Dallas — As any opera lover or music student knows, part of the thrill of opera performance is the huge variety of vocal types and ranges, voice sizes, tone qualities, and electrifying stage personas of the opera singers themselves. Unlike a violinist, who can substantially change the sound of his or her playing by performing with a famous Stradivarius, a singer can only develop their God-given talent, not change their instrument. And although a violin’s sound will improve to some degree with regular use, a singer’s voice will change naturally—and often quite dramatically—with age and experience. This, in turn, will influence the roles they are best able to sing.
Anyone who works in the opera field needs some kind of shorthand to classify voices; there are simply too many variations to describe each voice individually. In classifying voice types, we can start with one obvious distinction: men versus women, although children, too, have portrayed important characters in opera (think of Miles in Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, for one). Beyond that, how do we make sense of this vocal landscape? While a great deal of judgment and experience is required to make these distinctions, German opera houses have developed an elaborate and organized classification system called the “Fach”—with around 25 different categories. The idea behind the system is that it creates a common vocabulary for auditions and casting, and guides singers in regard to which roles they should be singing at various points in their career. There is even an official handbook—the “Kloiber”—that actually defines which roles a singer is permitted to sing, based on their voice type. Intriguingly, some of opera’s most famous roles (e.g. Carmen) can be sung by several different Fachs in this system; more about that later. And, in deference to my colleagues in German-speaking countries, I should state at the outset that I do not rigidly abide by these distinctions when I am listening to/auditioning singers.
While an experienced listener can instantly identify a singer’s Fach, I think it is helpful for people new to the system to see classification as a series of choices. For women, there are three primary vocal ranges, from highest to lowest: soprano, mezzo-soprano, and contralto. For men, I will focus on three vocal categories, from highest to lowest: tenor, baritone, and bass (although in America there are plenty of singers auditioning as bass-baritones, and there are wonderful countertenors singing today as well). As an aside, I should note that in this “Off the Cuff,” I will be using examples, wherever possible, from recent or upcoming TDO productions.
Sopranos and tenors lead a charmed life in the opera repertoire, and so there are an especially rich variety of Fach for these vocal ranges. However, in classifying sopranos, and excluding specialty divisions (character roles, soubrettes, children and so-called “beginner” roles, some of which are not officially Fach divisions anyway), I find it helpful to consider one over-arching characteristic first: is the dominating feature of their voice beautiful sound, agility, or power? To oversimplify, these correspond to lyric, coloratura and dramatic classifications. But wait, there’s more! There are a handful of “pure” coloratura roles (such as Lucia in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor). More commonly, there are lyric soprano roles such as Pamina in Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Susanna in his Marriage of Figaro, but there are also lyric coloratura roles such as Adina in Donizetti’s Elixir of Love. Dramatic sopranos have no fewer than four sub-divisions: young dramatic/spinto (e.g. Countess in The Marriage of Figaro), dramatic (e.g. Salome in Strauss’s Salome), dramatic coloratura (e.g. Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata, Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute) and even high dramatic roles such as Isolde in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. Some classification systems even create a separate category for the Queen of the Night, due to its extraordinarily high tessitura and unique vocal difficulties. As dramatic sopranos gain experience and vocal maturity, many will follow repertoire naturally from spinto to dramatic to the high dramatic roles late in their careers, which require the most stamina and perseverance.
Tenors follow many of the same subdivisions as sopranos. Excluding “beginner” roles, standard and high countertenor roles (more common in Baroque opera), and comic/acting and character tenors, the first division in tenor roles is between lyric and dramatic. (The German Fach system does not officially recognize coloratura tenors, but singers such as Lawrence Brownlee have built very successful musical brands in this area). Lyric tenors, prized for the beauty of their tone and smooth legato singing (great diction is important, too), specialize in such roles as Alfredo in Verdi’s La traviata, Don Ottavio in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and the Duke in Verdi’s Rigoletto. Dramatic Fach possibilities include young dramatic/spinto roles such as Don José in Bizet’s Carmen and Rodolfo in La bohème. In addition, there are full dramatic / Heldentenor (Heroic tenor) roles such as Paul in Korngold’s Die tote Stadt, Tristan in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and Otello in Verdi’s opera of the same name.
Intriguingly, baritone voices are “sliced and diced” in a very different way in the Fach system. Excluding the specialized “other” categories (beginning, character and acting), there are lyric baritones (e.g. Figaro in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, Papageno in Mozart’s The Magic Flute), so called “Cavalier” baritones” singing in an elegant style (think of Joshua Hopkins as the Count in TDO’s recent production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro), and dramatic baritones / Heldenbaritones such as Jokanaan (John the Baptist) in Strauss’s Salome, or Boris in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.
