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The Singers

Albert Niemann, Jacopo Peri, basso profondo, mezzos, Lauritz Melchior

Opera singers are usually classified as one of six types, according to the range of their voices. From highest to lowest, the three female voices are soprano, mezzo-soprano, and contralto. The male voices are tenor, baritone, and bass. Within each range there may be a variety of subdivisions, differentiating voice quality and style of singing. A coloratura soprano has a light and extremely flexible voice; she is trained in the execution of virtuoso passages featuring rapid scales, trills, and other ornamental displays. The lyric soprano has a voice of great clarity and beauty. The voice of the dramatic soprano is full and powerful, able to soar over a large orchestra. The distinction between lyric and dramatic voices occurs among tenors as well. There are also three major types of bass: the comic basso buffo; the basso profondo, who sings with a powerful, deep tone; and the basso cantante, who sings the remaining 'straight' roles.

Certain conventions have arisen concerning the type of voice to which a composer assigns a given role. Heroes and heroines are usually tenors and sopranos. In general, the deeper the voice in an opera, the older or more experienced the character depicted. Thus an unsophisticated young woman, such as Gilda in Rigoletto, is a lyric soprano, while a temptress, such as Maddalena in the same opera, is a sultry mezzo-soprano. Similarly, a role cast for baritone is that of Figaro, the ingenious hero of both Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville, 1816) by Rossini and Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786) by Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The tenor voice is often reserved for the romantic lead. The parts of villains, sorcerers, and men of maturity and power (Mozart’s Don Giovanni is one example) are usually cast for bass-baritone or bass.

Changing tastes have played a major role in operatic singing styles. Techniques of attack (onset), release, and vibrato (the 'throb' in a trained voice) have varied throughout operatic history. Jacopo Peri, an Italian singer who wrote one of the earliest surviving operas (Dafne, 1598), is likely to have sung with little or no vibrato, in keeping with standard practice at the end of the Renaissance. Within a century, though, the cult of the star singer was flourishing, first in Naples and then throughout Europe, and a fairly liberal use of vibrato became fashionable.

During opera’s infancy, in the 17th and early 18th centuries, the parts of female heroes and villains were often sung by male sopranos and altos—the castrati, whose vocal development had been arrested by means of castration before their voices dropped. 'Long live the little knife,' was the cry of their fans. These singers trained their voices for the utmost in range and flexibility, combining the muscular power of a dramatic tenor with the altitudinous range of a coloratura soprano. The most famous of these was Farinelli, whose soprano voice was deemed more powerful than a trumpet.

Virtuosic female singers were also active during opera’s early years, however; one such was 18th-century mezzo-soprano Faustina Bordoni, wife of composer Johann Hasse, whose ability to sustain a note was legendary. These singers held great sway with the composers whose music they sang. Some even composed operas themselves or (as was the case with Farinelli) directed opera troupes. Composers expected singers to embellish melodies with improvised ornamentation, which singers did in profusion and with varying dramatic aptness. The tenors in Rossini’s operas were expected to be as expert in coloratura technique as the sopranos and mezzos they partnered. The resurgence of this skill in the 20th century gave new life to Rossini’s vast and varied operatic output.

One 18th-century fashion, the basso buffo, has remained essentially unchanged since its inception. The garrulous, easily outwitted old man, a common basso buffo character, is a venerable figure in operatic tradition that originated in the commedia dell’arte, a form of improvisational theater that arose around 1550. The role’s characteristic broad effects and rapid patter do not preclude inventive interpretation, so long as the singer observes the proper style. It is likely that the low comedy of Italian composer Domenico Cimarosa is played out today much as it was more than 200 years ago.

The clear and brilliant bel canto (Italian for “beautiful singing”), favored by Mozart, Rossini, and other composers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, gradually gave way by the mid-19th century to a more powerful and dramatic type of singing. The development of modern harmony (principally by Wagner and French composer Hector Berlioz) gradually promoted the role of the orchestra from accompanist to protagonist, and singers needed more power if they were to be heard above the orchestra. The German Heldentenor (heroic tenor) evolved from powerful, bright-toned tenors, such as Josef Tichatschek and Albert Niemann, who premiered many of Wagner’s operas and could project their voices over his rich orchestration.

Verdi’s later works and those of his successors called for tenors and sopranos whose voices combined bulk with carrying power. The demands of romantic opera, which arose in the 19th century, have sometimes necessitated performances that run counter to a composer’s ideal. Richard Strauss, for example, conceived of his Salome as “a 16-year-old with the voice of an Isolde” (a Wagner role that requires a hefty voice). Strauss’s orchestration is so dense that any soprano who can plausibly sing Salome will likely have sung for many years and be robust of build.

The opera stars of the past have become legends. Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, probably the most popular singer in history, had the good fortune to come of age soon after the invention of the phonograph. American soprano Geraldine Farrar was followed about New York City by her imitative “Gerryflappers.” The towering Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin remained a permanent influence with his imperious, outsized dramatic naturalism. Kirsten Flagstad, a heroic Wagnerian soprano from Norway, and Lauritz Melchior, a bearish and big-voiced Danish-American tenor, both left their mark as Wagner specialists. Over time, the stature of these artists was attained by such greats as Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson; Australian soprano Joan Sutherland; American sopranos Maria Callas, Marilyn Horne, Jessye Norman, Beverly Sills, and Leontyne Price; New Zealand-born soprano Kiri Te Kanawa; Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli; American tenor Richard Tucker; Italian baritone Tito Gobbi; German bass-baritone Hans Hotter; American baritone Robert Merrill; Canadian tenor Jon Vickers; Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff; Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti; and Spanish tenors Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras.

Article key phrases:

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