When Mexican tenor David Lomeli performs the lead role of Rodolfo in Pittsburgh Opera's "La Boheme," he will be judged, in part, on how well he sings the high climax of the familiar "Che gelida manina." He will perform that aria in its original key, which brings the singer up to a sustained high C, and it's a safe bet that the audience will react to the visceral thrill of hearing the tenor full voice in the highest part of his range. When this singer performed in "Lucia di Lammermoor" with Pittsburgh Opera, the production included the rarely heard Wolf's Crag scene duet, in which Mr. Lomeli interpolated an unwritten high D.
It's harder to be an opera tenor now than it was a mere 75 years ago, when standard practice allowed downward transpositions and extensive cuts of difficult passages -- most often in the tenor parts. With the advent of the LP record, Decca, then other major companies, began to record operas complete and in their original form. Opera houses followed suit, and now it's usual to restore cuts and return to the original keys.
"Che gelida manina" is a prime example (taken down a half tone, the high C becomes a B). Other arias that were "traditionally" transposed included Manrico's "Di quella pira," in Verdi's "Il trovatore"; and Faust's "Salut, demure," in Gounod's opera of that title, although the key change in "Faust" began in the aria's second half -- the part that includes a high C. Many revered interpreters of the mid-20th century could not have performed the role of Rodolfo -- nor Manrico and Faust -- by today's stringent standards.
Our era of "original and uncut" is producing a new brand of tenors, a younger generation that's fearless by comparison with its predecessors. Mr. Lomeli, 33 this year, has already performed Rodolfo 118 times.
"Because we tenors now have to sustain the higher lines, voices have become slenderer, more lyrical for roles like Rodolfo," he says. "It's also a matter of stamina. Voices today are pushed to their limits. ... Remember that pitch is higher than it was [75 or 100 years ago]."
He adds that there are more rehearsals now, "and we go to another production of another opera the next day." Mr. Lomeli's schedule is so tight that he must leave before the last Pittsburgh "Boheme" performance to sing in "Rigoletto" with the Deutsche Oper Berlin.
The Mexican native has no problem with high notes. "They come naturally to me," he says. "The hardest part [of singing Rodolfo] is sustaining the rest of the score, resisting the temptation to get too dramatic in the low parts, or to get overemotional in Act 4."
A publicist for the late Luciano Pavarotti coined the term "King of the high Cs" for that artist's performances (and an LP recording) of Donizetti's "The Daughter of the Regiment," in which he nailed the nine high C's in Tonio's aria "A mes amis." Yet in 1940, when the Metropolitan Opera revived that opera as a vehicle for soprano Lily Pons, the second half of "A mes amis" -- the fast caballetta with the high C's -- was trimmed out. The tenor was not the star of that show. By contrast, the biggest name in Pittsburgh Opera's 2015 "Daughter of the Regiment" will be tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who, we may assume, will sing the entire aria in the original key.
The demanding tenor caballettas in Verdi's "Rigoletto" and "La traviata" used to be "standard" cuts. Mr. Lomeli sings them all. As recently as 2000, when Tito Capobianco had a competition in Pittsburgh for young singers to perform in "La traviata," the judges found no winner for the tenor role of Alfredo. A major reason was that the aspiring tenors failed in the caballetta "O mio rimorso," which no tenor of earlier generations would have had to attempt.
Belmonte's demanding "Ich baue ganz" was traditionally cut from Mozart's "Abduction From the Seraglio," as were both of Ferrando's Act 2 arias in "Cosi fan tutte." When Pittsburgh Opera revived "Abduction" in 2012, tenor David Portillo made "Ich baue ganz" a highlight of the show.
Count Almaviva's most difficult aria in Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" -- "Cessa di piu resistere" -- was unheard in modern performances until recent years. When Lauritz Melchior, long considered the greatest Wagnerian heldentenor ever, sang Tristan at the Met, there were huge cuts in the love duet and in the grueling third act. Today's tenors have to sing the entire "Tristan und Isolde" score, requiring lots more endurance.
"It can be dangerous for young singers to take risks, because now everything is preserved on the net or social media," Mr. Lomeli points out.
Today's audiences "demand the whole package," he says. "They expect every tenor to sound like Pavarotti, look like Jonas Kaufman and act like Placido Domingo. That's a tall order."
Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.