SFOpera - A Short Guide to Opera Voices

A Short Guide to Opera Voices

Do you know the difference between a mezzo and a soprano? How about a baritone and a bass? Check out our short guide for a quick refresher on the basics of each opera voice type.

One of the most magical things about opera is that it takes advantage of the broad spectrum of the human singing voice. From vocal range to timbre, weight, and more, there is a lot that makes each opera voice unique and powerful. In order to more easily match performers to roles, systems were created over time to categorize voice types. This made it easier for composers to create roles that would broadly correspond to larger voice types instead of to individual singers.

These categories have remained central to opera over the centuries since they were first adopted. Whether you’re a newbie or an experienced opera lover, anyone can benefit from a quick refresher of the different opera voice types. Here you’ll find opera voice definitions as well as some fun facts about opera voices.  

Soprano

What is a soprano: A soprano is the highest female singing voice. Sopranos typically play the lead female character in an opera and many of the most famous female arias are sung by sopranos. Within the larger category of soprano, there are a number of subdivisions that let composers specify the type of voice they want for a specific role. These include soubrette or light soprano, coloratura, lyric soprano, spinto soprano, and the full-scale dramatic soprano.

Famous soprano roles: The Queen of the Night from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Lucia from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and Violetta from Verdi’s La Traviata

Famous soprano singers: Some of the most famous soprano opera singers are Maria Callas, Renée Fleming, and Natalie Dessay.

Example: Perhaps the most famous soprano aria (or at least the one that best shows off the soprano voice) is The Queen of the Night’s Act II aria "Der Hölle Rache" from The Magic Flute. When most people think of soprano arias, this is probably what they think of—and for good reason. Another stunning example of soprano singing is this excerpt from Lucia di Lammermoor, starring Natalie Dessay singing about an imagined future that will never come to be.


Mezzo-Soprano

What is a mezzo-soprano? A mezzo-soprano is the middle singing voice, coming right between soprano and contralto. While mezzos can be seductive heroines (like Carmen or Delilah), composers also often use these voices to portray mothers, caretakers, and villainesses. One unique thing about the mezzo-soprano is that some mezzo singers with lighter voice qualities are used to play pre-adolescent male characters in what are called “pants roles” or “trouser roles,” like Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro (Le Nozze di Figaro) by Mozart.

Famous mezzo-soprano roles: Rosina from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Carmen from George Bizet’s Carmen, and Amneris from Verdi’s Aida

Famous mezzo-soprano singers: Popular mezzo-soprano opera singers include Cecilia Bartoli, Joyce DiDonato, and Elīna Garanča.

Example: Here’s a great example of a mezzo-soprano performing a classic trouser role, Cherubino, with the aria "Voi che sapete che cosa è amor" from The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart.


Contralto

What is a contralto? Sometimes simply called “alto,” the contralto is the lowest female singing voice. Composers usually reserve this voice type for older female characters possessing great wisdom. Unlike sopranos or mezzo-sopranos, it is very rare to find a true contralto.

Famous contralto roles: Filippevna from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Ulrica from Verdi’s A Masked Ball (Un Ballo in Maschera), and Erda from Wagner’s Das Rheingold

Famous contralto singers: Although there aren’t many true contralto opera singers, a few of note include Kathleen Ferrier, Marian Anderson, and Ewa Podleś.

Example: With there being so few true contraltos, it’s unsurprisingly quite hard to find examples of true contralto performances. One stunning example appears in this excerpt from Suor Angelica, where Ewa Podleś sings as the Princess who is trying to get her niece, Sister Angelica, to renounce her claim to the family fortune.

Another great example of a contralto performance is this clip from Ronnita Miller’s turn as Erda in Wagner’s Siegfried where she cryptically answers her lover, Wotan’s, questions.

