Friday, September 18, 2015


I'm sort of writing a book, and this is one of the chapters. It's intended as introductory but let me know if it is too hard.

The highest vocal Fach is the soprano.  Opera singers refer to their voice category as their Fach, the German term for category.  Vocabulary has crept in from Germany such as Sitzprobe, which translates to sitting rehearsal and means an unstaged rehearsal with orchestra.

A soprano must have a good high C.  After that they are broken down into categories:

Lyric Soprano
Coloratura Soprano
Spinto Soprano
Dramatic Soprano

I am now going to describe the sub-categories, but please be aware that the same singer may show up in different sub-categories.  I have tried in selecting these examples to make sure that the singer is actually of the suggested sub-category.


The term soubrette actually describes more than just the voice.  She has a light, high voice and plays young women.  Examples of soubrette roles are Zerlina in Don Giovanni (Mozart), Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier (R. Strauss), Lisette in La Rondine (Puccini), Sophie in Werther (Massenet), etc.  The women shown below embody all aspects of their Fach.  First is Kathleen Battle singing "Batti, batti, o bel Masetto" from Don Giovanni.

Lisette Oropesa sings "Du gai soleil" from Werther.

Lyric Soprano

This classification technically breaks down into light lyric and full lyric.  For our purposes we will consider the light lyric to be the same as soubrette.  If a soprano doesn't seem to be any particular category, she is probably a full lyric.  Examples of full lyric roles are Liù in Turandot (Puccini), Tatyana in Eugene Onegin (Tchaikovsky), Mimì in La bohème, (Puccini) Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni (Mozart), Rusalka in Rusalka (Dvořák), etc.  Renée Fleming sings Mariettas Lied from Die tote Stadt (Korngold).

Angela Gheorghiu sings "Si, mi chiamano Mimi" from La Boheme.

Coloratura Soprano 

In the Baroque and classical periods and through most of Rossini every singer was a coloratura, but when the tenor voice suddenly became heavy (see tenor) most coloratura roles moved to the soprano Fach.  A coloratura soprano usually has an upper extension with notes well above the high C.  This is probably the first role for the true coloratura soprano, Mozart's Queen of the Night from Die Zauberfloete. Even if you have no idea what she's saying, you can tell she is pissed.  Mozart's Queen is a heavy coloratura.  Diana Damrau sings "Der Hölle Rache" from Die Zauberflöte.

Examples of roles for coloratura soprano are Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor (Donizetti), Adele in Die Fledermaus (J. Strauss), Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos (R. Strauss), Gilda in Rigoletto (Verdi), Amina in La sonnambula (Bellini), Olympia in Les contes d'Hoffman (Offenbach), etc. Here Olga Peretyatko sings "Caro nome" from Rigoletto.

Edita Gruberova sings "Großmächtige Prinzessin" from Ariadne auf Naxos.

This is so good it hurts.

The heavy end of this Fach is found in Verdi's Abagailla in Nabucco and Lady Macbeth in Macbeth.  Or you can move them down to dramatic.

Spinto Soprano

This singer is somewhere between lyric and dramatic.  Exactly where is open to interpretation.  Different roles seem to show up in different categories, so I will place them where I think they go.  Roles for a spinto soprano include Aïda in Aïda (Verdi), Liza in The Queen of Spades (Tchaikovsky), Floria Tosca in Tosca (Puccini), Elisabetta in Don Carlos (Verdi)Elisabeth in Tannhäuser (Wagner), etc.  Maria Callas sings "Vissi d'arte" from Tosca.

Leontyne Price sings "Ritorna Vincitor" from Aida.

Dramatic Soprano

The heaviest high voice. Only some mezzos and contraltos are heavier. Examples of roles for dramatic soprano are Leonore/Fidelio in Fidelio (Beethoven who is credited with inventing this Fach), Gioconda in La Gioconda (Ponchielli), Minnie in La fanciulla del West (Puccini), Turandot in Turandot (Puccini), Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung (Wagner), etc.  Birgit Nilsson sings "In questa reggia" from Turandot.

For my ears the greatest of all heavy sopranos was Birgit Nilsson.

Hildegard Behrens sings the Immolation scene from Götterdämmerung.

Behrens was a very exciting singer, but only moderately heavy.

Dramatic Coloratura Soprano 

This is an unofficial category possibly brought about by a sudden transition from light to heavy voices before the middle of the nineteenth century.  This singer requires both a heavy tone all the way up to the highest notes and great flexibility.  This type of voice is required to sing roles like Verdi's Abagailla in Nabucco (Verdi) and Lady Macbeth in Macbeth (Verdi).

Maria Guleghina sings "Salgo gia" from Nabucco.

Every singer must carefully select roles for their voice that suit its range and weight.  These are the hardest soprano roles to cast.  The range part of classification is easy to grasp, but the weight aspect is much more difficult and requires both training and vocal maturity. Singing a role that is too light for you voice can result in inaccurate fast notes and muddiness.  Singing a role that is too heavy for your voice can possibly ruin the voice.

Categories are not exactly rigidly defined.  Here are five different voice types singing the same soubrette role, Susanna, in The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart arranged in ascending amount of weight.

* To hear soubrette Dawn Upshaw as Susanna click on:

For soubrette to lyric Kathleen Battle, click on

* To hear light lyric soprano Lucia Popp as Susanna click on

* To hear full lyric soprano Anna Netrebko as Susanna click on

To hear a dramatic soprano Margaret Price as Susanna, click on

My film selections are based on the quality of the performance and the sound of the voice and often do not include subtitles in English.

I have become aware after writing this that it has been done before here.  I don't think I agree with it.

Every singer must carefully select roles for their voice that suits its range and weight.  The range part of classification is easiest to grasp, but the weight aspect is much more difficult and requires training.

See here for countertenors, here for tenors, here for baritones and basses, and here for mezzos and contraltos.


Anonymous said...

Yes, this is very good. I'm a fan, I know nothing about singing, and I understand this. I have a request/suggestion, if you can fit it in. So many professional singers in youtube comments and blogs use technical terms like "covered" and so on, when discussing a performance, and even though I am a serious fan and have a good ear, without knowing the technical aspects of singing, comments like that are over my head.

I think you'd be doing a huge service to fans to explain how singers produce their sound so we can follow the more technical discussions.

Dr.B said...

Vocal technique and singer terminology are hard subjects to fit into a blog intended for general opera fans.

Anonymous said...

I realized that after I searched on youtube and found a tenor giving a lesson on this subject. It was great, I was able to hear the difference when he demonstrated it.