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Voice Categories

Introduction to voice category articles

The musical examples used in this section are not for sale by vocalimages.com

They are here to illustrate the discussion. Many of these artists may not be easy for you to find, but we encourage you to seek out recordings. The following is a list of possible sources to explore.

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Some excellent transfers of older recordings have been done by Wade Marston and Seth B. Winner for various labels. They are remarkably satisfying restorations, which correct for pitch and take out whatever extraneous noise can be eliminated without compromising the original sound.


Deciding to write about voice categories was an idea easily taken as most singers and voice teachers know the basic concept behind each of the much-used terms to describe them. However on trying to assign well-known singers and those that seem to defy categorization, this article exploded into a much wider field and an enormous amount of information is needed to do a minimum of justice to the subject.

Suffice it to say that Lamperti, writing in the mid nineteenth century summed it up perfectly by quoting the famous singer Pacchierotti who wrote in his memoirs:He who knows how to breathe and pronounce well knows how to sing well.This is one of the greatest truths, which study and experience have ever suggested to the successful cultivators of the art of singing.

Here are the words written over one hundred and fifty years ago and yet so pertinent to the unfortunate situation so many singers find themselves in today.

Extract from the Lamperti Vocal Method:

It is a sad, but nevertheless undeniable truth that the art of singing is in a terrible state of decadence; and this fact is all the more to be regretted, inasmuch as it is not only the opinion of intelligent persons, but also that of the less educated public that it results from the inferior quality of the musical works represented as much in our leading as in our minor theatres.

This decadence has for some time occupied my attention. I have sought to unravel its cause, and, therefore, I have thought it well to begin this treatise with some reflections on that subject.

It is not to be supposed that the human voice, since the time of the great artistic celebrities has undergone any change for the worse; though certainly it is possible that some vocal phenomena should be developed at one period rather than at another; yet these are extraordinary exceptions, and it is not on them that we have to dwell. On the other hand, bearing in mind the moral and intellectual development of the population from that epoch to the present, it seems to me that the intelligence of those who devote themselves To singing should have also undergone that improvement which the flight of time and the force of progress have extended to all classes of society.

Notwithstanding this, forty years ago we could muster a numerous body of distinguished artists a thing which in the present day we are unfortunately un-able to do; and hence we must suppose that the music of that period, and the thorough grounding in the fundamental principles of the art undergone by singers before appearing on the stage, were the real causes through which we were then able to boast of so many artistic celebrities, striving not only for mere personal success, but also devoted to singing for the love of the art itself. It is to these two points that I wish to call the attention of my readers.

The famous singer Pacchierotti wrote in his memoirs' He who knows how to breathe and pronounce well, knows how to sing well, and this is one of the greatest truths, which study and experience have ever suggested to the successful cultivators of the art of singing.

At the time when the music of Rossini was in vogue, and was represented in all the theatres, was it possible, think you, for a man, though gifted with a beautiful voice and musical ability, to sing that music without knowing how to breathe well? Certainly not.

It was necessary to make of that branch of the art a thorough and fundamental study, and at every performance the singer made gradual but sure progress in developing his voice, in pronunciation, in respiration, in correcting faulty intonation and emission, both of which defects were rendered more apparent and, therefore the more intolerable by the delicacy of the orchestral instrumentation, which was limited for the most part to a simple accompaniment.

Apart from previous training, by virtue of the above-mentioned repertoire, a singer, who might have had only the gift of a naturally good voice and a certain musical talent, found in the music itself the best and surest master; for supposing him to be wanting in pecuniary means or previous study, he could cultivate the art equally well, it not being considered at all to his disadvantage to begin in the secondary characters, the less so when his fellow-artists were the great singers of the day. And thus, with patience and application, it then was possible to supply the want of a regular training under the care of a master. At the present day it is different.

Vocal music, in order to assume a more dramatic character, is almost entirely despoiled of agility of every kind; this is carried to such an extent that by degrees it will become little else than musical declamation, to the total exclusion of melody. Without entering here into the question whether or not any advantage may accrue to musical science through these innovations, I shall only briefly observe that as the singing of melodies, though not absolutely true to nature, is yet productive of much pleasure to the audience; it seems to me a pity that the melodramatic system should be exchanged for one perhaps more realistic, but which tends to the exclusion of melody, and is hence detrimental to the art of singing.

