What are the different classical voice types?
We untangle complex world of the operatic voice type, exploring their ranges and naming some of the greatest singers to have ever lived
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. 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: Sempre Libera Deutsche Grammophon 474 8812
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
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 sings Bellini and Verdi Gala GL100546
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
Since the early 19th-century, when he took over the role from the castrato, the tenor has traditionally played the young hero in opera, usually the object of the amorous attention of sopranos and/or mezzos.
Light tenor (Tenore leggero)
A lightweight voice with plenty of facility to move quickly around the notes, the light tenor (sometimes called ‘tenore di grazia’) thrives in the delicacy of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini – provided he can manage the coloratura and hit the high notes: grace and charm are essential to a repertoire that includes Almaviva in The Barber of Seville, Ernesto in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and Fenton in Falstaff.
Recommended recording: Juan Diego Flórez: Una furtive lagrima Decca 473 4402
Tenors who are good actors, but may not have especially large or beautiful voices, come to specialise in roles suited to their resources; comic or grotesque parts, such as Mime in The Ring, Monostatos in The Magic Flute and Monsieur Triquet in Eugene Onegin, are their staples.
Recommended recording: Graham Clark as Mime in Siegfried Warner Classics 2564688804 (DVD)
A specialism of French opera in the 17th and 18th centuries, this high tenor voice moves in the direction of the countertenor. Famous past performers include Pierre Jélyotte, for whom Rameau wrote the comic-grotesque female role of the deluded marsh nymph Platée, and Joseph Legros, for whom Gluck revised that of Orpheus in his 1774 French edition of Orphée et Eurydice.
Recommended recording: Jean-Paul Fouchécourt: Rameau: Operatic Arias Naxos 8.557993
Opera’s equivalent of the spoken theatre’s juvenile lead, the suave and mellifluous lyric tenor is usually the young man in love with the soprano, or possibly the mezzo, and may occasionally be torn between the two. Alfredo in La traviata, the Duke in Rigoletto and Rodolfo in La bohème are classic instances.
Recommended recording: Jose Carreras: The Golden Years Philips 4628922
One size up from its lyric equivalent, the spinto tenor tackles such grandly heroic parts as Don José in Carmen, Radames in Aida and Calaf in Turandot, riding over substantial orchestral forces as he seeks to win the hands of spinto sopranos, and even dramatic sopranos and mezzos.
Recommended recording: Franco Corelli: The Tenor as Hero Warner Classics
Heldentenor (Tenore robusto)
The ultimate Wagnerian heroes – such as Siegmund and Siegfried in Wagner’s Ring, Walther in Meistersinger, Tannhäuser and Tristan – form a type in themselves. Those blessed with a suitably voluminous instrument can spend their career singing a small selection of roles, which may include optional extras such as Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio, Verdi’s Otello and Britten’s Peter Grimes.
Recommended recording: Jon Vickers: The Very Best of Jon Vickers
The baritone voice rose to a position of increasing importance during the 19th century, especially in the operas of Verdi.
With an essential sweetness in the timbre, the lyric baritone can be encountered in operas by Mozart (Guglielmo in Così fan tutte or Papageno in The Magic Flute), Donizetti (Malatesta in Don Pasquale) and Puccini (Marcello in La bohème).
Recommended recording: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: Opera Arias Alto ALC1168
Verdi composed magnificent parts for the baritone voice, including some of his finest dramatic creations - roles such as Macbeth, Rigoletto and Simon Boccanegra -- finding in the possibilities of the voice itself (and its greatest exponents) an ambiguous quality that adds to the complexity of the character portrayed.
Recommended recording: Ettore Bastianini: Live (1954-58): A Life in Opera Bongiovanni GB1205
Darker in quality, and with a harder core at the centre of the tone, the dramatic baritone is in other respects close in type and range to the Verdi baritone, but will also shine as Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca and Jack Rance in his Girl of the Golden West.
Recommended recordings: Tito Gobbi: Baritone Masterclass Regis RRC1183
The lowest male voice is often used to delineate figures of authority – fathers, kings, high priests, gods – and devils!
Halfway between the baritone and the bass voices, the bass-baritone – of whom the best present-day example is Bryn Terfel – is the ideal voice for several of Wagner’s most important roles, notably the Flying Dutchman, Hans Sachs in Meis tersinger, Wotan in The Ring and Amfortas in Parsifal.
Recommended recordings: Bryn Terfel: Opera Arias DG E4458662
Oroveso in Bellini’s Norma, or Padre Guardiano in Verdi’s La forza del destino, are examples of the basso cantante (literally ‘singing bass’), the most lyrical in quality of the lowest voice type, generally suited to static characters rather than those busily engaged in the action.
Recommended recordings: Ezio Pinza: Prima Voce Nimbus NI7875
The buffo (or ‘comic’) bass (or sometimes baritone) spends his time singing rapid-fire patter songs and purveying traditional tomfoolery in such roles as Don Magnifico in Rossini’s La Cenerentola or the title role in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. The leading exponent of this type of role today, however, insists that he is a baritone.
Recommended recordings: Alessandro Corbelli: Don Pasquale Nuova Era 223301
Even lower even than his bass relatives is the basso profondo (‘deep bass’), typified by Sarastro in The Magic Flute and Osmin in his The Abduction from the Seraglio, both of whom sing some of the lowest notes ever written for the human voice.
Recommended recordings: Gottlob Frick: Opera Arias Testament SBT1103