Too many sopranos?: Operatic Voice Types

Who knew casting could be so difficult!?  Well, we did, but this year we had even more fantastic singers audition for us than usual, so it has been tough.  Singers who auditioned for us, you will hear soon about casting; thanks for your patience!


Many of our audience members might not have understood the meme we posted after auditions a couple weeks ago.  



The joke is: there are way more sopranos than any other voice type.  The “By Voice Alone” competition in London figured out that in 2019, 61% of the competitors were sopranos!




That doesn’t sound like a problem, right?  I mean, sopranos seem to be the main character in a lot of operas.  However, while a lot of operas feature a meaty lead role for soprano, most opera roles by percentage are actually for tenors, baritones, and basses.  You’ve probably heard all this before if you read my article about choosing the pieces NMO will perform this season.  We attempted to choose pieces that feature mostly treble voices this season (sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, and contraltos).  I’m sure most people reading this have at least a vague idea what a soprano is, but it seems to get muddy when we start talking about mezzos and tenors and countertenors, oh my!  So please, allow me to explain.


When opera first came about (circa 1590), singers were not cast according to voice type or matching gender to the character they would play.  Operas were cast according to who was the best, most virtuosic singer. Now, composers are much more specific about which type of voice should play which role, for many reasons.  The most obvious reason is that some voices literally cannot sing as high or low as the role requires, or maybe their voice just does not sound good or feel comfortable singing certain roles.  But there are dramatic and musical reasons as well. For one, certain voice types are now associated with certain types of characters or personality traits. Also, in most operas multiple singers sing at the same time quite often, so specifying types of voices helps to be sure the effects of balance and contrast or blend will work the way the composer wants.


(Side note: One unique thing about Imogen, the opera by Elizabeth Rudolph that NMO is work-shopping this fall, is that many of the roles can be performed by multiple voice types, and the gender or the singer and character is not specific.  You can read more about it here.)


In choirs, the voices are divided up into four types: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.  In opera, voices are divided into even more types. For example, a choir alto is usually called a mezzo-soprano in opera.  Here’s a chart of operatic voice types compared to choral voice types:


(One disclaimer about this chart: countertenors also sing soprano in a choral setting, especially in early music.)


The operatic voice types are even more complicated than just the eight listed in the chart.  Within each type, there are even more specific distinctions, but we will stick with these for now.  We will be releasing a series of articles that go into depth on each of the operatic voice types, so keep an eye out each Thursday for the next several weeks!


In the meantime, listen to examples of each of the different operatic voice types and see if you can hear the differences between them.  



Sumi Jo as Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute













J’Nai Bridges singing “Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen












Marian Anderson singing “Re dell’abbiso, affrettati” from Richard Strauss’ Un ballo in maschera










Brian Asawa in the title role of Giulio Cesare (Julius Cesar) by Handel













Lawrence Brownlee singing “Ah, mes amis” from Donizetti’s La fille du regiment












Christopher Maltman as Figaro in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville













Paul Robeson singing “O Isis und Osiris” (in English) from The Magic Flute







Up next week: "Everything you wanted to know about sopranos but were too afraid to ask."

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