Baritones are Not Lazy Tenors. Here’s Why..

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There’s a saying in the opera world that baritones are lazy tenors.

If they simply approach their high notes differently by working their technique in a more efficient way, modify their vowels, perhaps sing more “in the mask” or some other miraculous cure-all mantra, they could be tenors. All they need is the right teacher and a lot of hard work, and poof! Tenor!

This is just not true.

Sure, this may apply to a small group of baritones out there who are indeed tenors but I’m going to speak for the majority of this voice type for this particular blog post. Let’s get into it.

“If Only He Worked Harder”

From what I understand, the notion of being a “lazy tenor” is that if a baritone would only put in more time, effort, thought, the right teacher, the right anything, he could be a tenor. (For my thoughts on figuring out if you’re a tenor or a baritone, read my previous blog post here.)

My concern with this statement is that it somehow implies that a higher fach is the ultimate and loftiest goal of all. As though, being “just a baritone” is not enough.

Just like mezzos aren’t “lazy sopranos” or basses aren’t “lazy baritones”, these statements could have negative connotations.

The idea of calling a singer or even an entire vocal category “lazy” implies that someone is not fulfilling their vocal potential and denying themselves their true fach simply because of lack of effort.

Let me speak on behalf of myself and many talented baritones out there, we work damn hard.

It’s not an easy task to sing this repertoire. Baritone singing has just as many challenges as the next fach. Perhaps some people assume that lower voice types are somehow inferior because the extremities of their voices are not as high? Let me explain why that’s just not the case.

It’s Physics

What qualifies any voice type is one’s timbre and range (including passaggio). A vocal type is not something you can just switch by spending more hours in the practice room.

High notes for a baritone lie around F sharp, G, and A flat with A being the highest. There’s nothing written above that because baritones don’t need to sing higher nor can they. For the same reason why most tenors or sopranos can’t sing even higher than they already do, baritones just can’t sing the same notes as the next fach up.

Imagine if this same logic was applied to tenors and sopranos: “Wow, what an amazing High C but why not a D? All you have to do is work harder.”

“C” what I mean?

“Higher is better” is not what fachs are about.

In order to push the envelope for baritone repertoire, we tend to do more and more extreme things such as adding high notes. I’m guilty of that myself.

Here are some baritone roles with high notes (obviously not the only ones in the repertoire):

  • John Proctor from The Crucible: A-flat
  • Mazepa’s aria by Tchaikovsky: A-flat
  • Pelléas: A
  • Billy Budd: A
  • Beckmesser from Meistersinger: A
  • Iago from Otello: A
  • Danilo from Merry Widow: G-sharp

Regarding one of the notoriously high baritone arias out there, “Largo al factotum” from Barber of Seville, the high A’s that I add have been done before by other baritones. They’re not written. I also sing an optional high A at the end of Don Giovanni. These examples are not requirements, simply options for baritones.

Personally, I do this to demonstrate my vocal abilities (hello, bel canto), interpret the music and character as I see fit, and to stand out from other baritones of today as well as the past.

So, maybe certain baritones have earned the label of “lazy tenor” because they’re always pushing the envelope of what the baritone fach can do.

The Tenorial Tone

Usually, a tenor’s timbre is brighter than a baritone’s, so when someone hears a baritone (especially a young baritone) with a light timbre, they could potentially mistake them for a “lazy tenor”.

Yet, there are a few prominent tenors with a darker timbre who are not mistaken for baritones, such as Jonas Kaufmann and Vladimir Galouzine. There have been a few others in the past but it is very rare to find a dark timbre with a tenor range.

The occasional heldentenor began as a baritone, but that’s not the norm. They’re the “white whales” of opera singers, so we shouldn’t use them as an example.

Let’s also look at some lyric baritones who have had amazing careers with a comparatively brighter tone or high notes to burn: Thomas Allen, Simon Keenlyside, Richard Stillwell, Thomas Hampson, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau etc. Let me assure you, these are NO TENORS.

High notes are impressive. It’s when someone sings at the extremity of their range—an exciting experience. The problem is that some baritones’ extremities touch the tenor range and we may begin to think, “tenor!” But don’t!

Fach, It’s Hard

Perhaps a baritone could potentially sing a tenor role but switching fachs is not like switching a light on and off. An operatic career is a meticulously planned thing, and a move like that is a substantial and tricky thing to navigate.

This isn’t to say that all baritones are only baritones. The switch may work for some baritones. I can say from personal experience that I only know of one colleague who started out as a baritone and switched to tenor that currently has a career. So, the odds are relatively low.

Personally, I’m indifferent when I hear people call me a “lazy tenor”. My ego is not hurt. I just look back at my years of singing baritone roles and the relationships I’ve made with companies as a lyric baritone and that’s all I need. I’m not about to question my entire life’s work with such comments.

