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Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Reflection On The Many Classifications of Operatic Voices

One of the curiosities of operatic musical nomenclature is the huge number of classifications created for the singing voice, compared to the relatively few such classifications for choral singing. A male singer of classical music, in the most extreme classification, can be said to fall within one of at least fourteen (purported) ranges. From bottom to top: basso profundo, basso cantante, basso buffo, bass-baritone, baritone, lyric baritone, dramatic tenor, Heldentenor, spinto tenor, lyric tenor, leggiero tenor, tenore di grazia, countertenor, male soprano. Women, on the other hand, are commonly classified as falling into one of five: contralto, mezzo-soprano, dramatic soprano, lyric soprano or coloratura, along with predictable sub-categories, such as "dramatic coloratua," etc. I would call the female ranges a more nearly reasonable sample of the kinds of voices one can hear in opera. The many male ranges are not informative. Most often, they reflect color of voice or flexibility of voice more than range of voice. Sometimes they overlap, or the nomenclature overlaps with that of female ranges. (It seems reasonable, for example, to call Philippe Jaroussky an alto, but one would never call Schumann Heink a tenor.) The reasons for all this are linked to aesthetics, repertoire, sociology, gender, history, theatrical convention, the science of harmonics, and, not infrequently, silliness. In fact, all voices—absent the drama of the stage, or of being Yma Sumac or Ivan Rebroff—break down reasonably to the very ordinary and unglamorous SATB scheme of choir music.

And that, in my judgment, is where the problem lies—choral singing versus that of individual singing actors. A nomenclature appropriate to anonymous individuals forming a global sound-cluster cannot be identified by so many fine distinctions. Some sub-groups within the choir sing high, some sing low, and all are capable of shifting, shading or coloring the sounds upward or downward, as required to cover the needed range of sound. In operatic singing, I would contend that range of voice is not so crucial as is commonly thought. Marilyn Horne is properly called a mezzo-soprano, by convention, but her upper register was extraordinary, and, repertoire permitting, she could equally legitimately be called a dramatic soprano, or, in some instances simply soprano, if one is to judge by singable note range. But that is not the issue. It is color of voice that matters. Darker ranges have serious or somber overtones, and thus lend themselves to certain roles and repertoire. So we enter the realm of theatrical representation. Darker versus lighter voices have sexual connotations. Voices suggest age. Higher male voices speak of youth, darker or lower voices speak of age or sometimes malevolence. ("Credo in un dio crudel!") would not be very convincing falling from the lips of Tito Schipa.)

If all this is granted, then we must consider the case of individual personalities—something that co-resonates with "star power." Some personalities, in combination with certain personality types, can be most attractive. The perfect "little girl" sound of Galli-Curci's voice, in combination with her small, almost fragile body and her refined manner, all came together to produce one of the most popular and beloved sopranos of all time. A very high male voice, coupled with an extroverted, even bombastic personality can give rise to the famous (or infamous!) tenor stars of opera. A gentle and tender tenor voice, however, in combination with an elegant, modest or somewhat withdrawn personality (Tito Schipa, Ferruccio Tagliavini, Alfredo Kraus) can produce a star who, while usually not enjoying the extreme popular success of the bombastic type, can nonetheless win a very large audience of aesthetes, who are delighted by refinement and delicacy. (The Great Couperin, in his treatise on the art of playing the harpsichord, said that he, in matters of style, would much rather be pleased than surprised!) At the lower end of the vocal spectrum, a big, booming bass voice, coupled with an extremely comic figure (Salvatore Baccaloni) can redefine bass singing in the direction of comic, or "buffo" singing. Pol Plançon, on the other hand, was the exemplar of the famous French tradition of basso cantante singing, an uncommonly elegant art. The vocal classifications applied to any of these individuals usually reflects, in some degree at least, their appropriate repertoire, in combination with their public persona and the degree of acceptance their particular kind of singing and acting has earned them. Finally, men who sing extremely and artificially high, and who portray females on stage, or females who sing low enough to be taken as a boy, characteristically inherit from the audience a kind of fascination with the trans-gendered that can be reflected in the names given their particular kind of singing—there are, for example, subtle differences of perception that arise from being called a "countertenor" as opposed to being called an alto, yet from a purely musicological point of view there would not be any difference. A good male alto, if one cannot see him, can—and often does—sound identical to a female alto.

