The phrase "Great English Tenor" is close to being a contradiction in terms—like "Jumbo Shrimp" or "Government Intelligence," but in fact Alfred Piccaver was a superb operatic tenor. There is no other English-born tenor I can think of who even comes close. The reason his name is not much known now is largely that he was born 126 years ago, in 1883. He was born in Northern England, and emigrated at a young age, with his parents, to America. I believe the family name was Peckover, a fairly common northern English name. He spent his early youth in the US, and studied in New York. He never felt at home in America, however, and later became an English citizen. Another reason he is not well known now is that his career was almost exclusively in Vienna, where he made his debut in 1910 and was an instant success with the opera-loving Viennese. He would go on to sing over 25 years at the Staatsoper, enjoying an enormous success there. He was so fond of Vienna, and the Viennese way of life, that he essentially became a permanent resident. Gatti-Casazza, general manager of the Metropolotan Opera, reportedly offered him a very lucrative contract in the 1920's to sing at the Met, but he declined, simply because he was so happy in Vienna. The result of this snub was that he was never again offered an opportunity to sing at the Met. This might sound like a head-strong and foolish move on Piccaver's part (today it certainly would be) but one needs to remember that the Met was not the international house then that it is today. On the contrary, Vienna, a major European cultural center, would have out-ranked it.
Puccini had the opportunity to hear Piccaver sing, and was greatly impressed. He said that Piccaver was his "ideal Rodolfo." Extraordinary praise indeed for an English tenor from an Italian composer! Piccaver of course had to leave Vienna eventually, when the war clouds began to gather. He went back to England, and did a fair bit of singing and some teaching there. He returned to Vienna after the war, and died there in 1958. He was given a state funeral, so permanently had his memory been etched upon the Viennese.
One of the best recordings of Piccaver on the web is Floristan's beautiful and poignant aria from Beethoven's Fidelio, "Gott, welch dunkel hier!" In this selection you can hear vintage Piccaver: the style, musicianship, vocal fluidity and impeccable diction all combine to make it a real listening treat. This aria is exceptionally beautiful to begin with, and then declamatory at the end, when Floristan, in prison, sees a vision of Leonora beckoning him to Heaven. Many tenors ruin it by screaming at the end, as though they were singing Wagner instead of Beethoven. Not Piccaver. I consider this an almost perfect execution of this touching, superb piece of music. Notice the transition at 4:10 into the dramatic part of the piece. He never breaks the style, he never shouts, he simply sings, as though he were singing Mozart, which is a much better mode for singing Beethoven than any Italian dramatic kind of singing would be. The video has English subtitles, so it is easy to follow:
Isn't that beautiful! He was already 45 years old in 1928, when this recording was made! The velvety smoothness of the singing (and he sang Wagner the same way) was a hallmark of the era and one of the things we have lost today. Piccaver dated to an era when people actually listened to lyrics, because much opera (Puccini, for example)just wasn't that old. Halls were smaller, orchestras were smaller, and the darker Italian singing, with its low-larynx, heavily covered, roaring sound, was not yet developed, and not much in vogue generally, and certainly not in Vienna. Piccaver's voice, like almost all the voices trained at that time, is "white," and employs an open kind of phonation which greatly facilitates pronunciation. It is not as easy to sing very high with this kind of voice, but Piccaver could, in his youth. He had a high C, which he used in Bohème. His recording of "O paradiso!" has two stellar B naturals in it.
Here is Piccaver as a man of about 61, singing a popular patriotic English song of World War II:
Finally, here he is singing for wounded war veterans, in l932, in an ancient film. Here you can actually watch him as he sings "For You Alone."
Yes, Virginia, there really is such a thing as an English opera tenor—very few, to be sure—but at least one great one!