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Vocal Tutor - Georgina Hill-Brown

Guide to the Singing Voice
by Graeme Kay


There are four main voice-types in singing: soprano, alto, tenor and bass, representing the upper and lower pitch extremes of the female and male vocal ranges. Choral music is invariably set out for combinations of the SATB voice spectrum.

However, in opera and song, these pitch categories are sub-divided into voice-types which reflect not just the singer's range, but also the dramatic requirements of his or her roles.

The German term Fach (literally, 'division') is often used as shorthand for voice-type specialisation. But beware: when you look into the history of singing, you find that the trend for singers to work almost exclusively within their own Fach is a modern one. In former times, some singers - for instance Maria Callas - often sang roles across several voice-types. And operatic roles are often claimed by more than one type - Mozart's Don Giovanni, for example, is sung by baritones, bass-baritones and basses!



"The voice of youth - she is the world's girlfriend"- J B Steane

There are several voice type divisions.



('Elaborate - "When a singer, usually of unnaturally high voice, does more than is strictly necessary." - Peter Gammond, Bluffer's Guide to Music')


Famous roles: Queen of the Night (Mozart - The Magic Flute); Constanze (Mozart - Die Entführung aus dem Serail); Lucia (Donizetti - Lucia di Lammermoor); Olympia (Offenbach - The Tales of Hoffman); Semiramide (Rossini - Semiramide)

Famous singers: June Anderson; Maria Callas; Edita Gruberova; Sumi Jo; Nellie Melba; Adelina Patti; Beverly Sills; Joan Sutherland


Famous roles: Mimì (Puccini - La Bohème); Eva (Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg); Tatiana (Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin); Liù (Puccini - Turandot)

Famous singers: Licia Albanese; Montserrat Caballé; Mirella Freni; Gundula Janowitz; Kiri Te Kanawa; Victoria de Los Angeles; Elisabeth Schwarzkopf

Famous roles: Floria Tosca (Puccini - Tosca); Aida (Verdi - Aida); Sieglinde (Wagner - Die Walküre); Elisabeth de Valois (Verdi - Don Carlos); Leonora (Verdi: La forza del destino)
Famous singers: Maria Callas; Jessye Norman; Rosalind Plowright; Katia Ricciarelli; Cheryl Studer; Carol Vaness; Julia Varady


Famous roles: Brünnhilde (Wagner - Der Ring des Nibelungen); Isolde (Wagner: Tristan und Isolde) Elektra (R Strauss - Elektra); Norma (Bellini - Norma); Turandot (Puccini - Turandot)

Famous singers: Jane Eaglen; Anne Evans; Rita Hunter; Gwyneth Jones; Birgit Nilsson; Deborah Polaski; Eva Turner



Famous roles: Cherubino (Mozart - Le nozze di Figaro); Octavian (R Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier); Charlotte (Massenet - Werther); Carmen (Bizet - Carmen); Dalila (Saint-Saëns - Samson et Dalila)

Famous singers: Cecilia Bartoli; Marilyn Horne; Frederica von Stade


Famous roles: Amneris (Verdi - Aida); Eboli (Verdi - Don Carlos); Brangäne (Wagner - Tristan und Isolde); Ortrud (Wagner - Lohengrin); Klytemnestra (R Strauss - Elektra); Cassandre (Berlioz - Les Troyens)

Famous singers: Agnes Baltsa; Fiorenza Cossotto; Eva Randová




Castrati were male singers whose unbroken voices were preserved through castration. This practice was prevalent in church choirs in
Italy - women's voices were not allowed - and the preservation of boys' singing powers into adulthood was advantageous both to the church which had invested in training them, and to their families, as castrati could hold the key to financial security.

Towards the end of the 17th century, most leading male roles in serious opera were being assigned to castrati; this led to the emergence of the star castrato, and the best known names - or more correctly, pseudonyms - were Caffarelli, Senesino and Farinelli. One of the last operatic castrati, Vellutti, had parts written for him by Rossini and Meyerbeer.

A recording exists, dating from 1902-3, of the Sistine Chapel castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, but the singer was already an old man and the sound could be described in literal and metaphorical terms as 'unearthly'!



"The greatest achievement in singing is to become a well-loved contralto."- Peter Gammond, Bluffer's Guide to Music


Famous roles: Erda (Wagner - Der Ring des Nibelungen); Frau Reich (Nikolai - Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor); Orfeo (Gluck - Orfeo)

Famous singers: Clara Butt; Kathleen Ferrier


These are men's voices - essentially a modern development. Counter-tenors are male falsettists; this specialism enables singers to take roles, especially in the Baroque operas of Handel and Gluck, which were originally written for castrati and subsequently sung by mezzos.

