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FIND YOUR SINGING VOICE: VOICE CLASSIFICATION FOR OPERA SINGERS

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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Hi, I'm Rebecca! And I truly love everything about the art, science, and teaching of singing. If you're looking to build an effective and healthier singing technique so that you can sing with more ease and confidence, then you're in the right place! Here's a few other blog posts you might also like to read:

And of course, grab a copy of my ultimate vocal health starter guide where I'll share how to create a vocal health routine and reset your voice in 14-days!

 

Voice Classification can be difficult to understand, especially Opera's Fach System. But it's super important! Rebecca Reid Vocal Studio explains everything you need to know about how to find your singing voice, finding your Fach and choosing repertoire that will guarantee that you will WOW! the audience. #findyourvoice #opera #voiceclassification #singing #containsafiliatemarketing

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.

 

SOPRANO

Coloratura Soprano

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)

Dramatic Coloratura

Queen of the Night – Die Zauberflöte (Mozart)

Soubrette

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.

Soubrette

Lauretta – Gianni Schicchi (Puccini)

Lyric Soprano

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)

Dramatic Soprano

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.

Dramatic Soprano

Isolde – Tristan und Isolde (Wagner)

 

MEZZO SOPRANO

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)

Mezzo Contralto

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.

Mezzo Contralto

Amneris – Aïda (Verdi)

 

CONTRALTO

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.

Contralto

La Principessa – Suor Angelica (Puccini)

Cenerentola – La Cenerentola (Rossini)

 

MALE VOICE CLASSIFICATION

Countertenor

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.

The Countertenor substituting of the Castrato

Giulio Cesare – Giulio Cesare (Handel)

Orfeo – Orfeo ed Euridice (Gluck)

 

TENOR


Comic or Buffo Tenor

Comparable to the female Soubrette, the Comic or Buffo Tenor is the lightest of the Tenor voices.

The roles of the Comic or Buffo Tenor has more emphasis on acting than actually singing.

Comic or Buffo Tenor

Beppe – Pagliacci (Leoncavallo)

Lyric Tenor

Like a Lyric Soprano, the Lyric Tenor shares the same has a light, flexible and beauty in vocal quality.

The Lyric Tenor is usually cast as the love interest in an opera.

Similarly, the Lyric Tenor can be divided into light or full depending on the weight of the voice.

Light Lyric Tenor

Ferrando – Cosí fan tutte (Mozart)

Full Lyric Tenor

Rodolfo – La Bohème (Puccini)

Lirico Spinto Tenor

The Lirico Spinto Tenor has the same range (C3-C5) and vocal qualities as the Lyric Tenor but with the same advantages of a slightly heavier or darker in timbre and increases in power and brilliance at certain places in the voice, like the Lirico Spinto Soprano.

Lirico Spinto Tenor

Cavaradossi – Tosca (Puccini)

Dramatic Tenor

The Dramatic Tenor is known for its dramatic vocal quality rather than the beauty that you hear in the voices of Lyric Tenors and Lirico Spinto Tenors.

The Dramatic Tenor is usually the hero of the opera.

Dramatic Tenor

Radames – Aïda (Verdi)

Heldentenor

The Heldentenor has a Baritone-like vocal quality but with a higher tessitura than a Baritone.

This Heldentenor voice type requires a lot of physical strength and stamina and therefore has the capacity for great power and beauty.

The Heldentenor is widely popular in the works of Wagner.

 

BARITONE

The Baritone is the equivalent to the Mezzo Soprano as it falls between the highest and lowest of the male voices.

But unlike the Mezzo Soprano, the distinction between each of the Baritone voice types is less clear.

This is perhaps the most difficult voice type to categorise properly.

Lyric Baritone

Some Lyric Baritones are able to sing as high as a Tenor but the timbre will appear much darker or warmer.

Like the Lyric voices of the other voice types, Lyric Baritone can easily handle coloratura passages, legato phrasing and displays extremes in dynamics.

The Lyric Baritone can be divided into light or full depending the weight of the voice.

Light Lyric Baritone

Figaro – Il barbiere di Siviglia (Rossini)

Full Lyric Baritone

Giorgio Germont – La Traviata (Verdi)

Dramatic Baritone


The Dramatic Baritone has a heavier and darker vocal quality than the Lyric Baritone but it is much more powerful (greater resonance).

