Nineteenth-century opera, especially Italian opera, is full of dramatic conventions. Given any plot and set of characters, one of the most important choices a composer has to make is how to assign the different vocal ranges. For women, the basic vocal ranges are—as most readers know—soprano, mezzo-soprano and contralto. For male singers, the most common ranges are tenor, baritone and bass (excluding specialist types, such as countertenor). There are endless subtle variations (e.g. basso profundo for the lowest bass, coloratura soprano for vocal dexterity), but these six types cover the basic landscape. You’ll be tested on this later.
In an earlier “Off the Cuff” on opera’s impact on popular culture, I included a clip from a comic sketch on NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion featuring Garrison Keillor and Susan Graham. In this particular segment, from Nov. 20, 2010, Mr. Keillor plays the private eye Guy Noir, and Ms. Graham plays a disgruntled mezzo-soprano named “Sally Saltina,” who is scheduled to sing the role of Kate Pinkerton in a performance of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (you can also listen to the show at the bottom of this story). As Ms. Saltina expostulates: “They signed me to play the role of Kate Pinkerton. Feh!!! What a piece of nothing that is. A walk-on part. The wife of the jerk. Basically she stands around and wrings her hands.” She continues, “I want to be the star. At last. I have never died on stage, Mr. Noir. I've never flung myself from a parapet or drunk the poisoned wine or fallen on my sword or gone mad. I just stood arouand and watched. And now I'm going to. I'm going to walk behind that screen with the big knife and let out a cry and collapse and lie there in a heap as the curtain comes down and the audience is in tears and I take six curtain bows and men carry me through the street and a restaurant names a dessert for me.”
In honor of Susan Graham’s Dallas Opera debut this month as Tina in Dominick Argento’s The Aspern Papers, I thought it fitting to tackle the question of the plight of the mezzo-soprano, and whether her situation is as dull, dire and thankless as Ms. Saltina contends.
Not that many patrons ever stop to ponder this, but, the calculus of role assignments in most 19th-century Italian operas is quite specific. Consider the case of Puccini’s La bohème, one of the most popular operas in the repertoire. In my mind, here’s how the roles were assigned. The dramatic center of attention is, of course, the consumptive Mimi – the soprano, naturally. She is paired with the romantic lead, Rodolfo—the tenor. In order to provide vocal contrast, the secondary female lead, the flirt Musetta, by default must be a mezzo-soprano. Since the primary tenor slot is taken, Marcello, who plays Rodolfo’s friend in the Paris garret and is also Musetta’s love interest, must be a baritone (are you with me so far?). Finally, there is the question of the vocal range distribution of the four friends. I already mentioned a tenor and a baritone, and Puccini predictably added a second baritone and then a bass for vocal balance. In Puccini’s Tosca, the primarily role assignments are even more straightforward: the lead is a soprano, the villain a baritone, and the hero a tenor.
Ever wonder how the Italians fixated on the guy with the highest voice to be the manliest bloke onstage? Perhaps we’ve stumbled on a subject for a future “Off the Cuff.”
Consider another popular Italian favorite, Verdi’s Rigoletto. By convention, the innocent young girl has to be a soprano. The Duke needs to be a tenor, since he is the love interest (admittedly of a more sinister kind than in many operas of the period). The assassin Sparafucile, of course, is the bass. Since the primary soprano role is taken, the temptress who lures victims to their deaths at Sparafucile’s hands must be the mezzo. In another Verdi opera, Aida, the sympathetic title character is, of course, an important soprano. Her rival Amneris must therefore be a mezzo, even if she is the princess (at least, it’s a meaty and rewarding role; that’s some consolation). Oh, and her lover must be a tenor. You get the idea.
With so many clichés at work, it’s a miracle these operas are as outstanding as they are…
Putting ourselves in the shoes of Ms. Saltina, and looking across the top 15 most-performed operas, the situation does look rather bleak. Apart from No. 3 (Bizet’s Carmen) and No. 8 (Rossini’s Barber of Seville) the mezzo is never the object of everyone’s desire. To make it worse, some sopranos invade the mezzo-soprano’s “turf” and sing these roles as their own.
