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Opera For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Identifying the Fab Four Singing Voices

The four singing voice types are soprano, mezzo, tenor, and bass. Even though these names sound like characters in a mob movie, they're nothing to be afraid of. Under each voice type heading, you discover specific traits about each voice type: the range, register transitions, voice tone, and any subdivisions of that voice type, as well as the names of a few famous singers to help you put a sound with the voice type.

Soprano: Singing on top

The soprano has the highest range of the female voice types. The following aspects are characteristic of her voice type:

  • Range: Often Middle C to High C although some sopranos can vocalize way beyond High C and much lower than Middle C.
    A soprano is expected to have a High C and many sopranos can sing up to the G or A above High C. Choral directors or musical directors listen for the singer's comfort zone when determining if the singer is a soprano. Although a mezzo can reach some of these higher notes, a soprano is capable of singing high notes more frequently than a mezzo.
  • Register transitions: Because not all sopranos are the same, the register transitions don't occur on just one note. The transitions usually occur as the soprano shifts out of chest voice around the E-flat just above Middle C and into her head voice around F-sharp (fifth line on top of the staff) in the octave above Middle C.
  • Strength: A soprano's strength is a strong head voice.
  • Voice tone: The soprano voice is usually bright and ringing.
  • Weakness: Sopranos have a harder time projecting in middle voice.
  • Subdivisions: High, higher, highest — okay, that's not exactly technically accurate, but most other voice types have subdivisions that fill in the gaps.
  • Common Performance Roles: The soprano is usually the lead in the show, such as Ariel in The Little Mermaid, Marian the Librarian in The Music Man, and Mimi in La Bohème.
  • Naming Names: Famous sopranos you may know include Dolly Parton, Julie Andrews, Sara Brightman, Maria Callas, and Olivia Newton John.

Mezzo: The low female voice

The difference between a mezzo (mezzo is the abbreviated term for mezzo-soprano) and a soprano is often tessitura.(Tessitura refers to where most of the notes lie in a song — the notes that a voice feels most comfortable singing.) Many mezzos can sing as high as a soprano, but they can't stay as high as a soprano. For example, some roles in operatic literature require the mezzo to sing as high as the soprano lead, but the mezzo doesn't have to remain that high as long as a soprano does — thank goodness — because the mezzo comfort zone is usually different than the soprano; mezzos prefer to live in their middle voices. On the other hand, a soprano hates to live in her middle voice all day, preferring to sing high notes and soar above the orchestra.

To further confuse you, many sopranos sing mezzo repertoire. How dare they! That's not fair, but it's a fact. As in other aspects of life, after the soprano becomes famous, she sings repertoire that she enjoys and that may be music written for somebody else, such as mezzos. So just because a soprano sings a song doesn't mean it's a soprano song. You have to look at the details, such as range of the song, and decide if that range fits your voice.

  • Range: The mezzo range is usually G below Middle C to a High B or High C. Many mezzos vocalize as high as a soprano but can't handle the repetition of the upper notes.
  • Register: The register transitions for the mezzo usually occur at E or F (first space) just above Middle C and the E or F (fifth line) one octave above that.
  • Strength: Mezzos have a strong middle voice.
  • Voice tone: The mezzo voice is usually darker or deeper than her soprano counterpart.
  • Weakness: A mezzo's head voice is often her weakness.
  • Subdivisions: One subdivision of mezzo is contralto. Less common than mezzos, contraltos can usually sing from F below Middle C to about an F (fifth line) below High C. A contralto can vocalize or sing higher and has an even darker, richer color and is more at home in the lower part of her voice. Sometimes singers darken their voices intentionally to make themselves sound like contraltos. The contralto may take her chest voice dominated sound up to a G (second line) above Middle C and shift into head voice around the D (fourth line) an octave above Middle C. Examples of contraltos include Marian Anderson and Maureen Forrester.
  • Common Performance Roles: The mezzo is often the mother, witch, or the sleazy girl in town. Her roles include such fun ones as Miss Hannigan in Annie, Mrs. Pots in Beauty and The Beast, Carmen in the opera Carmen, and Aunt Eller in Oklahoma!
  • Naming Names: Famous mezzos you may know include Marilyn Horne, K.D. Lang, Lorrie Morgan, Patsy Cline, and Karen Carpenter.

High-singing men: Tenor

Thanks to the Three Tenors, The Irish Tenors, and even Three Mo' Tenors, you probably have a good idea of what a tenor sounds like.

  • Range: The tenor range is about two octaves with many singing a little lower than C (second space in bass clef) and a little higher than the male High C (third space treble clef).
  • Register: The tenor voice doesn't make a huge transition from his lower voice to his middle voice. His transition into his middle voice occurs around Middle C (or the E just above Middle C) and then a transition into head voice around F-sharp or G above Middle C.
  • Strength: The tenor's strength is his head voice.
  • Voice tone: The tenor voice is usually bright and ringing.
  • Weakness: His weakness is often his lower voice.
  • Subdivisions: In the musical-theater world, a subdivision of the tenor, called the bari/tenor, reigns. This voice type is someone with the power to project in the middle voice and the higher ringing money notes of the tenor. The other voice type that you frequently hear of in the opera world is the countertenor — a male singer who sounds like a female. This voice type sings in the same range as the mezzo (sometimes soprano) and sounds similar. When you've heard the countertenor singing enough, you can distinguish him from a mezzo. Until then, just enjoy the unique quality that these gentlemen bring to the singing world.
  • Common Performance Roles: The tenor is almost always the lead, winning the girl at the end of the show. Examples include Rodolfo in La Bohème, Don José in Carmen, Tony in West Side Story, Billy in Chicago, and Rolf in The Sound of Music.
  • Naming Names: Famous tenors you may know include Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and José Carreras, whom you may recognize as the Three Tenors, as well as John Denver, Enrico Caruso, Daniel Rodriguez (the Singing Cop), Elton John, and Stevie Wonder.

The low lowdown on bass

Bass is the lowest of the voice types. The bass is the guy that sings all the cool low notes in the barbershop quartet.

  • Range: His range is usually F (below the bass clef staff) to E (first line treble clef) but can be as wide as E-flat to F.
  • Register transitions: The bass changes from chest voice into middle voice around A or A-flat just below Middle C and changes into head voice around D or D-flat just above Middle C.
  • Strength: His low voice is his strength.
  • Voice tone: His voice is the deepest, darkest, and heaviest of the male voices.
  • Weakness: His high voice is his weakness.
  • Subdivisions: Filling in the middle between tenor and bass is the baritone. The baritone can usually sing from an A (first space bass clef) or F (first space treble clef) below the male High C. The bass-baritone has some height of the baritone and some depth of the bass and his range is usually A-flat (first space bass clef) to F (first space treble clef) and sometimes as high as G below the male High C. The baritone's register transitions usually occur at the A or B just below Middle C and the D or E above Middle C.
  • Common Performance Roles: The bass or baritone is often the villain, father, or older man. Examples include Ramfis in Aïda, the Mikado in The Mikado, and Jud Fry in Oklahoma! Some exceptions to this villain image are King Arthur in Camelot, Porgy in Porgy and Bess, and the Toreador in Carmen.
  • Naming Names: Famous basses you may know include Samuel Ramey, James Morris, José Van Dam, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Barry White.
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