Thursday, May 1, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): Revisiting the Fach System: Sopranos Part 1--Low-Tessitura Sopranos

After writing the last post about Big High Voices of Bel Canto's Past, I flew to Härnösand, Sweden, where Kashu-do Studios will present the first Opera Academy, to teach a two-day master class to the students of the prestigious Kapellsberg Musiklinje Opera Program.  I heard 18 students in all and worked roughly 20 minutes with each.  The difference in the vocal colors among the sopranos in particular inspired me to think closely about repertoire for these young women.  Indeed there was a big voiced dramatic coloratura that I had heard two-months ago (she sang Liu the last time).  I remember her as being tall, with a giant flexible voice.  She reminded me of all the big voiced dramatic-coloraturas I had heard recently including Sondra Radvanosky.  She sang Massenet's Hérodiade this time and although the piece was no problem for her voice and encouraged her to find the warmth/space she was lacking last time, I wanted to hear her voice in something higher.  The teachers at Härnösand are doing amazing work with these students.  Even though she had a cold, it took very little encouragement to get her to sing and quite well at that.

The many young voices were very varied and were singing very appropriate repertoire.  The experience crystalized in my mind why a correct vocal categorization is crucial, even at an early stage.  Because these young students in their very early 20s are taught so well, it was possible to hear the true nature of the voices.

As explained in the last blog, there are two kinds of sopranos:  High-tessitura and Low-tessitura.

Low Tessitura Sopranos

Low tessitura sopranos can have all gradations of "weight" (native fold depth):

Soubrette:  Although the category "soubrette" came out of straight theater (non-singing), there is a vocal corollary.  Roles like Zerlina, Despina, Susanna, Nanetta, Marzelline, Ännchen, Blondchen Adina, Lauretta, and the Architype Serpina (from Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona) have their origin from the comic stock character "Colombina" from Italian Commedia dell'arte.  The characters are usually comical but in some cases (Adina, Zerlina and even Despina) have serious moments.  Vocally speaking, the tessitura for these roles are relatively low.  It often confuses modern singers that Fiordiligi and Donn'Anna are placed higher in the staff than Despina and Zerlina.  Some attribute this to the noble statures of the principal roles as related to the servant characters.  I do not believe this is the case.  Fiordiligi and Anna sing higher throughout the opera.  This is because they were written for voices that are meant to sustain a higher tessitura. Perhaps Mozart chose the dramatic coloratura voice as symbolic of nobility.  Such voices exhibit great intensity in a higher range than the soubrette does.  I sometimes do not include Susanna in the straight soubrette category and consider Norina to be a different voice type because of her relatively high tessitura.


Edith Mathis


Judith Blegen


Lyric soprano: The lyric soprano is a slightly larger version of the soubrette.  The vocal color is warmer and the traditional roles, Pamina, Agathe, Mimi, Rusalka, Contessa Almaviva, Donna Elvira tend to have a tender and noble quality (Elvira is an angered lyric, a touch out of the normal lyric mold).  


Genia Kühlmeier



Mirella Freni

Lirico spinto:  The moniker is literally translated as "pushed lyric" and indeed some lyrics push their voices to sing "Spinto" repertoire.  This is a post-Bel Canto categorization and relates to a type of writing more associated with the Verismo period than with Verdi.  Indeed the Forza Leonora, the Amelias in Ballo in Maschera and Simon Boccanegra and perhaps Desdemona and Alice Ford can be called spintos because they do not remain in the high tessituras associated with the earlier Verdi.  When we look at Santuzza, Maddalena from Andrea Chénier, Tosca, Minnie and Manon Lescaut, it becomes clear that we are dealing with voices who are more at home in a slightly lower tessitura than Aida, Trovatore Leonora and Abigaile in Nabucco.



Renata Tebaldi



Aprile Millo

Dramatic Soprano:  The term, dramatic soprano has become too commonly used.  Any young singer who develops a full voice these days starts to look at Wagner.  It is a shame!  True dramatic voices often do not come about because spintos or even full lyrics are calling themselves dramatic.  It is because many believe that they will have a better chance if they present themselves in a heavier category.  Like in boxing, light-weights get crushed if they fight in the heavyweight category.  Roles like Beethoven's Leonore, Sieglinde, Senta, Ariadne, Isolde, Chrysothemis,  Färberin (Frau ohne Schatten), etc are meant for lower tessitura sopranos with very large voices and who are able to venture into the highest range (but not necessarily live there).



Eva Marton


Nina Stemme

Continues in next post with High-Tessitura Sopranos....

© 05/01/2014

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