A soprano is a type of classical female singing voice and has the highest vocal range of all voice types. The soprano's vocal range (using scientific pitch notation where middle C is written as "C4") is from approximately middle C (C4) = 261Hz to "high A" (A5) =880 Hz in choral music, or to "soprano C" (C6, two octaves above middle C) =1046 Hz or higher in operatic music. In four-part chorale style harmony, the soprano takes the highest part, which usually encompasses the melody.
Typically, the term "soprano" refers to female singers but at times the term "male soprano" has been used by men who sing in the soprano vocal range using falsetto vocal production instead of the modal voice. This practice is most commonly found in the context of choral music in England. However, these men are more commonly referred to as countertenors or sopranists. The practice of referring to countertenors as "male sopranos" is somewhat controversial within vocal pedagogical circles as these men do not produce sound in the same physiological way that female sopranos do. Michael Maniaci is able sing the modal voice like a woman because his larynx didn't fully develop during puberty.  Radu Marian is also able to sing in the modal voice because he never went through puberty, and is considered to be a "natural" castrato. In choral music, the term soprano refers to a vocal part or line and not a voice type. Male singers whose voices have not yet changed and are singing the soprano line are technically known as "trebles". The term "boy soprano" is often used as well, but this is just a colloquialism and not the correct term.
Historically, women were not allowed to sing in the Church so the soprano roles were given to young boys and later to castrati—men whose larynges had been fixed in a pre-adolescent state through the process of castration.
Types and roles in opera
In opera, the tessitura, vocal weight, and timbre of soprano voices, and the roles they sing, are commonly categorized into voice types, often called fächer (sg. fach, from German Fach or Stimmfach, "vocal category"). A singer's tessitura is where the voice has the best timbre, easy volume, and most comfort. For instance a soprano and a mezzo-soprano may have a similar range, but their tessituras will lie in different parts of that range.
The low extreme for sopranos is roughly A3 or B♭3 (just below middle C). Within opera, the lowest demanded note for sopranos is F3 (from Richard Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten). Often low notes in higher voices will project less, lack timbre, and tend to "count less" in roles (although some Verdi, Strauss and Wagner roles call for stronger singing below the staff). However, rarely is a soprano simply unable to sing a low note in a song within a soprano role.
The high extreme, at a minimum, for non-coloratura sopranos is "soprano C" (C6 two octaves above middle C), and many roles in the standard repertoire call for C♯6 or D6. A couple of roles have optional E♭6’s, as well. In the coloratura repertoire several roles call for E♭6 on up to F6. In rare cases, some coloratura roles go as high as G6 or G♯6, such as Mozart's concert aria "Popoli di Tessaglia", or the title role of Jules Massenet's opera Esclarmonde. While not necessarily within the tessitura, a good soprano will be able to sing her top notes full-throated, with timbre and dynamic control.
The following are the operatic soprano classifications (see individual articles for roles and singers):
- Lyric coloratura soprano—A very agile light voice with a high upper extension, capable of fast vocal coloratura. Light coloraturas have a range of approximately middle C (C4) to "high F" (F6) with some coloratura sopranos being able to sing somewhat higher or lower.
- Dramatic coloratura soprano—A coloratura soprano with great flexibility in high-lying velocity passages, yet with great sustaining power comparable to that of a full spinto or dramatic soprano. Dramatic coloraturas have a range of approximately "low B" (B3) to "high F" (F6) with some coloratura sopranos being able to sing somewhat higher or lower.
In classical music and opera, the term soubrette refers to both a voice type and a particular type of opera role. A soubrette voice is light with a bright, sweet timbre, a tessitura in the mid-range, and with no extensive coloratura. The soubrette voice is not a weak voice for it must carry over an orchestra without a microphone like all voices in opera. The voice however has a lighter vocal weight than other soprano voices with a brighter timbre. Many young singers start out as soubrettes but as they grow older and the voice matures more physically they may be reclassified as another voice type, usually either a light lyric soprano, a lyric coloratura soprano, or a coloratura mezzo-soprano. Rarely does a singer remain a soubrette throughout her entire career. A soubrette's range extends approximately from middle C (C4) to "high D" (D6). The tessitura of the soubrette tends to lie a bit lower than the lyric soprano and spinto soprano.
A warm voice with a bright, full timbre, which can be heard over a big orchestra. It generally has a higher tessitura than a soubrette and usually plays ingenues and other sympathetic characters in opera. Lyric sopranos have a range from approximately below middle C (C4) to "high D" (D6). There is a tendency to divide lyric sopranos into two groups:
- Light lyric soprano—A light-lyric soprano has a bigger voice than a soubrette but still possesses a youthful quality.
- Full lyric soprano —A full-lyric soprano has a more mature sound than a light-lyric soprano and can be heard over a bigger orchestra.
Also lirico-spinto, Italian for "pushed lyric". This voice has the brightness and height of a lyric soprano, but can be "pushed" to dramatic climaxes without strain, and may have a somewhat darker timbre. Spinto sopranos have a range from approximately from B (B3) to "high D" (D6).
A dramatic soprano (or soprano robusto) has a powerful, rich, emotive voice that can sing over a full orchestra. Usually (but not always) this voice has a lower tessitura than other sopranos, and a darker timbre. Dramatic sopranos have a range from approximately from A (A3) to "high C" (C6).
Some dramatic sopranos, known as Wagnerian sopranos, have a very big voice that can assert itself over an exceptionally large orchestra (over eighty pieces). These voices are substantial and very powerful and ideally even throughout the registers.
Intermediate voice types
Two types of soprano especially dear to the French are the Dugazon and the Falcon, which are intermediate voice types between the soprano and the mezzo-soprano: a Dugazon is a darker-colored soubrette, a Falcon a darker-colored soprano drammatico.
- Bel canto
- Category of sopranos
- Fach, the German system for classifying voices
- List of sopranos in non-classical music
- Voice classification in non-classical music
- Stark, James (2003). Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-0-8020-8614-3.
- McKinney, James (1994). The Diagnosis and Correction of Vocal Faults. Genovex Music Group. ISBN 978-1-56593-940-0.
- Times Article October 2007
- Smith, Brenda (2005). Choral Pedagogy. Plural Publishing, Inc. ISBN 978-1-59756-043-6.
- Apel, Willi (1968). Harvard Dictionary of Music: Second Edition. Belknap Press. ISBN 978-0-674-37501-7.
- Coffin, Berton (1960). Coloratura, Lyric and Dramatic Soprano, Vol. 1. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. ISBN 978-0-8108-0188-2.
- Boldrey, Richard (1994). Guide to Operatic Roles and Arias. Caldwell Publishing Company. ISBN 978-1-877761-64-5.
- Die Frau ohne Schatten vocal score, Dover vocal scores 2003, Act I, Scene 2, 5th bar of figure 102, ISBN 0-486-43127-4
- Boldrey, Richard; Robert Caldwell, Werner Singer, Joan Wall and Roger Pines (1992). Singer's Edition: Operatic Arias – Light Lyric Soprano. Caldwell Publishing Company. ISBN 978-1-877761-02-7.
- Boldrey, Richard; Robert Caldwell, Werner Singer, Joan Wall and Roger Pines (1992). Singer's Edition: Operatic Arias – Soubrette. Caldwell Publishing Company. ISBN 978-1-877761-03-4.