Operas tend to cast their performers according to their vocal ranges. Explore how each of these roles fits into the opera, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.
The Fach System
This is an opera. And this is an opera singer. These are also opera singers. The opera is a form of theatrical musical performance in which the story is entirely told through instruments and singing. The opera has become one of the traditional forms of Western music, and, over time, opera composers began consistently creating roles for specific sorts of singers.
Some roles went to people who could sing high notes; other roles went to those who sang low notes. Generally, this means that the roles of an opera are defined by the vocal range of the singer. Nowadays, we call the general association of specific roles with a vocal range the Fach system. We have so many different opera singers because we have these different roles. But the opera needs them all. After all, how do you end an opera if there's no fat lady to sing?
An opera will have a wide range of vocal singers.
The highest vocal group in an opera is the soprano, the female vocal role with a high range. Sopranos sing very high notes and have a wide range, so they are generally cast as the female lead in the opera. There are actually five subgroups of sopranos, each of which has a slightly different tone to their voice and are commonly cast as different characters.
For example, listen to this section of the opera Eugene Onegin. That female lead is a 'spinto soprano', characterized by a bright but very full voice. This is very often who gets the role of leading lady.
Compare that to this 'soubrette soprano' from the opera Hansel and Gretel. Women with this voice are often cast in cheeky, coy, or playfully mischievous roles. They may be supporting characters, not the main lead, but are generally still very important to the story.
Moving down the vocal range a bit, we reach the mezzo-soprano, the lower female vocal range that is very often cast as supporting roles or villains. Generally, mezzos are still females, since this vocal range is a bit high for most male singers, although originally they were written for castrati, males who were castrated in youth to maintain a high voice.
Like the soprano, the mezzo roles are divided into several subcategories. This is an example of the 'dramatic mezzo' from Strauss' opera Elektra. See how well this voice fits into the role of a villainous, conniving mother? Compare that to the 'lyric mezzo' role from Cosi Fan Tutte. Women who are cast as lyric mezzos are actually very commonly playing men, often boys, but their voices are a better match for this role, since castrating male singers isn't something that we really do anymore. Thank goodness.
Countertenor and Tenor
And now we slide down the vocal scale a bit more and reach the gentlemen. Historically, the highest male vocal role was the countertenor, which actually sang at around the same range as the mezzo. See? However, this has not been a very common role since the beginning of the 18th century. Since then, the highest male vocal role is usually the tenor.
The tenor is also most often the leading male role, so their parts are written to complement the female soprano lead. Now, this does not always mean that the tenor is a hero. Tenors with darker vocal sounds are often cast as anti-heroes, especially in tragedies, where the leading male part is not destined for a heroic victory. This tenor, however, is much brighter, so we can assume that this is a heroic, probably youthful character.
Baritone and Bass
Males with a lower vocal range may be cast in a baritone role. The baritone has a lower voice but is often still bright, which leads baritones to be cast in a diverse range of roles. Often, they are foolish or comic characters who are capable of emotional depth but can also be villains or other supporting characters. This one is from a comedic character in Mozart's The Magic Flute.
But male voices can go even lower. The lowest male vocal role in the opera belongs to the bass. Again, bass-singing characters may appear in various roles. They are very often villains, but Italian opera also has a proud tradition of comedic buffoons played by a specific vocal range called the 'basso buffo.'
The very lowest of the bass roles is the 'basso profundo.' Just listen to this. That's a low voice, and although this vocal range is again often cast as villains, this isn't always true. This basso profundo, for example, is a wise old sage and leader in Mozart's Magic Flute. And with that, we've covered the full range of opera singers. Guess it's all over.
The opera is a form of theatrical musical performance in which the story is entirely told through instruments and singing. Many operas today use the Fach system, the general association of specific roles with a vocal range, to help with casting and writing the piece. So who are these roles?
The highest vocal role is the soprano, who is also usually the leading female. The lower female vocal role is called the mezzo-soprano and is cast in supporting roles, from mothers to witches to maids to, occasionally, young boys.
Traditionally, the highest male vocal role was the countertenor, although that role is no longer popular. Nowadays, the highest male vocal is the tenor, who is almost always cast as the male lead. Supporting male characters, from villains to fools, are generally cast either as baritone, a lower male vocal role, or the bass, the lowest male vocal role.
This cast of characters completes the opera. It might not be over until the fat lady sings, but it wouldn't even get started without everyone else.
- opera: a form of theatrical musical performance in which the story is entirely told through instruments and singing
- Fach system: the general association of specific roles with a vocal range to help with casting and writing the piece of opera
- soprano: highest vocal role, usually cast to the leading female
- mezzo-soprano: lower female vocal role, usually cast to supporting roles
- castrati: males who were castrated in youth to maintain a high voice
- countertenor: unpopular highest male vocal role
- tenor: popular highest male vocal, usually cast as the leading male
- baritone: lower male vocal role, usually cast to supporting roles
- bass: lowest male vocal role
Sopranos are usually cast as the highest female vocal role.
Our lesson on operatic singers is designed to encourage your ability to:
- Offer a definition of opera
- Explain the way in which the Fach system helps with the creation of an opera
- List the range of vocal roles from highest to lowest for female and male roles