June 16, 2016
Opera. Not the award winning talk show host – that’s spelled Oprah – but the musical genre beloved by many and completely ignored by far more. Whenever you hear it, you think it sounds superb and incredible, yet most of us have apparently never even seen one. Baritone? Tenor? Mezzo-Soprano? What do all these words mean? Have no fear, we’re here to help you learn your stuff about the various opera voice types and hopefully convince you to give an opera a go. And no, seeing Phantom of the Opera three times doesn’t count. Apparently.
The first thing to know is that there are many voice classification systems that help to classify the five octaves a human voice can cover. For the most part, these are grouped into seven major vocal categories; three opera voice types for women and four opera voice types for men. Don’t go thinking that because an operatic voice is listed under one gender, that they can’t feature under the other however, that’s just the way the system is put together. Each category also houses a whole host of subcategories based around a voice’s weight, range, timbre and dexterity and by and large, each singer’s voice will be able to cover a range of one and a half to two octaves. Interestingly, each group tends to span two octaves so most people can sing across two categories. Got all that? Excellent.
Female Opera Voice Types
The soprano is the highest singing voice and the typical voice can span from a middle C (C4) to high C (C6). Hayley Westenra occupies this voice type.
The middle range for women, a mezzo-soprano tends to overlap both the soprano and the contralto with the voice normally hovering between A3 (the first A beneath a middle C) and A5, two octaves higher. Katherine Jenkins is a mezzo-soprano.
Also known as alto, the contralto is the lowest female voice and a true operatic contralto is rare, so much so that roles intended for this voice type often go to mezzo-sopranos. The typical contralto range lies between F3 (just below A3) and F5, just above A5.
Male Opera Voice Types
The highest male voice in an opera is the countertenor and they often perform roles initially written for a castrato in baroque operas (a voice achieved by castrating a male singer before puberty; it was outlawed in 1870). It generally covers from C4 to C6, though some countertenors are known to sing up to F6. As such, they can sometimes be referred to as a ‘male soprano’.
A typical tenor voice lies between C3 and C5, though some can sing up to F5. Famous tenors include Luciano Pavarotti and Enrico Caruso.
Lying between the bass and tenor ranges and overlapping the both of them, a baritone range goes from A2 (the second A below middle C) up to A4, the A just above middle C. It is the most common male voice type. Bryn Terfel is a popular bass-baritone opera singer.
The bass is the lowest male voice and lies between E2 (the second E below middle C) and E4, the E just above middle C.
So there you have it! All of the most common vocal ranges in opera.
“But what about…?”
Sigh. Fine. Hang on…
Children’s Opera Voice Types
A treble simply refers to either a young female or male singer with an unchanged voice in the mezzo-soprano range.
There you go! That just about covers all the ones you need to know. If Adele were an opera singer, she would be a contralto. Bowie? He was a baritone along with Sinatra. The Beatles? They were tenors. But classifying various voices will be covered in another blog.
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By Henry Fosdike