Baritone Mark Delavan will perform one of Verdi's plum roles, the title part in "Rigoletto," which opens the season for Pittsburgh Opera Saturday.
While he can boast of many diverse roles in his three-decade career, Mr. Delavan's greatest claim is of a more specific style. He is one of the "Verdi baritones" -- opera singers who have the vocal range and physical stamina to meet the demands placed by the composer Giuseppe Verdi, whose works are part of the core of opera repertory.
Anyone who has sung in a standard mixed choir might believe that the baritone voice does not exist. The usual four-part division is soprano (high female), alto (low female), tenor (high male) and bass (low male). Baritone is the middle male range, lower than a tenor and higher than a bass. It is the most common male voice. Most traditional male pop singers are baritones, and most men speak normally in the baritone range.
Until about 1820, baritones were lumped together with basses. Only with the Italian bel canto composers, notably Bellini and Donizetti, were the baritone and bass parts differentiated, and even then, the part of the voice where most of the music lies -- tessitura is the technical term -- was approximately the same. The baritones got to sing their high notes mostly for special climactic effect.
Verdi took the baritone voice a step further, keeping the tessitura in the highest fifth of the voice. Simply defined, a Verdi baritone is a dramatic baritone with a big, trumpet-like sound that can weather sustained singing in the highest part of his range.
Playwright George Bernard Shaw criticized Verdi for doing this, claiming that the severity of this practice, while it may increase dramatic tension, may destroy the beauty of line. Shaw preferred the vocal writing of Wagner, whose declamatory style favored a more median tessitura.
By the start of the 20th century, however, the Verdi baritone had become a voice type of its own. Curiously, although the early protagonists were expectedly Italians, the great 20th-century Verdi baritones were predominantly (though not exclusively) Americans: Lawrence Tibbett, Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, Cornell MacNeil, Juan Pons and Sherrill Milnes.
Mr. Delavan, a Princeton-born, Texas-raised resident of Madison, N.J., has performed 14 of Verdi's leading baritone roles. He defines a Verdi baritone as "having the low voice of a bass and the high voice of a tenor," adding that "they're also a special personality type: the guy you want covering your back, like a middle linebacker. He has the skill and intelligence to murder the bad guy. He has eyes in back of his head."
As for his musical requirements, the singer is surprisingly modest: "I could tell you I worked long and hard to develop the wide range, but I was born this way. I have a long voice."
Even a brief conversation, however, shows Mr. Delevan to be intelligent, hardworking and sufficiently adept at languages and styles to have been acclaimed in Wagnerian roles, such as the Flying Dutchman and Wotan in "The Ring."
"To sing both Verdi and Wagner," he says, "you must have a bel canto technique. You can't pound it out. But you have to have the right kind of voice. If you're a lyric baritone singing Wagner or Verdi, it's going to ruin your voice."
Mr. Delavan is quick to admit that "in my younger days my ego was writing checks that my talent couldn't cash," but that he saw the light when he sang Ford to the Falstaff of Mr. Milnes in 1996: "I watched everything [Milnes] did, and used what I learned when I sang the title role myself [including in Pittsburgh in 2009]."
As for Rigoletto, a court jester who tries to hide his innocent daughter Gilda from the corrupt court of 17th-century Mantua, Mr.Delavan finds it "emotionally devastating. He last sang Rigoletto at the Met in the Parks in 2006.
"It's the loneliest role," he adds. "The weight of the role is about his fatherhood. And it's physically painful playing a hunchback."
Not to mention the vocal challenges. That's where the singer's modesty again comes into play. He talks about the character's two big solos: " 'Pari siamo,' a monologue, not an aria, an inner dialogue, followed by a grueling duet with Gilda; and the [devastating] 'Cortigiani,' in which Rigoletto implores the courtiers to return his kidnapped daughter.
"Once I finish 'Cortigiani' I know I'm going to make it through. If you shout 'Cortigiani' you're not going to make it."
Senior editor Robert Croan is the Post-Gazette's former classical music critic.