My interest in teaching composers to write for opera singers was aroused by listening to the singers in Sophie’s Choice struggle with their parts. It was not too hard for them to sing, it was too easy. In fact, the composer probably composed it for himself to sing.
I’m going to write only about composing an opera to be performed by an opera company made up of trained opera singers. I am making a possibly absurd assumption--that you are composing for the ages, that you want your opera to be performed in 10, 20 or maybe even 100 years.
If you don’t really like to listen to opera singers, if that sound makes you cringe, then please don’t compose an opera. Please. Do a musical instead.
If you are still reading, perhaps you still want to compose an opera. Print a large sign and hang it near your keyboard: “I am not an opera singer.” It doesn’t matter how it sounds when I sing it.
Then move on to the list of Fachs. I’m printing an abbreviated list here, together with ranges and tessituras. The ranges are from Wikipedia, but I made up the tessitura for each Fach, so feel free to criticize. Within each big category based on range, lyric and dramatic specialties will be based on sound.
Range: From middle C to the F two-and-a-half octaves above middle C.
This Fach divides into lyric and dramatic coloratura, but the ranges are the same. The tessitura is E above middle C to high C. The other notes are extensions.
Range: From middle C to the C two octaves above middle C.
This Fach divides into lyric and dramatic sopranos, The tessitura is E above middle C to G above the treble clef. The range of a dramatic soprano can go below middle C and the tessitura goes down to middle C. The other notes are extensions.
Range: From the G below middle C to the B two octaves above middle C
This Fach divides into mezzo and contralto. The tessitura is middle C to F at the top of the treble clef. The other notes are extensions. Contralto roles will extend down to F.
Theoretically the same as a contralto. Britten wrote for a countertenor in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and you can too if you want. Traditionally these are roles that were written for castrated men who had voices that were similar to the female voices described above, except I am not aware of a castrato who achieved the true coloratura range. Today they are normal men singing falsetto. I suggest selecting a specific singer to compose for this.
Range: From the B below low C to the C an octave above middle C (C to c'). This Fach also divides into lyric and dramatic, and the tessitura is E to G. A high C is a much bigger deal for a modern tenor who is forbidden to go into falsetto than it is for a soprano. Don’t think of them as exactly an octave apart. If you want a lot of very high notes, compose for a Rossini tenor, if you can find one.
Range: From the A below low C to the Ab above middle C (A to ab' )
There are buffo, lyric and dramatic baritones, and the tessitura low C to E.
Range: From the E one-and-a-half octaves below middle C to the F above middle C (E to f'). The tessitura is A to E.
Go to your list of characters, and put each one into one of these classifications. Decide if the sentiments of the character are mainly lyric or dramatic.
Compose most of the notes within the tessitura, but place the notes all over. Write up and down in the voice. When you want a heavy dramatic effect, write a note in the upper extension, but clearly distinguish how high to make it based on Fach. A mezzo will begin to sound dramatic at a lower pitch than a soprano. Emphasize the upper part of the tessitura for sopranos and tenors. Put in low notes for mezzos, baritones and basses. Be sure the singer gets to use all of their voice, possibly omitting only some of the highest extensions, since this will make the role easier for them to sing. This will make the role easier to sing. They are trained to use all of their voices, so you should, too.
I won’t say what the specific style should be. Pointillism, singing with a lot of giant leaps, popular with the Second Viennese school, is not hard to sing if you know what you’re doing and the notes obey the outlines shown above. Compose whatever you want, but don’t just stick to the five little notes you can sing.
If you have particular singers you want to compose for, by all means do. Begin by asking them which Fach they belong to, and then look it up. If they don’t know, reconsider using them. Don’t compose an opera for Sting.
Traditionally certain Fachs play certain types. The heroine is a soprano, the hero a tenor and the villain a baritone. If you are composing for specific singers, you may want to rearrange the traditional setup and make the heroine a mezzo, for instance. By all means do.
The Ghosts of Versailles is a modern opera that is very well written for singers. Britten had a lyric tenor who lived in, so his operas all feature a lyric tenor. This lyric tenor knew what made his voice sound good and made sure the roles suited it. Your job is to make the singers sound good. Modern composers are able to imagine a high lyric soprano like Dawn Upshaw and seem to compose everything for them. Try to branch out. Learn to like fatter voices, too. Please.
I have kept this very basic because that’s how bad it is.