However, if we relax the constraint that the mezzo must be the primary protagonist, there are actually quite a number of significant roles for mezzos in the top 15 operas, both musically and dramatically. In Mozart’s Così fan tutte (11), the impressionable and more volatile “second sister” Dorabella is a mezzo. (Based on the usual operatic conventions, the more virtuous sister is, of course, the soprano role.) Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni (10) is clearly love-sick and borderline demented, which creates interesting dramatic possibilities, and her arias are sparkling. The trouser role of Cherubino in Marriage of Figaro (6) can be portrayed with puppy-dog sweetness or in a more cynical and predatory way, and features some justly famous music (“Non so più,” in particular). In Humperdinck’s Hänsel and Gretel, (12) the trouser role of Hänsel is also written for a mezzo. As Ms. Saltina noted, in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (7), the mezzo can play Kate Pinkerton—“the wife of the jerk”—but a mezzo also portrays Butterfly’s devoted servant Suzuki, providing an important foil to Cio-Cio-San’s obsessive loyalty to Pinkerton (a.k.a. “the jerk”). The mezzo-soprano role of Amneris in Aida (14) is rewarding vocally, even if the character does spend a lot of time wringing her hands as her unrequited love, Radamès, faces wrongful execution for alleged treason. Maddalena in Verdi’s Rigoletto (9) may not be as winsome and sympathetic a character as Gilda, but she can be played with vocal intensity and a vampish flair.
Moving past the top 15 there are other important roles, such as the witch Azucena in Verdi’s Il trovatore, the main character in Rossini’s Cenerentola, and Dalila from Saint-Saens’ Samson et Dalila. But more typical is the trouser role Siébel in Gounod’s Faust. Siébel, as readers will remember, is in love with Marguerite, but loses out to Faust; his / her most theatrically potent moment is when Méphistophélès causes Siébel’s flowers to wilt as the character prepares to offer them to Marguerite.
There are some bright spots, though, for the ambitious mezzo. Some baroque operas feature major mezzo roles (e.g. Händel’s Serse, Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride). And 19th century French composers had far more empathy for the mezzo voice than their Italian counterparts; as is evident in works like Berlioz’s Béatrice and Bénédict and Les Troyens. Beyond this list, there are other important dramatic mezzo-soprano roles in the repertoire including Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s Macbeth (which can also be performed by some sopranos) but these operas are much less frequently performed than ones in which the soprano rules. Fortunately, in the 20nd and 21st centuries, many of these operatic conventions have been challenged, leading to more diverse opportunities for singers of all vocal types.
So is Ms. Saltina painting a fair and accurate picture? As film noir idol Humphrey Bogart might have said, (in his best Sam Spade voice), “Sweetheart, I think you may have a point.” Certainly, in the 19th-century Italian operas that are performed most frequently, the soprano has the dominant role, and it is easy to forgive some mezzo-soprano jealousy. On the other hand, Susan Graham’s debut with The Dallas Opera will be in the lovingly composed, and dramatically significant, mezzo-soprano role of Tina, the niece of the reclusive opera singer Juliana Bordereau, in Dominick Argento’s The Aspern Papers. She is guaranteed to be a crowd-pleaser, along with her outstanding colleagues Nathan Gunn, Alexandra Deshorties and Joseph Kaiser. TDO’s Music Director, Graeme Jenkins, will conduct.
I hope that you can join us when we open our new production of this outstanding work on April 12. I can’t tell you for certain if anyone in the Metroplex is planning to name a dessert after Ms. Graham, but I’m quite confident that she deserves the honor. Opera lovers are bound to discover over the next few weeks that having mezzo Susan Graham in the house is a bit like “having your cake and eating it, too!”
◊ You can listen to the Susan Graham episode of Prairie Home Companion below:
◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column "Off the Cuff" appears every month in TheaterJones.com. Here is a list of previous columns:
- January 2012 "A Scheme of Delight"
- February 2012 "Visiting Wagner's Bayreuth"
- March 2012 "Commissioning a Successful Opera"
- April 2012 "The New Opera Audience"
- May 2012 "Rivers and Deltas of Musical Time"
- June 2012 "Operatic Blockbusters"
- July 2012 "Maximizing Dallas Opera's Community Footprint"
- August 2012 "The Santa Fe Festival Model"
- September 2012 "Postcard from Glyndebourne"
- October 2012 "Verdi's Egypt: Cracking the Code"
- November 2012 "It's Not Just Contemporary Anymore"
- December 2012 "Singing the Blues"
- January 2013 "Puccini's Golden Dozen"
- February 2013 "Opera and Popular Culture"
- March 2013 "A Dangerous Experiment"