Voice Classification is a group of male or female voices that share similarities, like vocal range, timbre (tone or quality), tessitura (the most comfortable pitch(es)) and passaggi (transitions between registers). You might more commonly know them as Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, Contralto, Tenor, Baritone or Bass.
But some Voice Classification systems, such as Opera, are much more complex than this. Knowing your Voice Classification will help you chose the repertoire that’s right for your voice.
It’s not uncommon for singers, who have not had any training, but have naturally developed a strong lower middle voice to sing Mezzo Soprano repertoire, simply because they don’t know how to navigate their upper voice. The same goes for the other way too!
Classifying your voice correctly is not only important in maintaining good vocal health but also in preventing injury, reducing the need for re-training and increasing vocal longevity.
If you’re new to Singing or unsure what your voice type you are and your struggling to understand the different Voice Classification systems - I get you!
Different genres have different terminology and different criteria. It would be so much easier if they could agreed on one system, right?
In this article, I want to delve into the Voice Classification systems of Opera and give an overview of the typical vocal qualities of each voice type. I will also be discussing how to correctly classify your voice.
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VOICE CLASSIFICATION IN OPERA
The Voice Classification symptom in Opera, or more commonly known as a The Fach System, is probably the most complex of all the Voice Classification systems.
In the broadest sense, your voice can be classified by range, such as Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, Contralto, Tenor, Baritone, or Bass.
The vocal range of each voice type is typically two octaves, but this can vary from voice to voice.
Soprano C4 (middle C) to C6
Mezzo Soprano A3 to A5
Contralto F3 to F5
Tenor C3 to C5
Baritone G2 to G4
Bass E2 – E4
But the difficulty lies in navigating the intricacies of the sub-categories. The sub-categories, consider the tessitura, timbre, weight and agility of the voice.
Knowing your voice type or ‘Fach’ and will ultimately determine which Operatic roles are best suited and will show off your best vocal capabilities.
Opera composers wrote their operatic roles with specific vocal qualities in mind, so knowing and (most importantly) sticking to your voice type or Fach, is extremely important.
Beside sharing with you the differences in timbre, tessitura, weight and agility associated with each voice type, there is another consideration that may surprise you when classifying a voice.
A factor that strongly determines your voice type, that is not widely discussed, and I won’t go into too much detail here, is the muscular, aerodyamic and acoustical conditions of your larynx and vocal tract.
For example, the smaller, less muscular the body frame, the smaller, lighter and higher the voice is likely to be and vice versa. Now, this is biology. You don’t have control over this!
I’ve heard, more than I would like, that professional Sopranos struggle to get enough work because the industry is saturated with them. It is the most common female voice type after all!
They think that by switching to a Mezzo-Soprano will improve their chances of finding work. In more cases than not, this doesn’t work. Simply because if you’re a Soprano you’re not built to be a Mezzo-Soprano.
The vocal qualities sought in a Mezzo-Soprano just won’t show in your voice and you’re probably less likely to get any decent work or succeed in your career. Stick to your voice type or Fach.
Work on your technique and focus on your strengths and what makes your voice unique. Let’s take a look at the sub-categories that make up the Fach System.
The Coloratura Soprano is the highest of the female voice types.
This voice type is best known for its light and agile quality, with a vocal range of C4 – F6.
The Coloratura Soprano can then be further categorised as light, full or dramatic depending on the weight of the voice.
Light Lyric Coloratura
Gilda – Rigoletto (Verdi)
Full Lyric Coloratura
Juliette – Roméo et Juliette (Gounod)
Queen of the Night – Die Zauberflöte (Mozart)
Soubrette is a French term for a female singer that has a small physical frame and usually cast in lesser roles, like the maidservant.
The Soubrette typically has a warmer vocal quality than a Coloratura Soprano but a shorter range C4-C6.
Lauretta – Gianni Schicchi (Puccini)
With a similar range to a Soubrette, the Lyric Soprano (C4-C6) is probably the most common voice type for Sopranos.
