The contralto's vocal range is fairly rare; similar to the mezzo-soprano, and almost identical to that of a countertenor, 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 D below middle C (D3) or the second B♭ above middle C (B♭5). The contralto voice type is generally divided into the coloratura, lyric, and dramatic contralto.
"Contralto" is primarily meaningful only in reference to classical and operatic singing, as other traditions lack a comparable system of vocal categorization. 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.
The contralto voice range is between tenor and mezzo-soprano. Although tenors, baritones, and basses are male singers, some women can sing as low (albeit with a slightly different timbre and texture than their male counterparts). Unfortunately, they are often erroneously referred to as "female tenors", "female baritones", "female basses" or "androgynous." In reality, such terms are usually derogatory informal (slang). Factual formal terminology would be contralto profundo (tenor) and contralto basso or oktavistka (baritone) but these are not traditionally named among the fach system.
Subtypes and roles in opera
The earliest cited role for the contralto is traditionally accepted to be that of the Saracen princess Clorinde in André Campra's 1702 opera Tancréde, and most famously performed by (and was originally written for) Julie d'Aubigny. Within the contralto voice type category are three generally recognized subcategories: coloratura contralto, lyric contralto, and dramatic contralto. These subtypes 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.
The coloratura contralto has a light, agile voice ranging very high for the classification and atypically maintains extensive coloratura and high sustaining notes, specializing in florid passages and leaps. Given its deviations from the classification's norms, this voice type is quite rare.
The 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).
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.
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, Teodata in "Flavio", Isabella in L'italiana in Algeri, and Olga in Eugene Onegin, but more frequently they play female villains or trouser roles. Contraltos may also be cast in 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:
- Angelina*, La Cenerentola (Rossini)
- Arsace, Semiramide (Rossini)
- Art Banker, Facing Goya (Nyman)
- Auntie*, landlady of The Boar, Peter Grimes (Britten)
- The Baroness, Vanessa (Barber)
- Bradamante, Alcina (Handel)
- La Cieca, La Gioconda (Ponchielli)
- Cornelia Giulio Cesare (Handel)
- The Countess*, The Queen of Spades (Tchaikovsky)
- Didone, Egisto (Cavalli)
- Erda, Das Rheingold, Siegfried (Wagner)
- Madame Flora, The Medium (Menotti)
- Fides, Le prophète (Meyerbeer)
- Florence, Albert Herring (Britten)
- Isabella*, L'italiana in Algeri (Rossini)
- Katisha, The Mikado (Gilbert and Sullivan)
- Klytemnestra*, Elektra (Richard Strauss)
- Lel, The Snow Maiden (Rimsky-Korsakov)
- Little Buttercup, H.M.S. Pinafore (Gilbert and Sullivan)
- Lucretia, The Rape of Lucretia (Britten)
- Maddalena*, Rigoletto (Verdi)
- Magdelone, Maskarade (Nielsen)
- Mama Lucia, Cavalleria rusticana (Mascagni)
- Ma Moss, The Tender Land (Copland)
- Malcolm*, La donna del lago (Rossini)
- Margret, Wozzeck (Berg)
- Maria, Porgy and Bess (Gershwin)
- The Marquise of Berkenfield, La fille du régiment (Donizetti)
- Marthe, Faust (Gounoud)
- Mary, Der fliegende Holländer (Wagner)
- Mother, The Consul (Menotti)
- Mother Goose, The Rake's Progress (Stravinsky)
- Mrs Quickly, Falstaff (Verdi)
- Norn (I), Götterdämmerung (Wagner)
- Olga*, Eugene Onegin (Tchaikovsky)
- Orfeo, Orfeo ed Euridice (Gluck)
- Orsini, Lucrezia Borgia (Donizetti)
- Pauline, The Queen of Spades (Tchaikovsky)
- La Principessa, Suor Angelica (Puccini)
- Ratmir, Ruslan and Lyudmila (Glinka)
- Rosina*, The Barber of Seville (Rossini)
- Rosmira/Eurimene*, Partenope (Handel)
- Ruth, The Pirates of Penzance (Gilbert and Sullivan)
- Schwertleite, Die Walküre (Wagner)
- Smeaton, Anna Bolena (Donizetti)
- Sosostris, The Midsummer Marriage (Tippett)
- Stella, What Next? (Carter)
- Tancredi, Tancredi (Rossini)
- Ulrica, Un ballo in maschera (Verdi)
- Widow Begbick*, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Weill)
- 3rd Woodsprite, Rusalka (Dvořák)
* indicates a role that may also be sung by a mezzo-soprano.
- Category of contraltos
- List of operatic contraltos
- Fach, the German system for classifying voices
- Voice classification in non-classical music
- List of contraltos in non-classical music
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