When Gavan Ring noticed a change in his voice two years ago, he found out his voice had shifted and that I had become a tenor, a move that's more common than people think.
No, Fach isn't a rude word! Literally meaning 'subject’, the Fach voice categorisation system (pronounced like the composer Bach) was invented by the Germans towards the end of the nineteenth century.
Male voices are generally categorised as bass (low voice), baritone (middle voice) or tenor (high voice) in the same way as female voices are either alto, mezzo-soprano or soprano.
For the first decade or so of my career, I was a baritone and quite a successful one; I had sung all over the world in some of the great opera houses and concert halls with some of the best orchestras and conductors. However, when physiological changes in my voice began to take place just over two years ago, I was left with no other choice than to, quite literally, "move up" in the world of opera – I had become a tenor.
The great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, who battled our own John McCormack for the mantle of 'the greatest tenor in the world’ at the beginning of the twentieth century is probably the most famous example of a baritone who successfully graduated to tenor.
Contrary to popular belief, this kind of change is not an uncommon occurrence – there are several big-name tenors out there nowadays who began their careers as baritones. For me, I really began to notice something had changed in my voice when I was performing the lead baritone part of Ping in Puccini’s Turandot at Opera North in the UK in 2017.
So much of what an opera singer does to produce that beautiful sound to be heard over enormous orchestras relies on sensation coupled with an acute technical awareness. The likes of Puccini composed his operas using large orchestras requiring the singer to produce a slightly heavier sound.
On Lyric FM Evelyn Grant's Weekend Drive, Evelyn Grant explores the legacy of the legendary tenor, John McCormack in the company of Jeremy Meehan who collaborated on a remastered collection of McCormack's recordings. In this episode, Meehan goes back to his youth in Youghal, Co. Cork to explain how he came to love the voice of John McCormack.
In the past I had no problem doing this as I had performed Puccini before but for the first time, on this occasion, I felt an uncomfortable sensation. I felt like what I was doing was wrong and unhealthy. It felt like my voice was telling me ‘NO – I don’t want to do this anymore!’
Of course, no one would have really noticed it in my singing because I have enough technical know-how to cover up these sorts of issues but after about a year of feeling discomfort and being fed up with constantly having to over-manufacture my sound, I couldn’t bury my head in the sand any longer. Plus, to do so would have run the risk of serious long-term damage to my voice and career.
I went to my teacher Robert Dean in London in summer 2018, who, after a number of thorough lessons, discovered that the reason for my problems was due to the fact that my voice had indeed shifted and that I had become a tenor.
If I’m honest, deep down I already knew this; I had my suspicions so I was secretly working away on tenor repertoire and hugely enjoying the thrill of being able to sing some of the great tenor showpieces with relative ease.
I’m fortunate enough to have one of the best agents in the business (Maxine Robertson) and I sang for her within a few days of my lessons with Robert. Her response was, "after 30 seconds, I was convinced!" However, some tough decisions had to be made.
On Radio 1's Marian Finucane, in studio to chat about the most well known Opera terminology Ireland's international soprano Claudia Boyle joined Marian this morning.
At that point, I had solid work as a baritone stretching right into summer 2021 and in order to transition effectively, I needed to cancel the vast majority of this work to make way for my establishment to tenor. With a wife and two kids to support, I agonised over this decision but in the end I decided that fortune favours the brave so I got Maxine to cancel the work and we set about forming a strategy to reorganise my entire career.
I have worked tirelessly with my agent, my teacher and several coaches over the last few months and have successfully re-auditioned and am now contracted in leading roles for the next few years with several high profile opera companies including La Monnaie, Glyndebourne, Irish National Opera and of course, Wexford Festival Opera.
I have managed to secure an offer of work from every audition I have done so far as a tenor – something I was never able to do as a baritone. My audition for Wexford Festival Opera this year was particularly satisfying as it was one of those rare occasions where I was offered the job literally on the spot!
It’s early days yet in my new tenor existence but as we say in Kerry ‘tús maith, leath na hoibre’ (a good start is half the work).