Best contraltos of all time: are these the 10 greatest ever?
Are these the best contraltos of all time? We pay our respects to the women from the lower reaches
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.
What is a contralto?
Of all the female singing voices, the contralto has the lowest range. That said, the contralto range is similar to that of the mezzo-soprano, and also to that of the male countertenor. This means, and let's get technical here for a moment, that a contralto will typically sing comfortably in the range between the F below middle C (or F3) and the second F above middle C (F5).
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 are some to look out for, alongside a couple of legends from yesteryear…
Best contraltos of all time
Dame Clara Butt (1872-1936)
A dramatic contralto, Clara Butt was one of the most prominent singers for more than three decades, from the early 1890s right through to the mid 1920s. Her strong voice was not the only element in her armoury: she also had a very agile singing technique and, at 6 ft 2 inches, an imposing state presence.
Small wonder that she impressed everyone from George Bernard Shaw (who saw her early on and predicted a great career for her) to Elgar, who composed his Sea Pictures, Op. 37, for contralto and orchestra, with her voice in mind. Clara Butt duly sang the first ever performance, at the Norwich Festival on 5 October 1899, with Elgar himself on the podium.
Butt's career centred on the concert and recital stage more than the opera house, though she did appear in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice on two occasions.
Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953)
Born in Lancashire, Ferrier 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.
Maureen Forrester (1930-2010)
A much-loved operatic contralto, Canadian Maureen Forrester's big break came in 1951 when, aged 20, she appeared on a Canadian radio talent competition, singing 'Ombra mai fu', the opening aria from Handel's opera Xerxes. Introducing herself on the air, Forrester memorably described herself as a 'starving musician'.
Forrester was to enjoy a great relationship with the conductor Bruno Walter, beginning when the latter invited her to sing in Mahler's Symphony No. 2 'Resurrection'. The two then collaborated frequently, culminating in Forrester singing at Walter's farewell performances with the New York Philharmonic in 1957.
Forrester also notably sang Wagner - including Das Rheingold and Siegfried - and memorably did the voice of Bianca Castafiore, the preening but big-hearted diva in the TV series of Hergé's television series The Adventures of Tintin.
Marian Anderson (1897-1993)
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.
Nathalie Stutzmann (b. 1965)
French contralto Nathalie Stutzmann made her debut in 1985, performing in Bach's Magnificat at the Salle Pleyel in Paris. Since then, Stutzmann has become acclaimed mostly for her performance of French art song and German lieder.
One of Stutzmann's more notable projects was to record, with conductor Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir, the entirety of Bach's vocal works.
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.
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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 Nilsson 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.
Welsh contralto Hilary Summers is perhaps best known for providing vocals for such epic film scores as The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Libertine, and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
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More than this, though, Hilary has also made more than 40 recordings, spanning works from the early Baroque period to the present day. She has also sung in most of the major concert halls and opera houses of the world.
Her impressive three-octave has resulted in a wealth of stage roles too, from Madame Irma in Peter Eötvös’s Le balcon at Aix-en-Provence Festival to Miss Prism in Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and White Queen, Dormouse and Cook in Gerald Barry’s Alice’s Adventures Underground.
Ewa Podleś (b. 1952)
Polish singer Podleś 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 Podleś in the title role.