Let the admirers of declamation frequent the theatres of drama and tragedy, where there is no need of orchestral music to intensify the desired expression.

Owing to the fact that singers no longer find the best of methods and masters in the music itself, and either do not wish or are unable to begin their careers in the slow but sure way of their predecessors, they rarely attain more than mediocrity in their art, and their singing is usually defective and unsatisfactory. Another cause of the decadence of singing is the absence of the musici, a class of singers incompatible with modern civilization. This, while it presents on the side of humanity a just and necessary progress, leaves on the side of art an irreparable void by depriving it of its most assiduous cultivators.

Pacchierotti, Crescentini. Veluti, Marchesi, etc., all most celebrated artists, having left the stage, appeared again in their pupils. The very fact of their retiring, while it deterred them from other distractions, obliged them to dedicate their affections, minds and whole attention to the cultivation of the art.

At one time famous singers, they afterward became masters of incalculable ability and experience, in whose schools were educated that large number of great artistic celebrities, upon whose day we now look back as upon a glorious past.

The deficiency of good singers is also due in a great measure to the impresarios in my opinion. Modern operas present more facilities than those of former times, to artists venturing immaturely upon the stage; a theatrical speculator hearing a good voice, even though it be wanting in the first principles of art, engages it, offers and sub-lets it in the musical market, and the treasure of a voice soon becomes badly worn, through the waste of the most beautiful notes emitted without rule, modulation, or support; the middle notes become weakened, the rest uneven, and the voice, which the music of former days would have of itself educated and preserved, is lost for ever.

To these reasons may be added what I shall term the Spostamento della voce by which I mean the present habit of considering as mezzo-soprano the dramatic soprano of the past, and of making mezzo-sopranos sing also the parts written for contraltos, hence the almost total disappearance of music written for the true contralto voice in the modern repertoire.

The same applies to the so-called tenori serii of the past, who now sing the baritone, to the tenori di mezzo carattere, who now strain their voices by singing the parts written for tenori serii, and to the little use made of the basso cantante. Those who suffer most from this displacement are the sopranos, whose voices, to enable them to sing modern music at all, ought to be exceptional. Obliged as they are to sing habitually on the highest notes of the soprano sfogato and on few strong low ones, their medium register becomes weakened and assumes a character of disagreeable inequality.

What is the result? Why, that the true sopranos, obliged by the rules of the profession to sing these parts, in a short time abandon themselves to emitting forced and fatiguing notes, and so destroy the mezze-voci instead of which, had .the music been properly adapted to the capabilities of the organ, nature would have improved and strengthened these, the most important notes of the whole voice.

To the raising of the musical pitch much of this displacement is also due, that again adds to the difficulties of Prime Donne.

At the present day one would consider as mezzo-sopranos those who sang in Otello and Semiramide, and almost all the operas which Rossini wrote for sopranos, as also in the earlier operas of Donizetti and Mercadante.

Bellini was the first to write parts of an exceptional range, and what was more; he introduced the system of putting a syllable to every note, thus rendering his music more fatiguing to the voice. His successors exaggerated his mannerism, as much in respect to range as in the arrangement of the words. Much of this displacement may be attributed to these reasons, coupled with the fact that syllabication in this music had in a great part to be executed by the head notes, which in men's voices, on account of their limited compass, was impracticable, and in women's, productive of much harm.

The fact that modern music affords such facilities to artists contented with mediocrity, is one of the chief reasons why the ranks of the art are crowded with worthless and half-taught singers, and is the origin of the general ruin of voices or want of fundamental study.

It seems to me that now, more than ever—as much in the interest of art, as for the benefit of singers—a man should apply himself to severe and careful study, and that, independently of the kind of music which the public taste may demand, he should strive to train his voice by singing the music of the old masters, more suited as it is to the development of his natural talents than that of the present day.

Here, I would observe that singing, being but an extension of speaking, the notes which we use in speaking are naturally animated, as they express rage, irony, love, pity, etc., and the words with which these feelings are expressed are emitted clearly. But without the necessary study, how would one emit, with equal clearness of tone and pronunciation, those notes on which one does not speak? How could one support them by regular and natural respiration, and failing that, how could one animate them so as to express the passions and feelings mentioned above? No matter how exquisite the taste or beautiful the voice a man might have, it would be impossible.