One could go on, but the essential point is that in operatic voice classifications, one is never dealing with voice alone, and while the many vocal classifications might not survive the cold and objective eye of the musicologist, they nonetheless speak in a direct and important way to the many fans of opera who actually care about why their favorite soprano, alto, tenor, or bass is different from (and usually superior to) all the other sopranos, altos, tenors or basses offering their artistic and aesthetic wares for sale. And of course, the classifications also matter to music critics ever bent on demonstrating that they are capable of making ever so much finer distinctions in such matters than anyone else. Present company excluded, of course! That goes without saying:D


corax said...

as usual ... a master-class in the topic at hand. beautifully done

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, my friend, I appreciate that! And please permit me to wish you a happy and prosperous New Year!

Nate said...

Thank you, Edmund, for your fascinating and enlightening discussion of operatic vocal classifications from both the musicological and non-musicological perspectives. Since I am, admittedly, one of those you mention who delight in showing off, I would add other vocal categories to the ones you cite, including subdivisions of both the heldentenor and Wagnerian soprano, for example, as well as the spinto (or lyrico-spinto) soprano and tenor. Leontyne Price, incidentally, identified herself as a "juicy spinto soprano." And then there are the labels of soprano sfogato (Callas, for some) and the falcon, leggiero soprano, mezzo-coloratura, dramatic coloratura (which you mention), sometimes called dramatic soprano d'agilita, as well as the disparaging term "tenorino" and a few other, non-disparaging tenor subdivisions. However, as you rightly point out, these classifications are not infrequently the product of sociological, cultural, gender, and other non-musicological influences. As noted, even in purely musical terms, range is not the only determinant, but also vocal texture, timbre, and color. You mention Marilyn Horne, who seems to have (as Herman Klein asserted regarding the nineteenth century singer, Sofia Scalchi) more of a mezzo than contralto texture even though she can certainly sing the low notes of a true contralto. Horne herself admits, however, that the high tessitura was always uncomfortable for her and that is why she decided not to pursue the soprano repertoire which she had started out singing. Both Shirley Verrett and Grace Bumbry made different choices in that regard. I think tessitura is a critical factor here; that is, not merely being able to sing an occasional high note or two but rather "setting up shop" in the upper register. My main point, though, which I have taken quite a long route arriving at, is that there may very well be a psychological, motivational need all of us humans have to categorize virtually everything; and often the more categories, the merrier. This, I think, is because categories afford us not only a sense of superiority but a basic feeling of security, knowing that everything and everyone has their place in the world and making it easier for us to understand and relate to them in an appropriate manner. Musically speaking, I would say this is reflected not only by our need to categorize (opera) voices, but also by our tendency to categorize music in general into so many different types, which we often are hard put to differentiate on a strictly musical basis.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Superb comment, Nate, and very much appreciated. Your discussion of tessiture in Horne's case is important, and something I failed to mention. You are absolutely right. Some of the tenor arias, for example, that are most difficult, are not the ones that have the extremely high notes in them, but ones where the median of notes is higher than average. Most tenors will acknowledge the extreme difficulty of "Ella mi fu rapita," from Rigoletto, for example. It only goes to a Bb at the end, but the whole aria lies right in the area of the passagio, around F natural, and nothing is more tiring than maintaining that particular tessiture. Another very tough aria is Edgardo's "Tu che a dio spiegasti l'ali," from Act III, Scene 2 of Lucia. It hammers away mercilessly in that area, and I have heard tenors die musically before they die from the dagger blow at that point:-) So yes indeed, tessiture and the ability to maintain it is a crucial element in voice classification. Thanks again!

Nate said...

Yes, I remember Pavarotti's talking about the treacherous tenor passaggio. Even the late, great Joan Sutherland refused to sing Konstanze in Abduction from the Seraglio at the Met later in her career (she had wanted to sing it earlier but the package deal with Bing fell through) because of the grueling tessitura. And, as I noted elsewhere, Lily Pons would not sing Debussy's Melisande, in part because the tessitura lay too much in the middle register and, as we know, she was much more comfortable in the stratosphere.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Yes, indeed. Absolutely. That's what it's all about. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

The article is very interesting.
“The vocal classifications applied to any of these individuals usually reflects, in some degree at least, their appropriate repertoire, in combination with their public persona and the degree of acceptance their particular kind of singing and acting has earned them.’

