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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Brass Tacks: Sopranos

Part I of a Superconductor series on Voice Types.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
La Divina: The great Maria Callas. Photo © EMI Classics.

If I were teaching a basic class on the appreciation of opera, I might start with the different types of voices and singers. So we're starting a series on voice types, complete with entertaining musical examples. If you already know this information, you're still likely to enjoy the music!

Let's take it from top--literally.

Sopranos are (usually) female singers whose range runs two octaves (and possibly more). (Male sopranos are sometimes heard in choral music, but are commonly replaced by countertenors or even boy trebles.) Composers from another era wrote for the castrati (boy singers who were mutilated before puberty to preserve their voices) but we're not even going to go there right now.
The soprano range from Middle C to High F.
The (usual) low note for a soprano is "middle" C (the center of the piano keyboard) although some operas can call for a middle A♭. The high note is another C, two octaves above middle C. Some composers ask for higher notes--all the way up to the series of high Fs that Mozart wrote into "Die hölle rache", a famous aria from Die Zauberflöte.

There are many different types of soprano voices, but the purposes of this discussion, let's say there are four categories.

Coloratura (sometimes called fioratura) is the highest of soprano voices. A coloratura ("colorful") soprano is characterized by brilliant, flourish-filled singing and sometimes death-defying high notes above the afore-mentioned high C. They are heard most often in bel canto and baroque operas. The voices subdivide into lyric and dramatic coloratura sopranos. There is also a type called soubrettes that usually appear in comic or light opera.

Example: The Queen of the Night in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte.

Diana Damrau sings "Die Hölle Rache" from Act II of Die Zauberflöte.

Lyric sopranos are the middle of the pack, with a slightly heavier instrument that combines power and flexibility. These are the "meatier" bel canto roles, along with the lighter parts in Verdi and Puccini.

Example: The title role in Bellini's Norma.

Joan Sutherland sings Casta diva from Act I of Bellini's Norma.

Spinto: The term literally means "pushed," and indicates a middle range between lyric sopranos and dramatics. This is a voice of great power, still capable of tenderness and sweet singing.

Example: The title role in Puccini's Tosca.

Sondra Radnovovsky sings "Vissi d'arte" from Tosca.
Footage © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera.

Dramatic or "Wagnerian" sopranos are meant to power over giant-sized orchestras with a strong, sometimes laser-like tone. These are the "heaviest" roles that some  sopranos aspire their whole careers toward singing.

Example: Brunnhilde in Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen:

Birgit Nilsson sings Part II of the Immolation scene from Götterdämmerung.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.