Like the Dramatic Soprano and Tenor, the Dramatic Baritone matures with age and is very unlikely to be seen in young singers.

Dramatic Baritone

Rigoletto – Rigoletto (Verdi)

Bass Baritone

“This voice combines the dark bass quality in the lower tessitura with the ability to sing pitches up into the Baritone range using the same dark quality” – Jan Bickel

The Bass Bartione also differs from the Dramatic Baritone as it generally favours a lower tessitura.

Bass Baritone

Don Giovanni – Don Giovanni (Mozart)

 

BASS

The Bass is the lowest male voice type.

It is not commonly found in younger singers as it requires time to fully mature.

A young singer may be firstly classified as a Baritone before being reclassified once the voice has properly matured.

Maturity usually starts to present itself around the 30s but getting a proper classification could take years.

Basso Buffo or Comic Bass

The Basso Buffo or Comic Bass is the lightest of the Bass voice types.

It is comparable to other Buffo or Comic voice types as it relies more heavily on acting skills rather than singing ability.

Being a lighter voice type, the Basso Buffo or Comic Bass is able to sing coloratura passages with ease.

Basso Buffo or Comic Bass

Don Magnifico – La Cenerentola (Rossini)

Lyric Bass

Like the other Lyric voice types, the Lyric Bass is recognisable by the ability to produce a beautiful timbre, long legato phrasing and master extremes in dynamics.

Lyric Bass

Escamillo – Carmen (Bizet)

Dramatic Bass or Basso Profundo

The Dramatic Bass or Basso Profundo is the lowest and darkest of all the voices.

It is not uncommon for a Dramatic Bass to be categorised as a Lyric Bass in the first instance until the voice has properly matured.

According to Jan Bickel, the Dramatic Bass or Basso Profundo will likely mature around the age of 40.

Dramatic Bass or Basso Profundo

Don Giovanni – Don Giovanni (Mozart)

 

CLASSIFYING YOUR VOICE

As you can see the Opera Voice Classification system (Fach System) is quite intricate with some voice qualities overlapping or maturing much later in life.

This makes it difficult to properly categorise a voice, especially with young singers.

And, I’m sure you can see that it’s quite easy for both teacher and student to misclassify a voice. In order to classify a voice, you will first need to consider:

  • Vocal training background

  • Use of vocal technique

  • Posture

  • Breath management

  • Resonance



You will then need to consider:

  • Range

  • Tessitura

  • Timbre

  • Weight

  • Agility

  • Physical presence

Without extensive knowledge of the vocal mechanism and vocal technique you will not be able to correctly classify your own voice.

All too often I’ve seen singers mimic singers they admire and consequently their vocal technique (and ultimately their vocal mechanism) is inhibited.

Mimicking is a natural habit by the way. It’s how babies learn to speak.

But this means that these singers don’t actually know what their true or free voice sounds like or should sound like.

Then how can they be the best judge of classifying their voice?

They can’t!

If you want to know your Voice Classification then you’re best enlisting the assistance of a singing teacher or vocal coach that specialises in Opera.

A singing teacher or vocal coach can help you find your voice and classify you correctly.

This can take some time (like years!) depending a number of factors listed above.

A singing teacher or vocal coach will probably want to work with you for some time before attempting to classify your voice.

If you’re a young singer, or need to develop your vocal technique, don’t be in a rush to be classified! Be patient!

It’s important for your vocal health, preventing injury, and increasing vocal longevity that you are classified correctly in the first instance. However long it takes!



I hope this brief overview has helped you to understand the Opera Voice Classification system, or Fach System, a bit better.

As you can see it’s quite complex and requires thorough examination and exploration before classifying a voice.

I also hope that I have highlighted the dangers of classifying a voice too early and how to avoid misclassification.

If you want to know more about how to classify a voice, I highly recommend that all singers read around the subject of vocal pedagogy to get a better understanding of how their voice works.

Bizarrely, reading about Singing can actually help you improve your awareness of your voice and how it works which can speed up your progress.

Both of these books are recent, easily readable and great sources of reference whenever you have a voice query. They both come with a companion website so that you can get even more information. And...just keep singing

 



And don't forget to grab your freebie:

The Ultimate Vocal Health Guide

- a 14-day plan to help you improve your voice!




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