Contraltos are a neglected bunch. The few operatic roles that do exist especially for them are mostly elderly crones, evil witches or ‘trouser roles’ – where a low-voiced female is cast as a man. An often underappreciated voice, a true contralto is at her best at the lower end of her range and can produce sounds of remarkable power and richness.
It is a rare voice, certainly, and seemingly rarer than it used to be. However there are a handful of notably talented contraltos working today. Here, Alice Perry introduces four to look out for, alongside a couple of legends from yesteryear…
Born in Lancashire, Ferrier (above) began as a talented pianist, winning at several festivals and competitions. It wasn’t until she was about 25 that he began singing seriously after she had won first prize at the Carlisle Festival and was approached with offers of professional engagements.
She possessed a genuine contralto voice with a very weighty, rounded sound, even as a young singer. Her career really took off after conductor Malcolm Sargent recommended her to a concert management agency. Following several years of regular performances in concert and on disc, and increasing popularity, she made her stage debut at Glyndebourne in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia.
The only other role she ever sang was Orfeo in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurydice – despite having had little acting experience she became particularly associated with this role. Her last performance of it was in 1953, about eight months before she died of breast cancer at the age of 41.
Anderson’s remarkable warm, deep voice and strides to overcome racism have become a part of classical music history. Refused admission to the Philadelphia Music Academy because she was black, she began singing lessons with Giuseppe Boghetti.
In 1925 she won a competition that was sponsored by the New York Philharmonic. Her prize was to perform with the orchestra for which she received immediate critic and audience acclaim. In 1928 she sang at Carnegie Hall and in 1955 she became the first black artist, American or otherwise, to perform with the Metropolitan Opera, as Ulrica in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera.
Rarely performing operatic roles as she had no acting training, she preferred concerts and recitals. In a time when black performers were not commonly accepted, particularly in the classical music world, Anderson’s talent as a singer and refusal to take ‘no’ for an answer led the way for other black artists such as Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman.
The Rising Stars
Huckle is a young singer with remarkable depth and richness to her voice. She produces surprising power even in her low chest voice and has a very warm, rounded sound. English-born, she trained the Royal College of Music in London and the New England Conservatory. In her early career, she worked as a street musician in Italy and Covent Garden.
In 2015 she made her Royal Opera House debut as third lady in Mozart’s Magic Flute and, in 2013, she was the first woman to receive the Birgit Nillson Award for Wagner at the Operalia singing competition.
Ammann is an American contralto based in Germany with the Stuttgart Opera. She has a rich and powerful voice, and the strong, resonant chest voice that has become so rare but is required for a true contralto is very much present too. Unusually, she received all her training at university rather than at a specialist music college.
In 2011 she played Rosshilde in Wagner’s Die Walküre with the Metropolitan Opera alongside Bryn Terfel – her first Wagnerian role – and has since been engaged for Ring Cycles with both Washington National Opera and Lyric Opera Chicago, keeping her busy well into 2017.
Polish singer Podles is a mature and experienced contralto with a rare voice type that produces its most powerful moments when it is truly low – the lower it is, the stronger the sound. This is unusual for the female voice and so it offers a unique quality due to its depth and resonance.
She has a range of more than three octaves and remarkable vocal agility. She is a coloratura singer and her ability to negotiate fiendishly fast and complex vocal lines has earned her acclaim in the world of Verdi and Rossini.
However, she also exhibits much of the power and depth usually attributed to dramatic contraltos. She trained at the Warsaw Academy of Music, making her Met Opera debut as in 1984 as the title role in Handel’s Rinaldo.
Canadian-born Lemieux possesses an all round remarkable voice – dynamic, agile and rounded with enormous warmth and power. Generally known as a coloratura singer, she also has many qualities of the dramatic contralto though without the characteristic heaviness that tends to go with it.
She is a favourite among Baroque lovers and for her roles in both Handel and Vivaldi. Trained at the Chicoutimi Conservatoire, soon after graduating invitations for professional engagements flooded in, and she made her debut as Cornelia in Giulio Cesare in 2002 with Canadian Opera – with, coincidentally, Ewa Podles in the title role.