Friday, February 12, 2010
Opera 101, a.k.a. No, I'm Not the Freaking Queen of the Night....
Whenever I tell people I studied opera I almost always get asked the inevitable question: "So, can you sing that Queen of the Night song?
When I tell them: "No, that role is for a dramatic coloratura soprano but I'm a dramatic mezzo" they usually smile and politely nod, but I can tell by the look in their eyes that they have no idea what I'm talking about. What they don't know is that their question is basically the same as asking someone who plays cello if they like to perform violin concertos. Since I seem to be getting into classical singing again after a not-so-brief hiatus, I've decided to write this post as a sort of Opera 101, describing the different types of female voices. If you want more specific details as well as a long list of great singers for each type, then the original wikipedia (of course) article can be found here
1. Lyric Coloratura Soprano
A lyric coloratura soprano has a light, lyric voice with the agility to sing fast, tweety-bird like coloratura runs and trills. The video here is of The Doll Song by Offenbach as sung by the fabulous Beverly Sills. Her autobiography Bubbles is a good read for anyone interested in opera.
2. Dramatic Coloratura Soprano
Pretty much the same as as a lyric coloratura soprano only the voice is more dramatic in tone. One of the greatest singers of all time, Dame Joan Sutherland, was a dramatic coloratura soprano (and yes, she could sing one mean Queen of the Night.) Here she is singing the Bell Song from the opera Lakme by Delibes. Although Lakme isn't performed all that often, most people know the Flower Duet. Listen for a bit and I can guarantee you'll recognize it from a champagne or car commercial.
Another name you might give a soubrette would be the cutie-pie soprano. A soubrette has a light, lyric soprano voice that still has enough agility to sing fast and florid passages. The roles are often playful and comic, i.e. not the consumptive heroine rotting away in some garret. In this video Barbara Bonney is singing the role of Susanne from the Marriage of Figaro, one of the great soubrette roles.
4. Lyric Soprano
More "soulful" than a soubrette or colortura soprano, a lyric soprano is still the most common voice type for a woman. As in the words of my former voice teacher: "If you throw a penny off a building in New York any time of the day I can guarantee it will land on the head of a lyric soprano." Because of this, no matter how big and beautiful your voice is, your chances of having a significant career with this voice type are only slightly higher than your chance of seeing a tap dancing albino monkey on the Eiffel Tower. There's just too much damn competition. Monserrat Caballe, singing Porgi amor from the Marriage of Figaro, was one of the great ones.
5. Light Dramatic Soprano (Spinto)
Sometimes called a "young" or "youthful" dramatic soprano, this term describes a voice that is basically lyric but has a sound as though it is blossoming into a more dramatic sound. Renata Tebaldi gives a true command performance here of Vissi d'arte from Tosca (to dispel another common myth, it is actually generally much more difficult to sing a slow aria than a fast one, especially if it stays on one level for most of the time.)
6. Dramatic Soprano
Characterized by their rich, full-sounding voices dramatic sopranos are expected to project across large orchestras. In general, their voices have a much darker tone. In this video one of my absolute favorite singers, Rosa Ponselle is singing O Nume tutelar.
7. Wagnerian Soprano
Yep, we're entering Brunhilde-land here. In the wikipedia article they write that this is "Basically a full dramatic soprano taken to the next level." Ach, Wagner. There are many reasons why I ultimately decided not to pursue a career in opera, but ol' Richard is definitely one of them. Wagner is such a pompous pain in the ass, but with my voice type I would have probably ended up singing a lot of his stuff....
8. Coloratura Mezzo Soprano
Originally written for altos with agility and secure top notes, these Rossini coloratura roles are often sung by lyrics mezzos or sopranos. In this video, a truly kick-ass Teresa Berganza is sings Una voce poco fa from the Barber of Seville.
9. Lyric Mezzo Soprano
Mezzo Soprano basically means "half" soprano. A lyric mezzo soprano usually has a voice similar in lyrical and "soulful" quality to a lyric soprano, but they tend to sing more in the middle rang of the voice. One of best overall was Dame Janet Baker. Here she is singing, When I am Laid in Earth by Purcell, one of the most beautiful arias ever and also a bitch and a half to sing.
10. Dramatic Mezzo Soprano
Yep, this is my voice type. I sung Stride la vampa from Il Trovatore about 25 thousand times in my vocal studio. Whenever a soprano came after me for a lesson, be they coloratura or lyric or even dramatic, they would often say "Oh my god. You are so lucky!" There are just not that many dramatic mezzos around which would have made having a career all that much easier (though certainly not "easy". The opera world is a cruel one....) But, as I said, there were many reasons why I chose a different path. Maybe someday I'll write a post about it....
11. Dramatic Alto
Like a dramatic mezzo, only lower. In the words of my voice teacher "they are as rare as hen's teeth."
12. Low Contralto
Probably even rarer than hen's teeth, but there are also almost no parts written for them, so what's the point?
I hope you've enjoyed your little opera lesson. If you're curious what type of voice you might have, then listen to each aria and decide which one you like the best. Someone once told me you usually like the music that is best for your own vocal instrument. Maybe it's true because I do prefer more dramatic voices and also usually mezzos to sopranos....