Granted that a man be gifted with these excellent qualities, but without a fundamental education, he may become a shouter, but a singer never. His, perhaps, extraordinary but uncultivated notes will always be cold, and in spite of their strength and sonority, always without expression, always wanting in true dramatic accent, monotonous, and incapable or varying their character, according to the meaning which the poet or the composer has conceived; wanting alike in thorough education and artistic experience, he will certainly run the risk of injuring and perhaps of totally ruining his voice.

In such times as these, when new music, new composers, and new singers are taking the place of old ones, I have determined to check, if not all at least apart of the abuses as regards singing, and to counterbalance the influence which modern music exercises to the prejudice of good singing, by some practical and fundamental rules, the result of experience gained in many years of teaching.

By means of these I hope to avert the ruin of voices and to obtain happy and fruitful results for those who devote their attention to vocal music. I do not wish this guide to be considered as a new method of teaching singing; I would rather suggest it as counsel, which, if wanting in scientific merit, will, as the fruit of my experience and study, be of some value.

Further reading of Lamperti's work brings out the never-ending story of the relationship between Impresari, teachers, singers and composers:

Thus we see that to become a perfect singer it is necessary to have the natural gifts of voice, anima, musical aptitude, sound judgment, and memory. Yet these, by themselves, are not enough; it is through study alone, especially of the respiration, that the full benefit of nature's bounty may be obtained.

Masters of the present day, instead of obliging their pupils to make a severe study of the art of respiration, as a rule omit it altogether, and take them through the greater part of a modern opera at every lesson, to the certain ruin of their voices, and often at the expense of their bodily health.

How many young singers come to Milan or Paris with beautiful voices, musical talent, and every other natural gift, who, putting themselves under the guidance of a master, for two years study modern operas; how many of these unfortunately find, at the time of their debut upon the stage, that their voices, instead of being fresh and improved by education, are already worn and tremulous, and that through the ignorance of their master they have no longer any hope of success in their artistic career, which was finished ere it had begun!

Modern music is altogether unfitted for the cultivation or presentation of the voice, and to its use we may in a great measure attribute the dearth there is of good singers. Totally wanting in agility, and nearly so in melody, any one, provided he has a strong voice, is capable of singing it, and so an artist considers it unnecessary at the present day to apply himself the long and expensive course of study, since he is able to gain a livelihood without it. The celebrated maestro Verdi is of this opinion; he, speaking of singing, wrote in one of his letters,

Study the operas of the old masters, and modern declamation.

Never were the ranks of art so crowded by such a multitude of sopranos, tenors, baritones, and basses, as at the present day. Yet, if you want to form a good operatic company, even by high payment you will find great difficulty, almost impossibility in doing so, if you wish to give one of the Rossinian operas; it was very different thirty or forty years ago.

The only singers capable of sustaining the parts in an opera by Rossini or one of the old masters, are those whose voices have been trained in the old school, and who consequently are now advanced in years; yet in spite of this, we see that the old guard continue to make a stand against those who, with fresher voices and unimpaired physical powers, strive to wrest from them the proud position which they still hold as the leading singers of the world.

It is on the composers that I lay the blame for this want of good singers, neglecting as they do the art of writing for the voice.

Correct breathing and careful study will allow the student over time to achieve a complete technique that enables the singer and the teacher to approach the music written by the composers whose music is not conducive to vocal longevity. Many singers that have achieved this find that after singing an opera by Puccini or Verdi or others of the post belcanto period, their voices need the realignment given by singing works of the earlier composers that usually wrote with a much broader knowledge of vocal technique. While the Verismo school might have its more visceral sound and realistic drama, it is a voice killer.

The real tragedy is, as mentioned above by Lamperti that an incompletely trained singer with good physical health and a natural voice can, due to the nature of the music and its lack of long and complicated phrases, get to the end of an opera with a modicum of success but at vast cost to the vocal apparatus.

Due to the fact that we can hear on old recordings some of the older singers that performed the works of Verdi and Puccini when they were still Modern music but had a basic grounding in the old method, it is a lot easier to compare the very rapid degeneration of the level of acceptance of good singing by the opera going public.

