a stomach upset

 

18. Alfredo Kraus (1927-1999)

A byword for lyrical refinement, Kraus was a perennial connoisseur’s favourite in bel canto and French repertoire. 

Even pushing the age of 50, Alfredo Kraus could thrill a Covent Garden audience in Verdi’s La traviata. His secrets were a warm, effortless technique, immaculate diction, noble bearing and an intelligence informing every aspect of his art. Coming late to opera – after qualifying as an industrial engineer in his native Spain – he rose to stardom opposite Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, making a Metropolitan debut in 1966 as the Duke in Verdi’s Rigoletto.

The elegance of his style made him ideal in Donizetti and Bellini, and later on he specialised in Massenet, particularly the role of Werther. But he was also superb as Ferrando in Karl Böhm’s classic recording of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, and in the delights of Spanish zarzuela. Rather neglected now – and suffering from deletions among his catalogue of recordings – he remains a supreme tenor aristocrat. 

Geoffrey Smith

In his own words: ‘A singer is more than a singer, he’s an artist, and he’s even more than an artist, he’s a maestro.’

 

17. Anthony Rolfe Johnson (1940-2010)

The English tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson came late to singing, but his natural talent allied to keen musical intelligence led to a great career.

Anthony Rolfe Johnson was one of the most honest singers around – about his voice, for example: ‘It’s not large, but powerful and compact, full of energy, and that’s a great weapon.’ I’d go further – his singing is virile, ardent, but there’s also immaculate musicianship, a wonderful sense of timing, that seduces the listener. And his total immersion in every character he’s ever interpreted, from demanding operatic roles to the simplest ballad in a Songmaker’s Almanac recital, means that each performance is a new delight – to him and to us. I’ll never forget his performance in Monteverdi’s Return of Ulysses at English National Opera: intensely moving and an unobtrusive masterclass in Monteverdian style. Listen to his CD In Praise of Woman (on the Helios label: CDH 55159)   every song lit up by his unique blend of passion, tenderness and sheer beauty of voice. 

Catherine Bott

In his own words: ‘At five o’clock I stop work and become a father – I don’t believe in being the star singer who just “visits” home.’

 

16. John McCormack (1884-1945)

In a career spanning over 40 years, McCormack sang and recorded opera, oratorio, Lieder, popular songs and folk song from his native Ireland.