Let's start with what a soprano isn’t.
For the purist, a soprano is never the male of the species. Male sopranos? If they sing ‘falsetto’ then they are ‘countertenors’, or even ‘sopranists’ – though that sounds more like a peccadillo than a performing type.
If nature or drastic human intervention have prevented a male from reaching maturity, then the term is ‘castrato’. As for ‘boy soprano’, the proper response to that usage is a flatly dismissive ‘Treble!’
But it seems that a soprano is not only specifically female (unless you’re talking about a soprano sax), but a mature, or at least adolescent female. It is the highest voice in a choir or on the opera stage, with a range from around middle C to, normally, two octaves above – the famous ‘High C’, or ‘soprano C’.
But that generic umbrella shelters a subspecies. First there’s the ‘coloratura soprano’ – well, actually first and second, as coloraturas can be ‘lyric’ or ‘dramatic’. Coloratura means ‘coloured’, but it’s more the high-flying agility of this voice type that marks it out.
The high F in the Queen of the Night’s aria ‘Der Hölle Rache’ from Mozart’s Magic Flute is a reasonable goal for both kinds of coloratura. The difference is that with the ‘lyric’ coloratura the emphasis is on lightness, and with the ‘dramatic’ on power. For lyric, think Kathleen Battle; dramatic, Maria Callas.
‘Lyric coloratura’ is not to be confused with ‘lyric soprano’. Lower than the coloratura, she is still light in tone, and should be able soar over a decent-sized Romantic orchestra.
If the tone is youthful, she’s a ‘light lyric soprano’ (Barbara Bonney, for example), or if more mature – for which do not, emphatically, read ‘heavy’ – then she’s a ‘full lyric’ (a personal favourite: Gundula Janowitz).
Mozart’s Susanna (Marriage of Figaro) is category one, the Countess category two. If the orchestra is Wagner-sized, then a fully-fledged ‘dramatic soprano’ is called for, or maybe an even more fully-fledged ‘Wagnerian soprano’ – more powerful still, lower in range and darker in tone. Think Birgit Nilsson’s Salome.
And then there’s the ‘soubrette’, meaning ‘coy’ or ‘pert’ – Mozart’s Despina in Così fan tutte – or the ‘spinto’, meaning ‘pushed’, which indicates a lyric soprano who can also slice through a big orchestral tutti without losing lyrical sweetness: Cio-Cio San from Madam Butterfly.
All of these under one umbrella… For anyone who’s ever worked with operatic sopranos, that’s not a comfortable thought.
This article was first published in the May 2014 issue of BBC Music Magazine