My main concern is that there may be other young baritones or lower voice types out there who begin to feel inadequate with such statements.

It happened a lot more to my face from a few of my superiors as I was developing and finding my fach. At times, I believed it and dabbled with the rep, then later I realized I was wasting my time. Nowadays, it only comes up on social media with the occasional comment.

So, if it gives people some consolation, I still get these labels thrown at me to this day.

The baritone voice is beautiful, honeyed, luxurious, velvety. I think of it as the cello of operatic voices: lyrical in quality with so much depth. Let’s enjoy the fach for what it is instead of comparing it to others.

Young baritones out there: you are enough. You are supposed to sound like a young baritone (which can sometimes sound like a young tenor) but don’t mistake yourself for a tenor if you know you aren’t. Whether you’re a baritone or tenor, be proud and be yourself! Love it! Own it!

What do you think? Did you find this article interesting, entertaining, or helpful? Feel free to chime in with a comment below.

13 thoughts on “Baritones are Not Lazy Tenors. Here’s Why.

  1. I’m a big fan of the baritone voice; I saw you in Don Giovanni in Chicago this past season and I loved your voice. The best baritones in my view have the honeyed tone that you describe, but with a richness that few tenors can match. (Nor should they be expected to.) I’m not a singer (except in the most extremely amateur sense), but I’m on the board of an opera company and I know how much work it takes to excel as a singer, regardless of fach. All the best to you in this difficult time!

  2. A voice is like virus. You can take steps to influence it and train it, but it determines what it is. If that’s a baritone then run with it. It’s when a baritone can actually hit a high C and includes it in “Largo al factotum” even just to touch the note that is can become vulgar. At least one lyric baritone with a very long career, who may or may not be living, may or may not still be singing, was guilty of that. To me that’s a party trick without a reason. Such displays are not about the character or tradition. They are ALL about the singer who says LOOK AT ME ME ME ME ME ME! That turns the aria into a real zoo.

  3. This is a huge consolation. I used to sing in choirs as a tenor, even in professional Chorus. Finding my fach has not been easy for me (first tenor, countertenor, then tenor again, now baritone). Even though i feel comfortable as a baritone (studying at a conservatoire) my classmates still call me tenor when i sing high.

    People just have to respect the baritone fach for what it is! We can’t all be tenors!

  4. Anyone who says that is too Ignorant about singing to be heard. ANYONE who really sings knows that there are so many variables in the function of the human voice that such a blanket statement is absurd. Diversity in voices is part of the Beauty of singing!

    1. What rubbish! #DmitriHvorostovsky had a voice that suited Tenor, Baritone and the low registers and did in fact sing Tenor at first, but his teacher recommended he sang Baritone as his singing life would be longer…As we all know sadly this amazing man with a voice and performing skills that would reach even the hardest heart died much too young, but noone in their right mind could accuse him of being lazy or failing to reach his potential.. I believe him to be one of the finest Baritones ever… just my opinion I know but many great minds in the World of Opera and Classics agree with me …Thank you for the chance to respond ..

  5. I really enjoyed this epistle from you the baritone. My father was a honeyed, velvety baritone that I adored singing with growing up. He made me enjoy music and one of my degrees is in piano performance. I’ve passed my love of opera on to my children . Thank you for taking the time to make people happy with your cello of a voice. It truly makes me smile. Even from a lowly contralto.

  6. Does Jerome Hines in his book about the science of singing add anything to this?
    P.S. We ladies prefer batitones and basses. My 50 plus years of opera-going attest to that. Of course I’m smiling. You go, guys.

  7. Sorry to disagree with this article but it’s all about, “Vocal Training!” From my observations, teachers of today haven’t any, knowledge of, “Vocal Technique.” They just copy each other! They have no idea of, diaphragmatic breathing or, singing into the mask! Most of the teachers of today, teach students are taught to sing. in their throat, they do not have any idea of how to train the muscles of the, lower back ribs to expand, that helps the diaphragm to lower and expand, that lowers the lyrenx and let’s the breath to flow into the sinus. That is just the, fundimental of, “Vocal Technique. I will stop at this point because I know I will be vilified for my comments!

  8. Truth!!!! Just because I Can sing most of the Rock and Roll Baritenor Hits of the Classic Rock Era… at an evening karaoke Afterparty, including a few brief C4s or even a touched Db… Or Roll out a booming low F2 in an 11 AM Church Service in a Spiritual…. I am Really Neither the Tenor nor the Bass some might mistake me for. I’m a Baritone. An honest to goodness Dramatic Baritone now at 52… but still a Baritone. G2-Ab4 are pretty much always comfy, thankfully…. I enjoyed your che gelida manina… In Caruso’s key!

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