How do you cast an opera? Mostly by voice – but which voice? If you’re casting Siegmund in Die Walküre, you’re obviously looking for a tenor; but you would probably not approach either Ian Bostridge or Juan Diego Flórez – and they would most certainly turn you down if you did. The reason is that not all tenors are the same: some sing higher than others, some can easily negotiate fast passages, some have a good deal more vocal weight.
It’s all to do with what the Germans refer to as ‘Fach’ – which means category or compartment. One individual who knows more about operatic voices and their categories than almost anyone else is Sir Antonio Pappano, who this month presents a new BBC television series on the subject.
Voices are categorised for their inherent qualities and their suitability for particular operatic roles -- though this isn’t an exact science. Singers remain individuals, and there are artists who are impossible to categorise – Maria Callas, for instance, who sang an extraordinary range of soprano roles, or that tenor extraordinaire Jonas Kaufmann.
Voices also change, often growing larger as they mature. Sopranos can start off as lyric and end up as dramatic, or even turn into mezzos; so it’s possible to change voice-type, let alone Fach. What follows is a brief guide to some of the main vocal categories – all of them, however, subject to individuality and a certain amount of negotiation…
The soprano is the highest female voice – though it could also refer to boy trebles and, in centuries gone by, to some male castratos. These days, in opera, the soprano is usually the heroine and often gets her man – unless the mezzo-soprano manages to steal him...
Light soprano (Soubrette)
‘Soubrette’ is an old Provençal word originally used in the French theatre to describe the clever female servant roles such as Susanna in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Despina in the same composer’s Così fan tutte, which need lightness of touch in their delivery. They fall into the wider category of the light soprano, who might also offer such parts as Sophie in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier and Nannetta in Verdi’s Falstaff.
Recommended recording: Elisabeth Schumann: Aria Recordings 1926-38 Naxos Historical 8.111100
The coloratura soprano regularly sings higher and faster than her colleagues, dashing off sequences of flashy ornaments and decorated passages in writing that represents extreme emotion, even madness. Konstanze in Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio and the Queen of Night in The Magic Flute, plus innumerable roles in Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, are examples.
Recommended recording: Diana Damrau: Fiamma del Bel Canto Erato 2564616674
With a more substantial, warmer tone and a wider vocal range than the light soprano, the lyric soprano supplies the heroine in numerous operas, with such emblematic roles as Micaëla in Bizet’s Carmen, Mimì in Puccini’s La bohème.
Recommended recording: Anna Netrebko: Best of Anna Netrebko DG REPLACE
Grander in vocal scale than the lyric soprano, and usually requiring less vocal agility, the ‘spinto’ (pushed) soprano takes on some of the braver and bolder heroines, such as Verdi’s Aida, and his Leonora in both Il trovatore and La forza del destino.
Recommended recording: Leontyne Price: Verdi Heroines RCA 88765444122
At the most powerful end of the highest female register comes the dramatic soprano, amply equipped to take on Beethoven’s Leonore, Wagner’s Brünnhilde and Isolde, and Strauss’s Elektra. Size of voice and security are paramount; Birgit Nilsson, one of the greatest, also advised wearing comfortable shoes.
Recommended recording: Birgit Nilsson: Birgit Nilsson sings Wagner Australian Eloquence ELQ4803550
The mezzo-soprano plays a wide variety of roles, from maternal figures to sex-goddesses to young men – the latter usually inherited from the castratos who died out as a species in the early 19th century.
Rossini supplies classic instances of the coloratura mezzo in roles such as Rosina in The Barber of Seville and Angelina in La Cenerentola. As with the coloratura soprano, the ability to move the voice around swiftly is crucial: coloratura mezzos will also explore the ever more eagerly devoured Baroque repertoire, notably Handel and Vivaldi.
Recommended recording: Joyce DiDonato: ReJoyce!: The Best of Joyce DiDonato Erato 9341212
Warmer and mellower is the lyric mezzo, who might sing the role of the emotionally conflicted Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther or the passionate teenage boy Octavian in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier.
Recommended recording: Janet Baker: Gluck Opera Arias Australian Eloquence ELQ4762617
Bringing her more powerful vocal guns to bear on strong and occasionally wilful characters, the dramatic mezzo often plays tough-as-old-rope ladies – such as the princess Amneris in Aida, the gypsy Azucena in Il trovatore and Herodias in Strauss’s Salome.
Recommended recording: Shirley Verrett in Opera
A rare voice, the contralto plumbs the female vocal depths with a tone that is sometimes stupendous in size. Contraltos inherited from the castrato the role of Orfeo in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, while Mistress Quickly in Verdi’s Falstaff and Ulrica in his Un ballo in maschera suit her down to the ground, as does the title-role in Britten’s Rape of Lucretia.
Recommended recording: Kathleen Ferrier: Kathleen Ferrier – A Tribute Decca 475 0782
The countertenor is an ancient voice lost to view for centuries before it resurfaced in the 20th century – largely through the impact of Alfred Deller, for whom Britten wrote the role of Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The countertenor is now a frequent visitor to the opera house, either in new roles (such as the Boy in George Benjamin’s Written on Skin) or in revivals of roles written for castratos.
Recommended recording: Iestyn Davies: Arias for Guadagni Hyperion CDA67924
The castrato is an obsolete voice, though it once ruled the operatic roost, with star performers like Senesino (1686-1758) and Farinelli (1705-82) the most famous singers of their day. Always illegal, the means by which the voice was created was increasingly condemned by the late 18th century. Only one castrato survived to put his voice on record – Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922), a member of the Papal Choir.
Recommended recording: Alessandro Moreschi: The Last Castrato Opal PRL 9823