In the opera singing some roles require very high voices while others very low ones. The composers, among other things, use the voice types in order to characterize their “creatures”. For example, a young man, who is a hero or is in love with a woman usually sings in a high male voice. A lower male voice belongs, however, to the middle-aged, good or wicked men. The male characters who are even older, more prestigious or wicked use the lowest male voice. Likewise, a naive young girl who is in love with a lad, as well as a fiery young maid sing in a very high voice. The older, more prestigious or wicked women can sing in a less high voice. However, the rules of the opera are not particularly strict, so there are exceptions.
In the opera singing the (main) female voice types are as follows: the highest is the soprano, then the mezzo-soprano and the lowest is the alto. The (main) male voices: tenor (highest), baritone (middle) and bass (lowest).
However, this is not a complete classification, there exist additional groups and categories, too. For example, the voice of a counter tenor, often used in the early operas, is even higher than that of a tenor; it can be compared to the female alto. The tenors, sopranos and baritones are further categorized as lyric and dramatic ones. Broadly speaking, a lyric voice is lighter and weaker but easily reaches the top notes; a dramatic voice is darker and stronger but less appropriate for the high notes. Even the bass singers can be classified into different categories, but we leave this for the articles in Wikipedia.
The ranges of the adjacent voice types overlap each others, therefore the singers sometimes make excursions into a different voice type, just as the boxers into a different weight class.
Each voice type is expected to have a characteristic tone or timbre in addition to the pitch. The tone of a soprano voice is light and ringing, an alto voice is darker. The tenor’s timbre is light and shining, the baritone’s one is dark, velvety or even sooty. For the bass we say similar things. In vocal training the pitch and tone together decide on the voice type of a singer apprentice.
As an example of a soprano voice let us listen to Amanda Squitieri who sings the aria “Oh, mio babbino caro” from the opera Gianni Schicchi by Puccini. In this aria a young girl asks his father to help her to marry her fiance or else she is going to jump into the river Arno. In this lyric aria there are comical elements, too, as the girl tries to cheat and his father, of course, knows that… Do not worry, the story has a happy end.
Who else could be a better example of the mezzo voice than Carmen, the title character of the opera by Bizet? In the aria Seguidilla the famous gipsy woman advertises Lilas Pastia’s pub: she is going there to dance seguidilla and to drink manzanilla; but she is lonely now, who is going to accompany her? By the way, Carmen seduces her prison guard, Don Jose, with this aria, and, in case of a good mezzo, poor Jose has no chance to resist. Click here and on the opening page choose Denyce Graves and the Seguidilla. After listening to Seguidilla it is recommended to choose other arias, as well, the list on the page contains very prestigious names.
It is not easy to find an alto aria. A nice example can be the aria “He was despised” from the oratorio Messiah by Handel. You can try to find it on the internet.
A wonderful piece of the lyric tenor repertoire is Nadir’s romance from the opera Pearl Fishers by Bizet. Nadir, the pearl fisher, remembers his lover, an exotic priestess. Many people say this is the nicest aria ever in the opera world. Robert Urban-Nagy sings.
In the opera Lohengrin by Wagner, Elsa is accused of murder. Lohengrin, a knight who arrives on a swan, frees and marries her. However, it is forbidden to ask him about his identity. Nevertheless, Elsa does this, and the answer is Lohengrin’s narration (In fernem land). In order to illustrate the dramatic tenor voice – let us listen to the aria “In fernem land” (In a distant country) in Johan Botha’s website. For a more darker and baritonal version of the same aria (“heldentenor” voice) please visit to Jonas Kaufmann’s website (and choose the item tracklisting at the bottom of the opening page).
The baritone voice will be shown through the C major aria “Non più andrai, farfallone amoroso” sung by Figaro in the first act of the opera The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart. In this opera Figaro is a servant of count Almaviva, and wants to marry Susanne, the maid. However, the count would also like to acquire Susanne. In the difficult love mesh the young page, Cherubino, has been caught with a young girl. The count promotes Cherubino to a military officer and sends him away from the palace. In the aria Figaro – who is a bit malevolent – says farewell to him. Bryn Terfel, the world-renowned Welsh baritone sings.
If you need an example of bass voice, take Sarastro from the opera The Magic Flute by Mozart. Sarastro is a ruler-priest and – in some interpretations – the father of the main female character, the young Pamina. In the famous F major aria he blesses the marriage of Pamina and the main male character, Tamino. We shall hear wonderful deep sounds from Paul Gerimont.
Finally, a small physics and physiology. The pitch of a sound depends on its frequency. On long vocal chords low frequency vibrations, that is, deep sounds are formed while the short vocal chords sustain high frequency vibrations, that is, high sounds. The intensity of a sound depends on the amplitude of the appropriate vibrations. A musical sound usually is not a simple “sine” vibration but a superposition of many “sine” vibrations of different intensity. The main component of this superposition determines the pitch of the sound while the other components (the overtones) yield the tone and timbre.
On average the vocal chords of women are shorter than those of men so the female voices are higher. The vocal chords of a tenor are usually shorter than those of a bass. However, short vocal chords – short man, long vocal chords – tall man. This is why the tenors are, on average, shorter than the basses. Of course, there are many exceptions, as well. For example, tenor Placido Domingo is tall and so was the late Luciano Pavarotti too. On the other hand, Mario Del Monaco, the once world-famous tenor wrote in his memoirs (1) that his doctors did not understand how he was able to sing tenor roles with his long, bass-like vocal chords.
1. Mario Del Monaco: La mia vita e i miei successi (Gente nel tempo), Rusconi, 1982