Opera is a rare form of performance that brings elements of music, drama, and visual art together to create one incredible experience for its audience members. First developed more than four centuries ago, opera today is written and performed in many languages in countries around the world. To better understand and appreciate the art form, one must be familiar with the unique set of opera voice types among men and women, as listed here.
Female voice types
There are typically seven different types of voices among opera singers: three standard female voices and four standard male voices. An opera singer’s voice often influences which role he or she plays in the libretto, or the story, of the opera. For female opera singers, the highest voice is the soprano. Sopranos sing at a range from around middle C to about the C two octaves above, C6. Because of their sweet, high voices, sopranos often play the love interest or heroine of the story. They may also play characters notable for their youth and purity. Famous soprano opera roles include Cio-Cio-San from Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini, and Violetta from La Triviata by Giuseppe Verdi.
Mezzo-soprano singers, sometimes referred to as simply “mezzos,” follow the sopranos as the next-highest voice, with a range beginning at A3 below middle C, and extending two octaves above, ending around A5. In some cases, a mezzo-soprano will be asked to portray young men or young boy characters, but when she doesn’t, she is most often the one to play a motherly type, a seductress, or the villain of the story. The most famous lead mezzo roles in the opera include Carmen from the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet, and Rosina from The Barber of Seville by Carlo Rossini, though the latter role can also be sung by a soprano.
The lowest and rarest of all female voice types is the contralto, known more commonly as the alto. Alto singers have a voice range that extends from the F3 below middle C up to F5. Alto voices are rich and have a much darker timbre than the other two types of female opera vocalists, and often play specialty roles such as goddesses or divine characters. Early on in opera’s history, however, altos were relegated to roles portraying grandmothers, older women, and witches. Women in the opera with true contralto voices are difficult to come by, and many times the alto parts are sung by mezzo-sopranos. Some of the better-known contralto parts in famous operas include Hippolyta in Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Giunone in George Frideric Handel’s Agrippina.
Male voice types
The highest of the male opera voices, the countertenor, is capable of reaching octaves in the range of female voices, generally singing notes similar to that of the mezzo-soprano, from between G3 and C4 up to either C6 or F6. These voices are the rarest of all singing voices, and for the most part waned in popularity from the 17th century until the singing style saw a renaissance in the mid-1900s. Famous roles for countertenors include the eponymous character in Handel’s Giulio Cesare as well as the role of Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The most common of the high male voices is the tenor, and singers who reach these octaves, between C3 and C5, most often play young men, the love interest, or the hero within an opera. The most popular operatic roles for tenors include Radamés in Aida by Verdi and Rodolfo in La Boheme by Puccini. Tenors sing one step higher than the most common type of male operatic voice, the baritone. Baritone singers have a range of between A2 and A4. Depending on the style of the voice, a baritone may play the hero, the comedic relief, or the villain in an opera. Papageno in The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Count di Luna in Verdi’s Il Trovatore are both traditionally played by baritone singers.
Lastly, the lowest of all standard operatic voices is the bass, which extends from E2 to E4. Some bass singers have voices that reach notes even lower than E2, though operas are seldom written with notes at such a low register. Characters written for bass singers are often characterized as wise and noble, but on occasion may play humorous roles as well. Good examples of this include Sarastro in The Magic Flute and Dr. Bartolo in The Barber of Seville.
Irrespective of vocal range, all opera vocalists engage in certain behaviors to preserve their ability to sing. To begin, no opera singer ever practices or performs without first participating in a rigorous warm-up ritual to prepare the vocal cords for high-intensity use. Vocal warm ups for an opera singer are comparable to stretching for an athlete. Without warm ups, an opera singer risks doing significant damage to his or her voice. Vocal warm ups frequently involve practices such as singing scales, humming, and deep breathing to prepare the muscles for vocal work.
Another way that opera singers practice good voice care is actively avoiding situations in which they will need to raise their voices above speaking level to make themselves heard. Yelling can do significant damage to vocal cords over time, and prevents a singer from performing to his or her best ability. This requires opera singers to avoid places like sports games, loud restaurants, or parties where they cannot easily communicate at an average speaking level.
Lastly, opera singers of all voice types makes sure that they stay hydrated at all times. Well-hydrated vocal chords help singers maintain healthy mucosal membranes, which gives them greater flexibility while singing and prevents the damage that can occur through friction between swollen vocal folds.
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Photo used under Creative Commons from Marina K Caprara