Furthermore, basses are divided, once we get past “beginner” and character roles, based on whether the character is intrinsically comic (“buffo”), or serious (e.g. Sarastro in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Colline in Puccini’s La bohème). Buffo roles are further subdivided between “Bass buffo” such as Ochs in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (not dropping any hints about TDO’s future repertoire, but familiar examples of these roles are just not as common) or “Heavy bass buffo” roles such as Osmin in Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio (ditto).
Returning to the ladies for a moment, there are also subdivisions within the broad classifications of mezzo-soprano and altos. Mezzos are divided between lyric and dramatic. Dramatic mezzos include roles such as Amneris in Verdi’s Aida and Herodias in Strauss’ Salome. Lyric mezzos would include such roles as Cherubino in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, but there are also coloratura mezzo roles such as Rosina in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. The lowest female range, the true contralto, is quite rare, but there are dramatic altos such as the third Lady in Mozart’s Magic Flute, and low alto/contralto roles including Erda in Wagner’s Ring.
One might imagine that German opera houses, having set up such an elaborate system of classification, would be fully prescriptive about which Fach can sing a particular role. While they certainly impose some restrictions, there are also permitted choices the General Director can make in casting. Take Carmen, for example. I prefer to think of Carmen as a dramatic mezzo-soprano role, but it can also be played by a “character” soprano in the German system (a so-called “Zwischenfach”, i.e. a voice that lies between the boundaries of two official Fach). Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca can be sung officially as a Heldenbaritone or a character baritone, but for me, the role requires the power, stage presence, and elegance of a Heldenbaritone/dramatic baritone. Don Giovanni in Mozart’s opera can be sung by either a “Cavalier” baritone or a dramatic baritone. Personally, I think the most effective Dons combine both an elegant and a sinister quality (not unlike the best Scarpias, actually).
I hope you’ve been taking notes because you will be tested on this later. I’m kidding, of course.
I have focused so far on the tone quality of the voice and its ability to handle unique technical demands, but range is also important. Each Fach has an official range of notes, from the highest singable note to the lowest. However, there is another dimension for singers to consider when selecting their Fach, namely the tessitura. Tessitura refers to the “weighted average” of where the vocal writing lies. This is important, because being able to hit the top notes a few times does not mean that the singer should spend the entire performance in that register.
This has been only a quick “flyover” of the complex Fach system, and I have needed to simplify the approach in a number of areas in the interests of space. Nonetheless, the system is a great starting point in describing voices, and evaluating fit for casting particular roles.
Two final points: First, in auditions, it is always especially interesting to hear familiar singers who have decided to change their Fach; in some cases, this can take a singer from “respectable” to “brilliant.” (Sometimes, it takes them in the opposite direction, which is unfortunate, to say the least). Second, I am always wary of singers that offer repertoire choices in auditions that cut across multiple Fach categories; these inconsistencies can signal that the singer is not confident in his or her choice of voice classification, and therefore the types of roles they believe they are best suited to perform. (For an earlier Off the Cuff on auditions, go here). At the end of the day, in order for a singer to be effective in front of an audience, he or she must discover the precise roles that integrate and showcase all aspects of their artistry: vocal Fach, dramatic personality, and the ability to deliver a powerful performance; a task that is not for the faint of heart. However, if singing great opera were easy, everyone would be doing it!
◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears every month in TheaterJones.com. Below 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"
- April 2013 "The Case of the Jealous Mezzo"
- May 2013 "Winning the Red Queen's Race"
- June 2013 "Managing the Opera Company of the Future"
- July 2013 "Raked Over the Coals"
- August 2013 "Hogarth in Reverse"
- September 2013 "No Genuflecting Required"
- October 2013 "2B or Not 2B"
- November 2013 "Calling All Geeks"
- December 2013 "Stravinsky's Last Word"
- January 2014 "Opera Without Borders"
- February 2014 "To Be or Not To Be"
- March 2014 "A Mirror of His Time"
- April 2014 "A Postcard from Oman"
- May 2014 "Building Musical Brands That Deliver"
- June 2014 "The Turning of the Tide"
- July 2014 "Two Sides to Every Screen"
- August 2014 "Life and Death in the Mountains"
- September 2014 "Smells Like Team Spirit"
- October 2014 "Salome's Second Act"
- November 2014 "Opera in the Age of Anxiety"