A contralto, or sometimes alto, is a type of classical female singing voice whose vocal range is the lowest female voice type, with the lowest tessitura. The contralto's vocal range falls between tenor and mezzo-soprano; typically between the F below middle C (F3 in scientific pitch notation) to the second F above middle C (F5), although at the extremes some voices can reach the E below middle C (E3) or the second B♭ above middle C (B♭5).
"Contralto" is meaningful only in reference to classical and operatic singing, as other genres lack a system of vocal categorization comparable to that generally accepted in the classical context. Even within current operatic practice, contraltos are often classed as mezzo-sopranos, because singers in each range can cover for those in the other. The term "contralto" is only applied to female singers; men singing in a similar range are called "countertenors." The Italian terms "contralto" and "alto" are not synonymous, the latter technically denoting a specific vocal range in choral singing without regard to factors like tessitura, vocal timbre, vocal facility, and vocal weight.
Within the category of contraltos are three generally recognized subcategories—coloratura contralto, lyric contralto, and dramatic contralto—that usefully describe the voice type in general terms. Note, however, that they do not always apply with precision to individual singers; some exceptional dramatic contraltos, such as Ernestine Schumann-Heink and Sigrid Onégin, were technically equipped to perform not only heavy, dramatic music by the likes of Wagner but also florid compositions by Donizetti.
- Coloratura contralto
- Coloratura contraltos—who have light, agile voices ranging very high for the classification and atypically extensive coloratura and high sustaining notes—specialize in florid passages and leaps. Given its deviations from the classification's norms, this voice type is quite rare.
- Lyric contralto
- A lyric contralto voice is lighter than a dramatic contralto but not capable of the ornamentation and leaps of a coloratura contralto. This class of contralto, lighter in timbre than the others, is the most common today and usually ranges from the E below middle C (E3) to the second G above middle C (G5).
- Dramatic contralto
- The dramatic contralto is the deepest, darkest, and heaviest contralto voice, usually having a heavier tone and more power than the others. Singers in this class are rare.
Contralto roles in opera
True operatic contraltos are rare, and the operatic literature contains few roles written specifically for them. Contraltos sometimes are assigned feminine roles like Angelina in La Cenerentola, Rosina in The Barber of Seville, Isabella in L'italiana in Algeri, and Olga in Eugene Onegin, but more frequently they play female villains or assume trouser roles originally written for castrati. A common saying among contraltos is that they may play only "witches, bitches, or britches."
Examples of contralto roles in the standard operatic repertoire include the following:.
* indicates a role that may also be sung by a mezzo-soprano.
- Marian Anderson
- Eula Beal
- Clara Butt
- Kathleen Ferrier
- Maureen Forrester
- Marie-Nicole Lemieux
- Ottilie Metzger-Lattermann
- Sigrid Onégin
- Ewa Podleś
- Ernestine Schumann-Heink
- Nathalie Stutzmann
- Hilary Summers
- Category of contraltos
- List of operatic contraltos
- List of contraltos in non-classical music
- Fach, the German system for classifying voices
- Voice classification in non-classical music
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- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Contralto". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Stark, James (2003). Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-0-8020-8614-3.
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- Coffin, Berton (1960). Coloratura, Lyric and Dramatic Soprano, Vol. 1. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. ISBN 978-0-8108-0188-2.
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- Media related to Contralto vocalists at Wikimedia Commons
- The dictionary definition of contralto at Wiktionary