The choice and allocation of some of the singers in the various categories might come as a surprise to many readers, the reason they are there is that they are examples of voices that have not been denatured as a result of singing the wrong repertoire though a few have certainly paid the price for venturing into this territory.


This voice category is generally divided up today into the following types.

Soprano Leggero and Soprano Sfogato: A soprano voice that is not particularly beautiful in tone but is made up mostly of head voice with the added ability to sing with agility and beyond the normal range of the female voice, meaning the E sometimes through to the A or B above top C.

Mado Robin
Tales of Hoffmann
Lily Pons
Tales of Hoffmann
Toti Dal Monte
Lind di Chamounix
Amelita Galli-Curci

On the keyboard you can easily observe the areas that are sung in the various registers; Red = chest voice, Blue = middle (falsetto) voice, Green = Head voice and the final red area are the notes that are considered the unusual extension of each category. This final area is what often causes voices to be erroneously assigned to the higher voice type. Particularly in young voices this can cause irreparable damage, after all having these notes does not mean that you are one type of soprano or another, The real test is where the voice responds best and where the passaggi naturally take place.

Chest register

Soprano Lirico:

Katia Ricciarelli
Margaret Price
Mirella Freni

The most common of the soprano voices and one that has the most natural beauty. Not particularly extended in range, rich in the middle register where most of the words are concentrated in the operatic text. A voice most suited to romantic roles with no particular emphasis on the agility or extended range.

Lirico Spinto (a post Verdian invention):

quite literally translated as a "Pushed" Soprano.

Joan Sutherland
June Anderson
Claudia Muzio
Renata Tebaldi
Eleanor Steber

The distinction of this voice type is not that it has a longer or shorter extension than the lyric soprano, but the color and metallic quality in the upper register particularly. The fact that both Sutherland and Anderson are in this group when both have had wonderful careers in the lighter and more brilliant repertoire is indicative of their good techniques and not the fact that they are not successful in the heavier works.

Soprano Dramatico:

Eileen Farrell
La Gioconda
Birgit Nilsson
Dido and Aeneas
Eva Turner

The interesting fact about this category is that, along with the contralto it is a rarity. The Spinto and even the lyric sopranos often have darker and warmer tones in the lower part of the voice than the dramatic soprano. The dramatic has a much more powerful middle voice and the real distinction is the tremendous ring or "squillo" in the upper part of the voice usually starting on E or F and getting more and more pronounced as it rises.

Old dramatic Soprano:

Maria Callas
Renata Scotto
Rosa Ponselle

These voices, according to Lamperti and others writing in the 19th cenury agree that today these voices (not denatured) would be heard as mezzo sopranos.

All sang wonderful performances of Norma and other repertoire written for the old dramatics. The nature of this type is it is often confused with a modern mezzo soprano. Interestingly enough both Callas and Scotto were thought of as Mezzo sopranos initially, however of the three examples here only Ponselle did not suffer vocal inequalities from singing repertoire unsuited to their voice type. Though, in both the case of Callas as well as Scotto, it was thanks to their great preparation in the basic technique of singing, that they were so successful.

Mezzo Soprano:

Light lyric (coloratura):
Federica Von Stade
Concita Supervia

This voice is again often confused with being a soprano. Both Von Stade and Supervia have divided the "critics" as to where they fit in. The distinction can be made by listening to where the voice needs to "live" and where the passaggio takes place. While this voice type can sing higher soprano music, over a short time the middle will weaken considerably and develop a "hole" which in the case of a true light mezzo, will force the use of the chest voice higher and higher eventually leaving the middle ineffectual in anything short of Forte!

Lirico Spinto (a term not usually applied to mezzo sopranos):
Grace Bumbry
Shirley Verrett

This voice type is often confused with the Dramatic soprano and some singers have actually had success singing the soprano repertoire though again damage to the voice is obvious and quick to occur.

Dramatic Mezzo:
Fiorenza Cossotto
Giulietta Simionato

When a listener hears a real Dramatic mezzo soprano in a theater, it becomes obvious that the other singers attempting this repertoire are just that,... attempting. The Dramatic Mezzo in full force can be an awesome experience. Power, Volume and steel in the voice are the signature traits.

