Vocal Types | Opera voices
The four main categories of Operatic voices
Operatic voices are divided into 4 categories: soprano (high female), alto (low female), tenor (high male) and bass (low male).
There are also 2 intermediate voices: mezzo soprano –female voice – and baritone – male voice between tenor and bass.
Then there are many more subtle distinctions used to define the range, tone, colour and timbre of a voice. They developed as a consequence of increasingly demanding roles which required more specific vocal types.
Voices and characters
In opera different vocal types are associated with specific characters, according to established conventions.
The male heroic roles tend to be sung by tenors. In the same way the roles of lovers and young people are generally sung by higher voices.
Low voices such as altos and bassos are used, at the opposite, for old characters and also to express authority (parents, kings).
Typically mezzo-soprano and baritone, which are the most natural voices, perform the roles of ordinary, down-to-earth characters. Also, particularly from the 1800 on, they often embody the evil and bad characters.
In the late romantic and in the Verismo repertoire, however, many protagonist-roles are sung by mezzo-soprano or baritone. This is due to a tendency to employ darker, more powerful voices for operas that are increasingly dramatic and that make use of a full orchestral sound.
The prima donna and primo uomo
In the first two centuries of opera history, singers had more prestige than any other person involved in the production and delivery of an opera. The prima donna and primo uomo (leading woman and man) were paid a fortune; they were true celebrities of their days.
Castrati, the most celebrated of all singers
However, the main voice of the early repertoire and the most celebrated singers of all were neither men nor women, but castrati.
Castrati were promising boy-singers who, through a very invasive surgical procedure, maintained their bright and high timbre, acquiring a distinctive, agile and yet very powerful voice.
This emasculated vocal type, was considered heroic at that time. Therefore the most important male roles in Italian operas were always sung by castrati.
Sometimes castrati also performed in female roles. This was particularly common in Rome, where women could not perform on stage. The taste for castrati declined by the late eighteenth century and by the beginning of the nineteenth century the heroic roles were completely taken over by tenors.
However, the castration practise went on for decades. In the Sistine Chapel for instance the Pope abolished it only in 1903. A few early recordings, such as this of Alessandro Moreschi can give an idea of what these voices sounded like.
Castrati’s roles in modern performances
Roles originally written for castrati must today be transposed to a lower key or else be performed by either women or countertenors.
Countertenors are male singers with a high vocal range, achieved through the use of falsetto. As the baroque repertoire is back in fashion, the falsetto tecnique is constantly improving allowing wonderful artistic results.
Yet no voice currently available resembles the distinctive timbre of a castrato voice. That’s probably why the voice of Farinelli, in the popular movie on the life of Carlo Broschi – one of the most popular singers in opera history – was obtained electronically by synthesizing a female and a countertenor voice.
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