Opera Voice Types: Climbing the Scale
In Cincinnati, concerts are synonymous with the Cincinnati Opera—at least according to history. Founded in 1920, it’s the second-oldest opera company in the United States, meaning a trip to the historic Cincinnati Music Hall is one of the most time-tested things to do in Cincinnati. A true appreciation of opera, however, might require a basic knowledge of the voices that create such a timeless aural experience.
Opera singers' voices are often described using the German Fach system of vocal ranges, which classifies a voice according to its range, weight, and color. This system is complex and contains a range of 25 voices, but we’ve broken it down to the seven main voice types to listen for next time you attend Carmen or Turandot at the Cincinnati Opera:
On the Women’s Side
Naturally, women’s voices inhabit the top of the spectrum, starting with the highest range, soprano, whose bright, youthful tone lends itself to the roles of protagonists or heroines. A touch lower than soprano, mezzo-soprano usually correlates to motherly roles or female villains. The lowest of the female voice types, contralto, is relatively rare. (For reference, Annie Lennox is considered a nonclassical contralto.) This term is often falsely conflated with alto, which is only used to describe vocal harmonies, not solo voices.
On the Men’s Side
Countertenor singers usually sing in the range of a contralto or mezzo-soprano—though many achieve this through the use of falsetto or “head voice” rather than relying on their natural range. The highest of the male voices, tenors usually take the role of the opera’s protagonist, hero, or helium addict. Most male singers, however, are baritones, and as such composers write the deep, dark voice into a variety of roles, from the prankster in comedic operas to the villain in more dramatic shows. Bass singers hit the lowest notes on the scale, often lending their full, rich tones to the roles of wise, evil, or foolish old men.
Vacillating Between Voices
Though most opera singers classify themselves as one voice type or another, singers often fall between two types or switch ranges throughout their career. In the same vein, some singers’ talent transcends any one definition. Case in point: Aretha Franklin stepped in for Luciano Pavarotti at a moment’s notice at the 1998 Grammy Awards, performing a soulful, soaring rendition of “Nessun dorma” in the tenor's exact range.