Contralto (Contralto also called Alto in some countries):

Light coloratura:
Eugenia Mantelli
Roberta Prada
Manuela Custer

Very definitely a contralto but again easily confused with the Mezzo Soprano voice. The extension of the voice does not define the category. All of the contraltos mentioned here have remarkable upper extensions. Both Prada and Custer, with brilliant techniques easily perform to the high C and on occasion even higher. This ability does NOT mean that the voice can sustain prolonged phrases or roles in a higher tessitura. The particular masculine quality in the notes below the middle C of the chest register is what defines the voice.

Dramatic Contralto (defined by G.B. Faure as the Rarest Voice):

Clara Butt
Ernestine Schumann-Heink

Luckily for the listening public both of these remarkable artists are available on recordings. Clara Butt is only on acoustic recordings but the staggering force of her voice and technique comes across like no other in her category. She is the personification of the Contralto voice type.

Schumann Heink recorded later and her wonderful extension allowed her to do roles that Butt could not attempt. It is interesting to compare the few recordings that both did. Both were extremely large voices... Butt often singing with full military bands (no amplification) in open-air venues and Schumann Ð Heink has the dubious honor of having Richard Strauss screaming at the orchestra to play louder in Electra as... I can still hear the Heink!...

Over the last hundred years the art of singing has undergone enormous changes. Owing to developments in composition style and the emergence of Verismo that evolved from the Belcanto period of Donizetti, Bellini, Meyerbeer and Rossini on the one hand, and to the advent of recordings at the turn of the Twentieth Century singers and teachers sadly put less emphasis on the building of a strong technique.

These first recordings though primitive and hard to listen to, give us a glimpse into the past. The flashes of genius that are audible are well worth the effort listening through the crackle and hiss of the static. Hearing singers that were at their peak in the late 19th Century is a window into the technical preparation of world-class singers at that time.

The first recordings allowed the general public to experience singers they otherwise would never have heard. Styles of singing that had previously remained geographically local were suddenly available for scrutiny, criticism and imitation.

The Mapleson Cylinders give us a glimpse of the live performance directly from the wings of the theater. No studio holding back here and the listeners get a good idea of the carrying power and ease emission of Nellie Melba for example. The crystal clear sound of her voice soaring out in the final ensemble from Faust, an opera she had made her own. Adelina Patti was the most famous singer of her time and certainly the most successful financially retiring to her immense country home in Wales.

After hearing her recorded voice well into old age exclaimed, "Ah! Now I know why I am Patti!" Her phrasing and use of the words in the few songs and arias we have are a lesson to be cherished. Even though she was over seventy years old when she was recorded and her breathing is not as good as it once must have been, we still hear a complete technique. Her Ah! Non Credea from Sonambula is still one of the most touching ever recorded.

Alessandro Moreschi, the so called last of the Castrati was apparently afraid of the recording equipment set up in the Vatican. The nervousness is obvious in his voice and as a result the recordings done the following year in 1903 are considerably better. We cannot use these recordings as a guide to what the great castrati must have sounded like as Moreschi was not known for great beauty of tone or musicality, but rather as a remnant of a long lost tradition. He had already been singing for three decades and without doubt there was wearing on the voice. However, there are elements of his singing which are of use to modern singers. Listen carefully to his attack, notice that the entire voice is very well supported and based on the fil di voce and he never resorts to force of any sort. Though his interpretation to our ears may seem decadent, with a tear and a sob in every note, this manner of singing had the effect of keeping his voice free and ready to do whatever was required by the piece. It is hardly a coincidence that Gigli, who also uses the sobs and lamenting sounds in almost all of his recordings, was a student in Rome and in all likelihood studied with the other remaining castrato Mustafa, at the Vatican. He would have heard them often while completing his studies in Rome.

The breaking down of national barriers, the industrial revolution and the advent of railroad travel made it easier for the singers to move freely among the European Capitals without having to spend months in one place and weeks traveling between them. All of these changes happened in a short space of time and it is not surprising that music along with the other art forms underwent enormous change.

A trimming down and rejection of the baroque and the florid affected both the visual and vocal arts. The impressionist movement in France based on the play of light replaced academic insistence on detail and is reflected in the poetry, literature and music of the same period. In Italy we find Verdi writing Falstaff, as much a divergence from his usual style as William Tell was for Rossini, and we see the emergence of the new composers Puccini, Franchetti, Mascagni, Giordano and others of the verismo school that is still part of the standard repertoire.

