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What, Exactly, Is A Second Tenor?

by Tom Reed, Loooong-time Second Tenor with the San Francisco Opera Chorus

 In the wonderful, wacky world of opera, men's voices are divided into several categories: Tenors, Baritones and Basses. Right? Right. There are also a few aberrations like Countertenors and Male Sopranos, but basically, that's it. So what exactly is a Second Tenor? I mean, we've all heard of them, right? But has anyone ever actually heard one sing? We can all name the famous "Three Tenors," but has anyone ever heard of a "Three Second Tenors" concert? Can anyone think of a single famous Second Tenor?

 Secondtenordom is a very choral condition. The problem with choral composers is that they love to divide their choruses into four parts: Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass. But because composers generally were forced to take years and years of piano lessons as children, they tend to do their choral composing on the piano. Less evolved composers write four-part harmonies for choruses, but the really good composers, the ones with the big egos, love to show off by writing eight-part choruses. That way they can utilize eight fingers at a time on the keyboard, and only waste two. So in the left hand you've got the men: Bass, Baritone, (?), and Tenor. But what do you call the part between Baritone and Tenor? Composers could have given this new section its own name, like Baritenor or Tenortone, or even made up something completely unique like "Mellotone." But remember, composers are egotists. They have no respect for people who can't reach the highest or lowest notes, so they called them "Second Tenors" as a form of humiliation.

 So Second Tenors are saddled with the reputation of being "the other Tenors." People tend not to notice them. Conductors never even mention them unless there is a problem that needs to be blamed on some section. Conductors know better than to tell any of the women that they've made a mistake. There's certainly no point in correcting the Basses or Baritones, because it won't make any difference. And telling a First Tenor that he made a mistake could easily lead to mutiny. So why not just blame it on the Seconds? They're docile and completely lacking in ego. They already feel depressed and guilty, so why not? But is this reputation completely deserved?

 Even the most egotistical composers sometimes get lazy and switch to four-part choral harmonies. When that happens, all the Tenors get lumped together. That means that the Seconds have to sing the same high notes that the Firsts sing. Second Tenors are the only ones aware of this little-known fact. The Firsts are too proud of their high notes to ever imagine that a lowly Second is singing them too, and none of the other sections care what the Seconds do. It's one of opera's best-kept secrets.

 For example, take the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Shostakovich. There's a choral entrance in which the Tenors enter the stage singing about a crocodile. Actually they're comparing their boss to a crocodile -- a very Russian thing to do. The Russian word for crocodile is "krokadilitsa." All of the Tenors, both First and Second, must sing up to a fortissimo High B flat. (That's a “High B-flat,” not a “High B, flat.”) Keep in mind that a High B-flat is almost a High C, which is considered a "money note" by First Tenors. If there is any doubt that the Seconds are singing the high note, one only need to watch their expressions. The First Tenors (who are always the first to enter) appear almost overly confident, and usually make some unnecessary expansive gesture as they reach the top. The Seconds, on the other hand, are the ones lagging behind, looking a bit worried and constricted. Note too that the Seconds utilize 100% of their facial muscles as they reach the climax of the word "Kro - ka - DEEEEEEE - leee - tsa!" The Firsts don't bat an eye except to turn to the audience afterward and smile.

So if Second Tenors can, and sometimes do sing almost up to a High C, shouldn't they be treated with the same respect as every other section of the chorus? Shouldn't they have their own name? The answer is: Who cares about the chorus? Who's the STAR Tenor?