Voice Types in Opera
So what are the various voice types?
Let’s start with the highest female voice, the soprano, derived from the Italian sopra, meaning “above”. The lower mezzo-soprano voice sits between the top soprano notes and the nether regions of the contralto; that is, the lowest female voice characterised by a deep chest resonance. Countertenors are the male pitch equivalent to mezzos and sing entirely in their upper falsetto range, but the highest natural male voice is that of a tenor. The baritone is the most common male voice type, lying between bass and tenor ranges and covering around two octaves. Then there’s the bass-baritone, whose voice is lower and darker in timbre. Finally, the bass has the lowest range of the men, with his extreme bottom pitch set around two octaves below middle C.
But what about lyric sopranos and Heldentenors?
Well, there are several subdivisions within each vocal group, ranging from lightest to most powerful. A coloratura (literally “colouring” in Italian) soprano has a handy high-note extension, a girlish tone and the agility to dash off rapid, florid passages. Roles requiring the same high extension and flexibility but with a heavier or darker quality are sung by a dramatic coloratura soprano, while a lyric soprano will have a lower range with a smooth, silky timbre to caress those long vocal lines. A spinto (from the Italian spingere, “to push”) is a lyric soprano with a powerful voice that can weather big orchestral climaxes, while dramatic sopranos and mezzos have the richest tone, taking on roles that would be strenuous for younger singers.
The terms “lyric”, “spinto” and “dramatic” also apply for the gents. A light tenor (leggiero or tenore di grazia – graceful tenor) can pull off a highpoint one octave above middle C for climactic moments and possesses a flexible quality for virtuosic showmanship. A Heldentenor (heroic tenor) commands great heft even in his high range, with a voice suited to meaty German roles.
Is this system an exact science?
Since every voice is unique, these categories can only offer a loose guide to determine voice-casting in opera. Maria Callas ventured from stratospheric coloratura to dramatic roles. Voices also change over time, often lowering as they mature – one of the Three Tenors, Plácido Domingo, officially made the switch to baritone roles in 2009 at the age of 68.
Who are the most famous singers and characters in each voice type?
Joan Sutherland and Emma Matthews are Australia’s prized coloratura sopranos, with Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor among their signature roles. The Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute famously flips the dramatic coloratura voice to a high F, more than two octaves above middle C. Dramatic sopranos relish Puccini’s Turandot, while still fuller-voiced singers like Deborah Voigt get to wear the winged helmet as Wagner’s Brünnhilde. Juan Diego Flórez is perhaps the most famous light tenor performing today, while Pavarotti and Caruso were the great lyric tenors of yesteryear.
Why do tenors always get the girl?
Many voice-types are associated with certain personas in opera. Sopranos almost always portray the female protagonist, while mezzos are often relegated to wearing britches (like Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier) or playing older women. Notable exceptions: Rosina in The Barber of Seville and Bizet’s Carmen.
The clarity of the tenor voice suits the hero archetype, and its warmth can be the stuff of sweet seduction. The deep, dusky baritonal voice often goes to the villain, as well as men in authority or comic parts. Think Teddy Tahu Rhodes as bad-boy Don Giovanni. Basses usually sing fathers, kings and priests.