Puccini and Mascagni in particular brought a freshness and novelty to the opera stage. They used stories from everyday life that the audience could identify with, using social awareness and no longer the ostentatious patronizing visions of the class struggle of the 18th century. Taking something that Verdi had initiated years before with La Traviata, we have a social as well as a musical revolution. The first attempt, La Traviata caused uproar as did Madama Butterfly many years later.

Now that the music is stripped of its florid passages and short accompanied recitatives tell the story linking the arias the technique of acceptable singing is about to change forever. Singers in this period were still instructed in the old way of singing and by the time these singers themselves became teachers it had virtually disappeared. There was no real interest in the earlier works until Francesco Siciliani stunned the Opera world with his Maggio Musicale and Maria Callas in the early fifties.

Interestingly the USA and Russia held onto the traditional Belcanto style much longer than other countries. Russia became politically isolated, and even though they developed their own style, instruction basically remained unchanged and retained the influence of great Italians they had heard, such as Rubini, Battistini and Patti. That grand tradition gave us the remarkable voices of the mezzo soprano Zara Doluchanova and tenor Ivan Kozlovsky whose interpretations of 19th century music can seem decadent in comparison to the way we expect certain pieces to be sung. They sing with a good deal more head voice than our ears are accustomed to hearing nowadays, and they are freer in their interpretations than more modern interpreters. Their techniques are astonishing. CDs of both of artists are available and well worth owning. In the USA, many of the older singers who emigrated from Europe settled in the USA bringing their traditions with them. With financier and opera lover Otto Kahn in control of the Metropolitan Opera, the arrival of Gatti-Casazza, Caruso and Toscanini at the Met, heralded a change of repertoire and the arrival of new singers.

Thoughtless imitation to detrimental in any art form and singing in particular has suffered. In dance as well as other performing arts the rigorous discipline of technical work has made the artists of today more aware and capable of performing to greater ability. Singing has now generally stagnated and the average singer today has difficulty performing or executing some of the basic exercises that build a technique. Getting through them does not mean you can do them! They need to be done correctly at all the varying speeds and dynamics as stated in all the old texts, Garcia, Faure and Marchesi to name a few of the more tested methods. This requires excellent supervision.

I have often heard young singers complain that they are asked to do agility exercises when they do not intend to sing music that requires it, ignoring the fact that the flexibility and legato these exercises would make singing a lot easier. It is analogous to physical exercise. It is easier for students to understand when I tell them that they would never expect to run a marathon without first warming up.

Who is to blame? It cannot be laid at any one doorstep. Recordings have been a wonderful way to live and re-live the experience of hearing singers that in a different time we would only have read about but, this miracle has a downside. Young singers must not be allowed to imitate sounds and interpretations that are as yet far beyond their capabilities. With their under developed techniques and youthful inexperience subjecting their voices to music that is too taxing will cause them to develop old and wobbly voices long before their time.

Today, in the search for fame and instant stardom, a modicum of voice, youthful exuberance and a strong body allows singers to be thrown into the arena before they are ready and the results are a variety of noises that have unfortunately become acceptable to the general public. Where are their ears? Is it the gullibility of the mostly uninformed but fashionable opera goers, or is it the spin put on certain artists by recording companies and greedy agents to milk the last drops of viability from their clients before discarding them to raid the bottomless pit of untrained and mostly mediocre people who sing? I hesitate to call them singers.

There are numerous examples of today's young singers that have made buckets of money and fame on mediocre techniques, singing pseudo opera and making a terrible mess of it. Public relations firms and recording companies are instrumental in pushing these people with natural raw talent into the public eye but, when they sing operatic material it is decidedly second class. When their public then goes to the opera they are content with a much lower standard of singing. They do not realize they are responding to the hype because they have not yet cultivated their ears. Unfortunately the level of taste descends to a mediocrity in casting.

Working and living in Europe and Italy in particular, I have come to realize that voice categories and even repertoire choices have as much to do with geographic location as they do with vocal ability and study. In Italy for example, a tenor who has a slightly gripped and throaty sound and probably has difficulty with high notes is commonly called an English Tenor and is immediately cast off as an only Mozart and Oratorio singer...probably good for Lieder also. Instead of addressing the technical problems involved in resolving the habitual Appoggio di gola, (supporting with the throat) it is accepted as a vocal characteristic and never addressed as a technical issue.

