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Opera Voice Types: Climbing the Scale
Opera singers’ powerful voices are often described using the German Fach system of vocal ranges. Although there are dozens of subgroupings, here’s a rundown of the seven main categories.
- Soprano: As the highest range in the Fach system, soprano’s bright, youthful tone lends itself to the roles of protagonists or heroines.
- Mezzo-soprano: A touch lower than soprano, mezzo-soprano usually correlates to motherly roles or female villains.
- Contralto: The lowest of the female voice types, true contraltos are rare to find. This term is often falsely conflated with “alto,” which is only used to describe vocal harmonies, not solo voices.
- Countertenor: 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.
- Tenor: The highest of the male voices, tenors usually take the role of the opera’s protagonist, hero, or helium addict.
- Baritone: Most male singers 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: 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.
Though most opera singers classify themselves as one voice type or another, singers often fall between two types or switch ranges throughout their career. For example, Aretha Franklin stepped in for Luciano Pavarotti at a moment’s notice at the 1998 Grammy Awards, performing “Nessun dorma” in the tenor’s exact range.