Countertenor

What is a countertenor? A countertenor is the highest male singing voice with a range similar to that of a mezzo-soprano or contralto. Countertenor singers typically rely on their head voice, or falsetto, to hit the notes they need. While this high male voice type was popular in the 1600s, it fell out of fashion for several hundred years until the mid-20th century when composers started bringing it back. Apart from these newer roles from composers like Philip Glass and Benjamin Britten, countertenors tend to sing Baroque roles that were originally written for castrati (who we will discuss in greater detail later on).

Famous countertenor roles: Akhnaten from Glass’s Akhnaten, Oberon from Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Julius Caesar from Handel’s Julius Caesar

Famous countertenor singers: There aren’t as many famous countertenor singers since the voice is fairly rare and there still aren’t a lot of roles available, but a few of note include Anthony Roth Costanzo, Philippe Jaroussky, Jakub Józef Orliński, and Bejun Mehta.

Example: A great example of a Baroque countertenor role is Medora from Handel’s Orlando, as seen in this excerpt from the opera.

Tenor

What is a tenor? The tenor is the highest common adult male singing voice (not counting the countertenor). Tenors tend to play the romantic interest or hero of the opera, though not always. As with sopranos, there are a few different types of tenor voices that tend to suit specific roles. These are the lyric tenor, tenore di grazia, lirico-spinto tenor, spinto, and the heldentenor, which usually sings heroic roles like those in Richard Wagner’s operas.

Famous tenor roles: Rodolpho from Puccini’s La Bohème, Siegfried from Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and Pinkerton from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly

Famous tenor singers: Obviously we can’t talk about famous tenors without first mentioning the most famous tenors in the world: The Three Tenors. Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo, and José Carreras were instrumental in bringing opera to a wider audience and transforming the ways many people think about opera. Other famous tenors (who are still active today) include Jonas Kaufmann, Juan Diego Flórez, and Andrea Bocelli.

Example: There are a few arias that immediately spring to mind when one thinks of opera. "Nessun Dorma" from Puccini’s Turandot is undoubtedly one of those. Most famously performed by Luciano Pavarotti, this aria is largely considered one of the most beautiful ever written.

Baritone

What is a baritone? The middle male singing voice, the baritone sings a variety of roles from unloved husbands to villains and many roles in between. Many of the most exciting male roles in operas are sung by baritones. Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, in particular, gave the baritone voice some of its most compelling showcases, with title roles in hits like Rigoletto, Nabucco, and Macbeth. The term baritone itself comes from the Greek for "barys"—meaning "deep" or "low"—and "tonos" for "tone."

Famous baritone roles: Count Almaviva from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Figaro from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, and Marcello from Puccini’s La Bohème

Famous baritone singers: Famous baritones include Sherrill Milnes, Mariusz Kwiecień, and José Van Dam.

Example: Mozart’s Don Giovanni offers a great opportunity for a baritone to show off his vocal prowess. In these excerpts from Mariusz Kwiecień’s turn as the opera’s title character, you can see a good example of the baritone voice type.

Bass-Baritone

What is a bass-baritone? A bass-baritone is a tertiary category of male singers between the baritone and the bass. While a voice type in its own right, the bass-baritone is a good example of the way these vocal categories can be fluid, allowing singers to perform roles beyond those strictly assigned to their voice type. That fluidity is present not only in male singers, but in female ones as well. A great example of the fluidity is mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, who has played the soprano role Susanna from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro to great acclaim. Similarly, bass-baritones often sing bass and baritone roles in addition to specifically bass-baritone roles.

Famous bass-baritone roles: Escamillo from George Bizet’s Carmen, Porgy from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and Wotan from Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung (Der Ring des Nibelungen).

Famous bass-baritone singers: The most famous bass-baritone is probably Bryn Terfel. Other famous singers with the voice type include Ildebrando D'Arcangelo and Laurent Naouri.

Example: In this excerpt from Verdi’s Falstaff, you can hear Bryn Terfel showing off his bass-baritone voice in the hilarious title role.

Bass

What is a bass? The bass is the lowest male singing voice, with a tone color and range that is similar to that of a trombone or bassoon. Depending on the type of opera, bass voices are typically used to suggest wisdom or simply a very old character.

