Perigo’s Perspective: On The Two Meanings Of Tenor

“Tenor” has two meanings. One is, the character or usual pattern of something: Google gives as an example, “Suddenly the tenor of the meeting changed, and people started insulting each other.”

We may talk about the tenor of our times where attention spans have shortened to the point of non-existence, speech has become a feral nasal emission, news has become propaganda, rights have been trampled, millions have succumbed to hysteria, and so on. One should discuss that tenor only in the presence of gallons of gin, oceans of wine.

The other type of tenor  – the highest male voice in music – is far more edifying and gratifying to contemplate, and remains invaluable in countering the tenor of our times. It's not that long ago that three of the best such tenors got together in Rome and gave a concert to celebrate the coming back to life of one of them from leukaemia. The whole world watched, and was enthralled and enraptured. The event became iconic, and was repeated every four years thereafter.

The tenor of my friendship with soprano Lillian Young was defined in part by her reaction to one phrase sung by one tenor. Every time Mario Lanza got to the phrase Talor dal Mio Forziere in the aria Che Gelida Manina from La Boheme, Lillian would burst into tears. Tears of joy and rapture. Every time. Convulsive tears. 

We played the aria often, and it happened every time. The phrase means At times from my strongbox, so in and of itself means little, but Mario as usual made it sound like the Creation scene in the Book of Genesis. “I sing each word as though it were my last on earth,” he used to say. The tenor of our times might be gleaned from the fact that someone once altered this, in a script I was to read from, to “I sing each word like it was my last on earth.” “No, no,” I protested. “As though it were, not like it was. We have it on tape. We're going to be playing the tape. I sing each word as though it were my last on earth.”

But I digress.

Mario's explosive Talor dal mio forziere was also singled out by his conductor and accompanist, Constantine Callinicos, in an interview I recorded with him in New York in the early eighties.

Lillian was edified and gratified that Costa too was partial to that phrase.

Something else helped set the tenor of our friendship: her husband Dave's unfailing reaction to her singing of a particular song,  Scenes that Are Brightest. Lillian and I were part of a concert given by pupils of tenor Robin Dumbell at the Mana Arts Festival in 1970-something. Robin himself was New Zealand's best-kept musical secret.

Dave attended every rehearsal for the Mana Arts programme. One of Lillians's solos was Scenes that are Brightest. Every time she sang it, Dave bawled his eyes out just as Lillian did to Talor dal mio. The rest of us loved the spectacle of Dave's big beautiful tears as much as we did the beauty of Lillian's singing. 

Dave was a handsome fellow of military bearing, an airline pilot with a handle-bar moustache and magnificent speaking voice. He had once been an announcer on the YC network. Not given to displays of emotion, but this always undid him!

On New Year's Day, 2019, Lillian's number flashed on my phone. I answered, hoping she had rung to finalise a date for a visit, as we had discussed at Christmas. I greeted her with a bawdy hilarious obscenity, as was our wont when phoning each other. Alas, it was not she but her daughter Gay, ringing to tell me that her mum had passed away that morning, at the age of 96. 

We both said, trust Lillian to shuffle off on a day we couldn't possibly forget; how truly operatic! She had written to me  months earlier; you know, an old-fashioned letter that one folds into an envelope which one stamps and posts. In the letter she marvelled, “Isn't it fabulous that our relationship spans over 40 years, and no cross words?”

And that was the tenor of our friendship.

As well as the word “Trumpy” she emblazoned across the letter, which remains affixed to my fridge.

Yes, she loved Orange Man Bad. I'm glad she was spared the worst of the unspeakable evil of Woke-Fascism. Repulsive Deep State globalist politicians are rampaging right now; it's their season. What better time to ignore these vermin, and celebrate humans? That's the tenor of my question today.

We played Mario's Che Gelida Manina at Lillian's funeral, as she had asked.

I could swear that when he got to Talor dal mio forziere, there was a loud, edified and gratified knock on the lid of the coffin.

Our Contributor

Lindsay Perigo
Lindsay Perigo is a New Zealand broadcaster, author and commentator, once hailed by Metro magazine as “the doyen of political interviewers.” He infamously walked out of Television New Zealand in 1993, calling its news and current affairs “braindead.” Lindsay contributes to the Breakfast programme with Perigo's Perspective on Thursday mornings.

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    Richard McGrath October 4, 2023 at 7:27 pm - Reply

    Delightful that Lillian was a supporter of the man I prefer to call The Orange God-Emperor. Our upcoming general election pales in comparison with the choice Americans will be making next year, when I hope and pray that Trump does a Grover Cleveland AND then selects a cabinet of hard-core MAGA, pro-American constitutionalists to reverse the toxic policies of Biden and his handlers.

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