Operatic Singers: Vocal Parts and Singer Roles

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  • 0:01 The Fach System
  • 0:55 Soprano
  • 1:55 Mezzo-Soprano
  • 3:03 Countertenor and Tenor
  • 3:55 Baritone and Bass
  • 5:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

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.
Opera, Fach system

Soprano

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.

Spinto soprano
Eugene Onegin

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.

Soubrette soprano
Hansel and Gretel

Mezzo-Soprano

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.

Dramatic mezzo
Dramatic mezzo

Lyric mezzo
Lyric mezzo

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.

Countertenor
Countertenor

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.

Baritone
Baritone

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