The voices of men and the voices
of women in opera


Voices at the opera

Opera is a complex performance that uses a combination of different artistic forms to create a type of illusion. In the lyric arts, voice is the element that has the greatest impact on the audience. Great singers stand out for their ability to use their voice to convey the message and emotion set out in the script and the score.

When a musician captivates an audience, few listeners will be aware of the technical effort and challenges involved in producing a beautiful sound, and that’s just as it should be. But the voice holds a special fascination, because it is an instrument we all have, and how it is used depends on the physical and emotional state of the artists. Language (and vowels) also distinguish the voice from other music instruments because the character, or timbre, of the voice can be adjusted according to the musical requirements of the script. An operatic voice must be heard over the orchestra and must reach the entire audience in a 2,000- to 3,000-seat theatre, depending on the location (1,800 seats in Quebec City).

This type of voice takes years to develop. Unlike athletes and instrumentalists, singers generally reach their vocal maturity after age 25, and their careers can span a quarter century or more.

Vocal training is one of the most demanding artistic disciplines because the mechanism involved is out of sight.

The six main voice categories are soprano, mezzo-soprano, and contralto for women, and tenor, baritone, and bass for men. However, each category can be broken down into several variations according to factors such as the role of the character, timbre, strength, and degree of agility in the voice. Range, flexibility, timbre, and strength are the four key terms for understanding the variations in each category.

Range is defined as the span from the lowest to the highest note a particular voice can produce. Timbre is the distinctive character of the voice. It is used to describe sound quality, strength, or flexibility in the context of singing exercises.

Female Voices

Soprano: There are different types of soprano: Coloratura soprano, which is a light, extremely flexible and high voice (like the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute); the lyric soprano, which has a fuller, warmer, and deeper range; the dramatic soprano, which is generally stronger across the entire range, and the spinto soprano or spinto lyric soprano, which is essentially a lyric voice with more dramatic qualities and a certain heft in climaxes.

Mezzo-soprano: A voice with a range halfway between a contralto and a soprano. A high mezzo-soprano voice is often identical to a dramatic soprano or spinto soprano, and many roles can be played by either type.

Contralto: The deepest female voice, characterized by its dark, rich sound and full, noble timbre.

Male Voices

Haute-contre: A term taken from French baroque music, describing a tenor with a range even higher than that of a conventional tenor.

Tenor: The highest male voice. Depending on the quality of the voice, there are three categories of tenors—leggero, lyric, and dramatic (spinto).

Counter-tenor: Corresponds to the male alto or soprano.

Baritone: A male voice with a range between that of bass and tenor. A baritone voice varies from the dramatic (Verdi) baritone to the light baritone, similar to a tenor, sometimes known as a “baryton-Martin.” The bass-baritone has a range slightly higher than that of a bass but is still deep.

Bass: The deepest male voice.