Voice Types in Opera - Mezzo and Contralto                                                                                                                         Operamania.com


Voice Type Video Extracted from
Coloratura Mezzo

Cecilia Bartoli

Teresa Berganza

Marilyn Horne



Cecilia Bartoli - Una voce poco fa

Dramatic Mezzo

Fiorenza Cossotto

Fedora Barbieri

Dolora Zajick

Shirley Verret

Grace Bumbry

Christa Ludwig


Fiorenza Cossotto - Stride la vampa


Florence Quivar

Kathleen Ferrier

Eva Podles

Mariana Pentcheva


Mariana Pentcheva - Ulrica's aria Re dell'abisso, affrettati (video clip not extracted from this DVD, which features contralto Florence Quivar as Ulrica)

Mezzo-soprano--the mezzo is the lower-ranged female voice type. Throughout opera history the mezzo has been used to convey many different types of characters: everything from boys or young men (so-called trouser roles), to mothers or mother-types, witches, gypsies and old women. There are sub-categories of mezzo-sopranos that can be easily identified:

Coloratura mezzo--these are roles which, while demanding the use of a lower register or part of the voice, are also required to be flexible and capable of singing highly ornamented, rapid passages. Many of the hero roles in the operas of Handel, originally sung by male castrati, can be successfully sung today by coloratura mezzo-sopranos (as well as by countertenors, yet another voice type popular today). Ariodante and Julius Caesar are such Handel roles. However, Rossini demanded similar qualities for his comic heroines, Rosina (The Barber of Seville), Angelina (Cinderella) and Isabella (The Italian Girl in Algiers).

Dramatic mezzo--this voice type was often used, especially in the 19th century, to portray older women, mothers, witches and evil characters. Verdi made much of this voice type: Azucena (Il trovatore), Eboli (Don Carlos) and Amneris (Aida) are all dramatic mezzo roles. In the French literature Carmen stands out. Lighter mezzo roles exist in the German repertoire, like Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro (although the role is sung in Italian), Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus and the Composer in Ariadne. Heavier mezzo roles, true dramatic mezzo roles, in the German repertoire include Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde, Kundry in Parsifal (although sometimes sung by a soprano) and Klytemnästra in Elektra.

Contralto--the lowest of the female voice-types, this is an extremely rare bird and true contralto roles are few and far between. They include Erda in Der Ring des Nibelungen, Fidés in Le Prophete by Meyerbeer, Ulrica (Un ballo in maschera) and Katisha in The Mikado. Today, because of the lack of true contralto voices (with the remarkable exception of Eva Podlés), many of these parts are taken by mezzos who have a lower extension and a darker color with plenty of 'bite' to slice through the orchestra. (Even Rossini's heroines Rosina and Angelina were first scored for contraltos, though today these roles are essayed almost exclusively by mezzo-sopranos).

The list of singers given as examples for each of the voice types is not obviously meant to be exhaustive, and many great singers are missing. Also note that some of the great stars expanded their repertoire well beyond a single voice type: Maria Callas not only performed masterfully from coloratura to dramatic soprano, but even adventured in Mezzo roles as Carmen or Rosina (The Barber of Seville).

Soprano Tenor Baritone / Bass

(c) Text reproduced with permission from www.operapaedia.org and San Diego Opera