Famous roles: Oberon (Britten - A Midsummer Night's Dream); Apollo (Britten - Death in
Venice); Edgar (Reimann - Lear)

Famous counter-tenors: James Bowman; Michael Chance; David Daniels; Alfred Deller; Jochen Kowalski; Andreas Scholl



"The tenor is almost always 'good' … 'hero' is tied like a label round his neck"- J B Steane


Stylish and graceful


Famous roles: Nemorino (Donizetti - L'elisir d'amore); Tamino (Mozart: The Magic Flute); Ferrando (Mozart: Cosi fan tutte); Don Ottavio (Mozart: Don Giovanni); The Duke (Verdi: Rigoletto); Alfredo (Verdi: La traviata)

Famous tenore di grazia: Ian Bostridge; Bonaventura Bottone; Stuart Burrows; Raul Giménez, Alfredo Kraus


(literally 'pushed', ie vigorous)


Famous roles: Rodolfo (Puccini - La Bohème); Radamès (Verdi - Aida); Don José (Bizet - Carmen); Don Alvaro (Verdi - La forza del destino)

Famous lyric/spinto tenors: Roberto Alagna; Carlo Bergonzi; José Carreras; Placido Domingo; Beniamino Gigli; Dennis O'Neill; Luciano Pavarotti


Robusto is self-explanatory; 'Helden' is German for 'of a hero'

Famous roles: Manrico (Verdi - Il trovatore) Otello (Verdi - Otello); Parsifal (Wagner - Parsifal); Siegfried (Wagner - Der Ring des Nibelungen); Max (Weber - Der Freischütz); Grimes (Britten - Peter Grimes); Florestan (Beethoven - Fidelio)

Famous tenori robusti/Heldentenors: Enrico Caruso; Franco Corelli; Lauritz Melchior; Alberto Remedios; Jon Vickers; Wolfgang Windgassen


Some of the confusion over voices types occurs because operatic countries sometimes evolve their own names for particular categories within their own repertoire. For example, in Germany there is a Spieltenor category which is a light, expressive voice required for character parts such as the manservant Pedrillo in Mozart's Die Entführung aud dem Serail and David in Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

There is also a Hoher Tenor (higher tenor) category which includes Brighella in Strauss's Ariadne auf
Naxos and (even more confusingly) the 'Italian tenor' in Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. France recognises a ténor-bouffe (eg Paris in Offenbach's La belle Hélène).

Character tenors -
Britain has developed its own stable of accomplished character tenors, such as Peter Pears, Robert Tear, Philip Langridge and Anthony Rolfe-Johnson. These singers have adopted various specialisations - they all sing the leading tenor roles written by Benjamin Britten in his operas, for Peter Pears; Robert Tear has sung in virtually all operatic genres and is a notable Loge (Das Rheingold) and Herod (Salome); Langridge and Rolfe-Johnson are especially accomplished in Mozart and Handel. All these singers have also had major careers in the concert hall, singing oratorio and the song repertoire.


Baritones often 'meet in the middle' between dramatic and lyric.


Famous roles: Escamillo (Bizet - Carmen); Falstaff (Verdi - Falstaff); Wolfram (Wagner -Tannhäuser); Iago (Verdi - Otello); Scarpia (Puccini - Tosca)


Famous singers: Renato Bruson; Piero Cappuccilli; Justino Diaz; Tito Gobbi; Tom Krause


Famous roles: Germont père (Verdi - La traviata); Malatesta (Donizetti - Don Pasquale); Figaro (Mozart - Le nozze di Figaro)

Famous lyric baritones: Thomas Allen; Thomas Hampson; Sherrill Milnes; Bryn Terfel


Famous roles: Wotan (Wagner - Der Ring des Nibelungen); Hans Sachs (Wagner - Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg); Dutchman (Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer); Amfortas (Wagner - Parsifal)

Famous singers: Norman Bailey; Hans Hotter; James Morris; Friedrich Schorr; John Tomlinson; Willard White


Famous roles: Golaud (Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande); King Fisher (Tippett - The Midsummer Marriage); Don Giovanni (Mozart - Don Giovanni); Balstrode (Britten - Peter Grimes)




Famous roles: Boris (Musorgsky - Boris Godunov); Count Rodolfo (Bellini - La Sonnambula); Philip II (Verdi - Don Carlos)

Famous singers: Boris Christoff; Nicolai Ghiaurov; Robert Lloyd; Ruggiero Raimondi; Samuel Ramey


Famous roles: Osmin (Mozart - Die Entführung aus dem Serail); Sarastro (Mozart - Die Zauberflöte); Hagen (Wagner - Götterdämmerung); Grand Inquisitor (Verdi - Don Carlos)

Famous singers: Gottlob Frick; Michael Langdon; Matti Salminen; David Ward


Kind permission has been given by for this article to be used by Vocal Tutor

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