Different Schools of singing are now less identifiable by geographic location. No longer do we have the French or German or Italian schools...Everyone seems to jump in , get to the end of the piece and make the least mess possible of whatever is that is being served up this week.

This dire situation comes full circle when we hear singers that are in a hurry and do not want to invest the time or the effort to becoming technically proficient. The only physical exercise undertaken is teacher hopping, a particularly popular sport in New York City where I have had occasion to hear a student say that they were tired out from an earlier lesson that day with a different teacher; never giving the teacher the opportunity of actually getting anything taught and as a result being relegated to a Dr. Fixit post of band-aid teaching or just getting the student through the music.

Generally, the agents have to make money and often do not look at a singer as a long term investment but as a quick buck, give very little consideration to repertoire choices and growth over time. We all know that these days being able to sing Verdi and Puccini bring home the biggest paycheck. Who are the people running the opera houses today? Is it the responsibility of the heads of theaters to simply make the bottom line look good? Is it better to put on a few non headline grabbing operas successfully or make it look good by putting on something un-performable but that is impressive on the Cartelone and hope no one notices, records it for posterity or for a laugh? Perhaps we need more artistic directors that actually know something about singing and not just the salesmanship of the latest discovery of the season. With the habit of signing singers years in advance there is a strong possibility that by the time the engagement comes around they have no voice left or they must cancel.

Notwithstanding the fact that we supposedly have great singers among us today, the gold standard remains the vintage operatic recordings prior to 1970. We value them for their definitive interpretations by artists whose techniques are exceptional by today's standard and whose leading engineers gave us the best sound possible.

Very few recording technicians of know anything about the workings voice and how to record it. Why is it that with all the advances in recording technology the old analog LPs are still the most faithful reproductions of the actual event? Yes, we have advanced but to quote Michael Scott, biographer and music scholar: The microphone does not pick up the third dimension...the size of the voice. This may seem irrelevant to those who only listen to recordings but it is a fact that the bigger the voice the harder it is to record. Nilsson, Del Monaco, Melchior, Callas and Sutherland are thrilling on recordings, but these pale in comparison to their live performances.

With today's technology and assisted amplification in many opera houses we can make mediocre voices undertake the heaviest repertoire with apparent impunity.

It is a shame that competent singers often fall into vocal decline by the age of thirty, just when they should be approaching the finest twenty five years of career. Sadly, many young singers reach the high point in their careers as beginners, at auditions, and in many cases it is all down hill from there.

Part of the strategy for changing this pattern is to read about and listen to the previous generations of singers, as part of the process of gradually acquiring the gemlike polish of a star, rather than ending up as a failed promise.

The Counter-tenor:

This category has been discussed at length by musicologists and promoters trying to get their clients hired. The long and short of it is that while it is obviously a voice type used over the centuries it was not until the 20th century that the counter tenor was given any serious roles and made into a star. Handel used counter tenors but this does not mean that the roles he wrote for castrati can or should be sung by them. They are secondary roles and of very little importance and often were substituted with female voices when they were available. Benjamin Britten wrote his star role of Oberon for Alfred Deller and even he was obliged to have Russell Oberlin sing it at its premier at Covent Garden due to the fact that Deller could barely be heard and Oberlin at that point was virtually oblivious to the Counter tenor label being a very high tenor (see contraltino). The word itself has changed in meaning and according to location is variously called Haute Contre in France originally and contraltino in Italy and is also known as Falsettist and Sopranisti. The castrati roles performed by these voices are never satisfactory due to the fact that the Castrati had more power available in the lower middle registers and used the Chest voice a great deal. Senesino the great contralto Castrato sang virtually all his music in chest. The closest comparison in sound we have today are the recordings of Clara Butt.

The Contraltino tenor:

This is a light high tenor of exceptional range and ease in the upper register. The examples we have listed in the listening part of the article will give you some idea even though many of the artists listed have beefed up their sound and have had successful careers singing heavier music.

The Lyric tenor:

The generic tenor expressing great beauty of sound and soaring high notes without the extra metal in the sound that denotes the spinto.