Yes, this is absolutely true. Sometimes singers perform parts written not for their voices only because their artistry and acting abilities allow that. Kozlovsky, for example was a famous Lohengrin, though he was not a heldentenor. He could sing in a very hard, “strong willed’ manner and to create a heroic impression, though his voice was very high . Some people call him ‘altino’, others say that he had a ‘character tenor’ . I don’t know if this category exists in the West, or not, in Russia they call so tenors whose voice is not beautiful enough for leading roles. Kozlovsky sang very high notes beautifully, though in general his timbre was nasal. His repertoire was very big though. Ivan Yershov was a famous Wagnerian tenor, though his voice was not ‘heroic’ either.
Besides, people always argue about voices, so it’s hard to say anything precisely. There always will be someone, who will say that Callas was miscast as Violetta:)Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that there may be so different opinions on famous singers and their repertoire. The only thing is clear is that there are main classifications – basso, baritone, tenor, etc.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for an excellent comment, which I greatly appreciate. Your observations on Kozlovsky are especially interesting. He almost defies classfying. I think those that said he was a "character tenor" (we call them comprimario tenors)were on the right track. When he portrayed the Holy Fool, for example, in Boris Godunov, he was really excellent. On the other hand, I once heard heard a recording of his--I think it was "ecco ridente in cielo," that was just dreadful. He would have been laughed off the stage here. I personally think that if Kozlovsky had not been such a good friend of Stalin's, he would not have had a career. He was not nearly as good as Lemeshev, and he is never mentioned in the West with the same respect given to Lemeshev, Sobinov or Smirnov, all of whom were great tenors. But I digress....yes, you are right...classifications become meaningless when the right singer meets the right roll. They are simply good for the part, and then people try to make up a name that decribes them:D Thanks again; always a pleasure to hear from you.

Edmund St. Austell said...


Avvocato Orsini said...
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Gioacchino Fiurezi-Maragioglio said...

In my opinion, the complex vocal classifications are only important to the soprano and tenor voices.

Baritones and basses have not the dangers of repertoire (compared to tenors): for example, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the German lyric baritone who has been called tenor-like nevertheless sang all the major heavy baritone roles like Iago, Scarpia and Wotan, and did this with little consequences to his voice.

Mezzo-sopranos and Contraltos, given the rarity of the latter, always sing each other's, such as the one day in 1964 at Teatro alla Scala where I saw Fiorenza Cossotto sing the role of Rosina: a dramatic mezzo-soprano singing the role of a coloratura contralto! And she did it very well.

These classifications are (should) all about tessitura, timbre, and technical abilities: not about range. For example, both Tito Schipa and Cesare Valletti had very bad upper registers, but their tessitura was firmly in the tenor range and nobody could deny they were light leggero tenors. So is Juan Diego Florez, yet his top seems much better.

Or the soprano register: consider the difference between Joan Sutherland and Anita Cerquetti: Sutherland's upper register was not so much better than Cerquetti's for she could easily match the Dame on D6: yet she is a dramatic soprano and Sutherland a dramatic coloratura because her voice was lighter and more agile.

I always think that these classifications should describe the voice, not the repertoire, because for example a "lyric" tenor can have tremendous success singing roles that are not lyric and not damage their voices: for example Richard Tucker, Jussi Björling, Gianni Raimondi were "lyric" tenors yet all had thirty year careers in which they triumphed in much bigger roles. It is all a matter of technique: continuing to study across the career, maintaining the voice in excellent condition and be disciplined.

Björling, the most famous example, sang just about every role in Italian repertoire, including Manrico and Radamès, onstage around the world over his thirty year career.

Did his voice ever suffer? No! Did his upper register shrink? No!

Björling's voice had darkened and gained in richness over his career, probably the result of singing these heavier roles. Unless you restrict your repertoire right down, like Alfredo Kraus, the voice is going to darken nevertheless.

In the soprano register, there is Mirella Freni, who through the same careful management and technique has excelled as Verdi's Leonore!

How did they do this? By maintaining study, and by understanding even though they could sing these roles with impunity, they were not to become the core of the repertoire. Björling never gave up his Fausts and Bohèmes, for example.

In the same way, there are many, like Katia Ricciarelli and Ferruccio Tagliavini who jumped into heavy roles unprepared and without the study or timing, and so their voices were utterly ruined.

And thus, you can see that the correct vocal classification should be one describing the voice, not giving it a repertoire: the very opposite of the German facher system, which I think had ruined many voices.

snide76201 said...

I just stumbled upon this page while doing a research project on the history of voice types. I would love to communicate with anyone interested in the topic!

At the moment I am focusing on the rather tortured history of the term "soprano sfogato".

Edmund StAustell said...

I assume you have read the comments above yours. I especially recommend the comment by "Nate," and the one immediately above yours, by Mr. Florio-Maragioglio, both of whom are very knowledgeable on the subject. Personally, as my article probably suggests, I think the whole thing is a bit of a tempest in a teapot. Were it up to me, I would use the choral SATB structure and let it go at that. 90% of what remains is--honestly described--simply a matter of color, flexibility and range. But of course that would make your research paper very short:)