The overall voice quality is described as:
“The term 'lyric' connotes a lighter voice quality and great beauty rather than dramatic power” – Jan Bickel
It is distinguishable from a Coloratura Soprano or Soubrette by the ability to control extremes in dynamics.
The Lyric Soprano can also be further categorised as either light or full depending on the darkest of the voice.
Light Lyric Soprano
Pamina - Die Zauberflöte (Mozart)
Full Lyric Soprano
Contessa – Le nozze di Figaro (Mozart)
Lirico Spinto Soprano
The Lirico Spinto Soprano shares the same overall range (C4-C6) and beauty of vocal quality as the Lyric Soprano but has two distinct advantages:
Firstly, a Lirico Spinto Soprano is slightly heavier or darker in timbre.
Secondly, the Spinto part (Italian meaning ‘pushed’) means that the voice increases in power and brilliance at certain places in the voice.
Physically, the Lirico Spinto Soprano has more muscular power and is likely to be physically larger than a Coloratura Soprano.
Lirico Spinto Soprano
Cio-Cio-San – Madama Butterfly (Puccini)
The Dramatic Soprano, as the name suggests, is the darkest and most powerful of the Soprano voices.
This is a rare vocal type and difficult to categorise as it develops later in life.
The Dramatic Soprano voice type is favoured by composers like Wagner.
Isolde – Tristan und Isolde (Wagner)
The term ‘Mezzo’ means ‘middle’ or ‘rich’ as the vocal range sits between the Soprano and the Contralto.
The overall timbre of a Mezzo Soprano is darker and heavier than that of a Soprano because of the dominance of chest voice compared to head voice.
This means that the Mezzo Soprano has greater chest resonance than head resonance compared to the Soprano.
They are therefore more likely to have wide shoulders.
Lyric Mezzo Soprano
The Lyric Mezzo Soprano is the lightest of the Mezzo Soprano voice types.
The Lyric Mezzo Soprano is known for its strong lower range but is still capable of great flexibility and agility in coloratura passages.
The physical shape of a typical Lyric Mezzo Soprano is likely to be slim, as roles are often playing young boys.
Again, this category can be divided into light and full depending on the weight of the voice.
Light Lyric Mezzo Soprano
Rosina – il barbiere di Siviglia (Rossini)
Cherubino – Le Nozze di Figaro (Mozart)
Full Lyric Mezzo Soprano
Carmen – Carmen (Bizet)
Dramatic Mezzo Soprano
Like the Dramatic Soprano the Dramatic Mezzo Soprano is the darkest and heaviest of the Mezzo Soprano voice types.
It shares similar qualities with a Contralto and it can be easy to confuse the two.
The distinction is that the Dramatic Mezzo Soprano usually has a higher range (B3-C6).
Dramatic Mezzo Soprano
Dalila – Samson et Dalila (Saint-Saëns)
The Mezzo Contralto (F-G2) is the rarest of the Mezzo Soprano voice types as it sits between the two.
The Mezzo Contralto has the added advantage of extending their vocal range in both directions (upper and lower registers) and still being able to maintain the vocal the quality throughout.
The Mezzo Contralto can either sing Mezzo Soprano or Contralto roles with ease.
Amneris – Aïda (Verdi)
The Contralto is the lowest of the female voices.
This Contralto uses more chest resonance than head resonance and is rarely required to sing above E5.
Like the Dramatic Soprano and Mezzo Soprano, the Contralto takes the longest to develop.
The Contralto is therefore usually cast in roles such as the old women, mothers, or witches.
La Principessa – Suor Angelica (Puccini)
Cenerentola – La Cenerentola (Rossini)
MALE VOICE CLASSIFICATION
The Countertenor (also known as the male Alto) was a popular voice type in the 20th Century and is considered the replacement for Castratos, popular in the 17th Century.
The Countrertenor is unusual in that it is the only male voice to use the female register without using falsetto.
The Countertenor voice is comparable to that of a Mezzo Soprano in vocal quality.
And is frequently substituted for a Mezzo Soprano in choral performances.