The Spinto tenor:

The appearance of the Spinto tenor, a category that really did not exist before Caruso came about partly due to a change in composing style and partly in a development in singing technique to accommodate the new music. This category has probably been the undoing of more promising tenors than any other. It is unlikely that a light or lyric tenor would sing VerdiÕs Otello though we have heard them try. But light tenors will recklessly attempt Cavaradossi or even Radames. (I remember reading a review of PavarottiÕs first Radames in the USA. The title was Nemorino on the Nile.) There are successful instances of crossing into heavier and lighter music with no ill effect. Corelli a true spinto, easily sang lighter repertoire (Romeo, Werther, etc) and Gigli, almost indefinable as the voice seemed ideally to have been a big lyric voice but he easily sang the spinto roles thanks to a wonderful technique. Pavarotti, a true lyric tenor has successfully sung spinto roles probably because that there are no real spinto tenors around for comparison.

The Dramatic tenor:

The rarest of the tenor voices. The young dramatic tenor is often confused with the baritone. There is a particular dark and yet ringing metallic brightness to the sound of a true dramatic tenor. The examples we have used will illustrate this and will help not to confuse the sound of a lyric or spinto tenor pushing for all he is worth to make the required sound. The German variety of this voice is the Helden tenor. Lauritz Melchior is the great example of this voice type, tossing off the heaviest music as though it was written for him.

The Lyric (Verdi) Baritone:

The invention of the Verdi Baritone, a category that in its previous incarnation was a hybrid tenor of the Eighteenth century: John Beard was the tenor for whom Handel wrote over 150 arias. He sang a range from Middle C to G# in the corrected modern pitch. This is the same range often found in the old Tenore Serio roles.

During the Belcanto period the baritone as a category only existed in France as the Baryton (todayÕs bass baritone) known as a Basso Cantante in Italy. Looking at the tessitura of the works of Donizetti, Rossini and Mayerbeer we see that only when writing for specific singers with certain abilities do they venture into the higher ranges. On the other hand, Verdi wrote generically (no singer in mind) in this range as a matter of course. Donizetti wrote several opera with Giorgio Ronconi in mind. These roles are sometimes a full tone to a third higher in tessitura than the roles written for Basso Cantante (Dulcamara is a clear example) It is hardly surprising that Verdi also wrote for Ronconi, Traviata, Rigoletto, Nabucco are all roles sung with success by lower voices but never with the lyricism or ease really asked for in the scores.

The dramatic baritone/bass baritone is also a 19th century invention, taking the old basso cantante and asking the voice to extend up to the f # and G. These singers, while effective in the roles of Ronconi (see lyric baritones) are more suited to the likes of Tosca, Chenier, Forza, Pagliacci etc.

Another voice that fell through the cracks is the real Basso Profundo. Sparafucile and other lower roles are hardly career makers and can be sung to effect by a good bass baritone. Apart from some of the Russian repertoire the last great roles for Basso Profundo were by Rossini and Mozart.

Counter tenor:

Russell Oberlin
Alfred Deller
James Bowman


Tenore Contraltino: (High lighter voice with very easy upper extension)

Nicolai Gedda
Pearl Fishers
Alfredo Kraus
Pearl Fishers
Rockwell Blake
Ivan Kozlovsky
Romeo and Juliette

Lyric Tenor:

Alessandro Bonci
Don Pasquale
Beniamino Gigli
Jussi Bjorling
Romeo and Juliette
Giuseppe Di Stefano
La Boheme
Tito Schipa
Luciano Pavarotti

Tenore Lirico Spinto:

Georges Thill
William Tell
Carlo Bergonzi
Ballo in Maschera
Enrico Caruso
LÕ Africana
Franco Corelli
Andrea Chenier
Jan Peerce
Richard Tucker
La Gioconda

Dramatic Tenor:

Francesco Tamagno
Lauritz Melchior
Giovanni Martinelli
Mario Del Monaco

Lyric Baritone and Verdi Baritone:

Giuseppe De Luca
Don Carlo
Robert Merrill
Leonard Warren
Mattia Battistini
Maria di Rohan
Ettore Bastianini
La Traviata

Dramatic Baritone:

Tito Gobbi
Andrea Chenier
Lawrence Tibbett
Ballo in maschera
Cornel McNeil
Luisa Miller
Titta Ruffo


Boris Christoff
Feodor Chaliapin
Don Carlo
Ezio Pinza
Lucia Lucia
Marcel Journet
Cesare Siepi

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