Famous bass roles: Don Pizarro from Beethoven’s Fidelio, Don Pasquale from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, and Doctor Bartolo from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville

Famous bass singers: Famous bass opera singers include René Pape, Nicolai Ghiaurov, and Cesare Siepi.

Example: One of the most famous bass opera roles is Philip II in Verdi’s Don Carlo. In this moment from the opera, you can see the power of the bass voice and the low pitches it can reach.


The Extinct Opera Voice: The Castrato

What is a castrato? Castrato singers were men who were castrated in order to maintain their high-pitched voice (either a soprano or an alto). Originally intended to be used in the church, the castrati became popular in operas in the 17th and 18th centuries. Fortunately, castrato singers are a thing of the past and the roles once held by them are now divided between countertenors and mezzo-sopranos (often in trouser roles).

A Few Bonus Fun Facts and FAQs About Opera Voices

How do you train to become an opera singer?
Training to become an opera singer is a long and challenging process—more so than many people realize. Opera singers typically start training very early in life. Over the years they learn everything from healthy singing techniques to endurance. (Operas can last as long as two to five or more hours, and making sure you can sing well for the entirety takes serious work.) They also will spend a lot of time learning different languages, since singers have to sing and sound fluent in an opera’s language even if they don’t actually speak it well.

The training process to become an opera singer is often very formalized. Individuals who are serious about pursuing the art form go from regular lessons to conservatories and eventually work their way up to fellowships designed to get them ready to perform on their own. These fellowships, like the Adler Fellowship at the San Francisco Opera, offer intensive individual coaching, professional seminars, opportunities to perform, and much more. Only after all these years of work and assorted programs is an opera singer ready to start their career in earnest.

How does a composer decide what voice type a character should have?
It's a question of creativity—and each composer has to decide what voice type they feel best suits each of their characters. Take opera's favorite trickster, Figaro, for example. He's a character who has been interpreted and reinterpreted by numerous composers, including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Gioachino Rossini, Giovanni Paisiello, Darius Milhaud, and John Corigliano. While Mozart cast the role as a bass or bass-baritone in his opera The Marriage of Figaro, Rossini styled the same character as a baritone for his The Barber of Seville.

Can opera voices change?
This is a tricky topic that is fiercely debated within the opera community. While some people believe that opera singers can change their voices either due to physiological changes or to conscious training, others believe that voices are fixed. While it’s unrealistic that an opera singer will have a huge shift in their voice during their careers, smaller changes over time are certainly possible.

Are stereotypes about opera voices true?
There are a lot of stereotypes about opera singers out there, many of which are outdated. One stereotype? That tenors are ALWAYS the male lead. While tenors certainly often play the male lead role (especially the romantic lead), there are many exceptions to this rule and baritones and basses also have opportunities to play many male lead roles.

Another common stereotype relates to mezzo-sopranos. People often think that mezzos can’t hit high notes. While their voices do usually sit lower than sopranos, they sing quite high on a regular basis and some mezzos even sing soprano roles on occasion.

Are voice types always based on gender?
While vocal categories traditionally fall along the male-female gender binary, that isn’t always the case in real life. With more trans and non-binary opera singers entering the scene, the gender-based distinctions around vocal categories are becoming less firm (and even less relevant). These changes and trends will be fascinating to watch in the coming years as we begin to see more opportunities for fluidity and variance within vocal types that align with our new understandings of gender beyond the binary.

Appreciating All of Opera’s Voice Types

While every operatic vocal type is beautiful, it’s when the voice types come together in an opera that you can really appreciate the unique flavor that each one brings to the table. The best way to experience that magic is by seeing it for yourself.

If you’re interested in learning more about the basics of opera, you can check out our other blogs covering A Brief History of Opera, 5 Things to Know About Opera, and much more. Or, if you’re ready to dive even deeper into opera, check out our On Stage page to see what’s coming to San Francisco Opera this season and read synopses of the many operas discussed in this piece.


From Aria to Vibrato: A Glossary of Opera Terms