Ever wondered how the singing voice is categorised? In short, it all depends on the lowest note and the highest note you can produce and the quality of the sound. Here’s our guide to the voices you might hear at a night at the opera.
The soprano is the highest female voice type and they often take the leading female roles. The most famous is Queen of the Night from The Magic Flute - she’s the one that sings that world-famous aria with several dizzying top F’s. However, the most common type of soprano, lyric soprano, portray a wide range of characters, from maids and countesses to middle-class women and young women in love such as Micaëla Carmen; Musetta La bohème.
The middle range for women, the so-called ‘half sopranos’. Many mezzo-sopranos sing the ‘trouser’ roles, portraying young boys or men - Cherubino The Marriage of Figaro - they can also be the villainesses or motherly types. The most well-known role for a dramatic mezzo is the vocally and physically imposing, fiery gypsy Carmen.
Also known as alto, the contralto is the lowest female voice, used in roles requiring gravitas, such as Mistress Quickly Falstaff. A true operatic contralto is rare, so much so that roles intended for this voice type often go to mezzo-sopranos.
The tenor is generally considered to be the highest male voice in an opera, and is most often the hero or the love interest of the story. There are many different types of tenor voices. Two of the more common ones are lyric tenors, whose voices have high, bright tones – Rodolfo La bohème; Ferrando Cosi fan tutte - and dramatic tenors whose voices have a darker sound with a ringing quality in the upper range – Florestan Fidelio.
The rarest type of tenor is a countertenor, who is able to sing even higher than a tenor and actually falls within a female's voice range. Through the use of a man's falsetto voice, the voice produces a sound that is sometimes described as ‘otherworldly’.
With a range that lies midway between the high tenor voice and the low bass voice, it’s the most common male voice. In comedic operas, he is often the leader of the funny business, but he can also be the hero, who sacrifices himself for the tenor or soprano, or the villain. This voice has a dramatic quality capable of producing rich, dark tones. The court jester Rigoletto and the popular Toréador Escamillo in Carmen are favourite roles for baritones.
From the Italian word basso, which means low, a bass is the lowest and darkest of the male voices. Some singers in this category are referred to as bass-baritones because they have voices that range between the bass and the baritone voice. A basso serio or basso profondo portrays characters who convey wisdom or nobility such as Sarastro in The Magic Flute. In contrast, a basso buffo sings comedic roles such as Dr. Bartolo in The Barber of Seville.