The trouble with fach these days Part 3: Female voice types and passaggio locations.

Part 1, an overview, and part 2, male voices.

It took me a while to put together this article as the female voice types span across a much larger range than the male types. There are also far more types that can be easily put into the wrong voice category. Like with the article on male voices, I will be providing examples of singers from each fach (voice type) and will describe the qualities, give passagio locations and problems that can be derived from such vocal fachs.

I have made a note about future articles on more contemporary music and vocal fach as my current focus is more on classical singers. The exception I have made here is for the Contralto as this voice type is very specific and unique.

As with previous articles, the passaggio locations I refer come from the writings of Richard Miller. You can find his standard book on vocal technique here.

Female verses male passagii:

The passagii are the points between register changes. The most difficult being the lower passagio between chest and middle, and the upper, between the middle and head.

In the case of the male, the registers go something like this:

  1. Chest voice – The voice that almost all men speak in
  2. Middle voice – A shorter non-weighty (heady) extension on the chest voice that eventually teeters on head voice. OR a very short, lower extension of the headvoice which will become falsetto if brought too low (voce finto).
  3. Head voice – Where the uppermost notes are accessed.
  4. (rare) Whistle voice – the extra range at the top of the voice where even higher notes can be accessed.

In the case of the female, the registers go like this:

  1. Chest voice –  The lowermost spoken voice that some women prefer to speak in
  2. Middle voice – A long, non-weight (heady) extension on the chest voice that MUST teeter on head voice after a few notes. OR a very long, lower extension of the head voice which will eventually become breathy/unsupported if brought too low.
  3. Head voice – A brighter quality where the uppermost notes are accessed
  4. Whistle voice – the highest range of a female voice where even higher notes can be accessed.

It is important to note that the female middle voice  is much longer. This can result in their passaggio transition becoming easier (due to there being more wiggle room) OR much harder (due to poor technique on more notes between transitions). The middle voice can also be accessed with head voice further down (as is the case with classical singing rather than belt), while the chest can be ‘mixed’ upwards a few more notes. The middle voice, like with males, can either ‘teeter between’ middle and head voice (for belt), or transition fully into head (for classical). Females can also, at times, have three passaggii. The whistle voice is far more common in females and more regularly accessed, so the transition between head and whistle is considered a passagio.

Voice types

Layout of fach titles and location:

“Voice type: Primo passaggio (e.g. D4) and secondo passaggio (e.g. Eb5)”

Contralto: D4/Eb4-D5/Eb5

Female singers, here’s where I want you to be extremely careful, and very critical of your choir masters. The word ‘contralto’ is the word used for the lowest female voice. ‘Alto’ is used in SATB voice typing for choir purposes. If you are a soloist and someone tells you that you are an alto, they are wrong, end of story.

The contralto is actually an extremely rare voice type. In their chest voice (which is the lower speaking voice for women), they will have the quality of a tenor. The contralto may in fact easily have the range of a mezzo soprano or soprano.

I will give you an example from both classical and contemporary singing for the contralto so you can distinguish the unique qualities of this voice.

My first example is a video of Ewa Podle’s range. It is a fantastic way of hearing how the voice alters through the scale:

Notice at D4 there it is instantly obvious that the voice has transitioned into a ‘headier’ space and by Eb4 it has well and truly become a more ‘feminine’ sound. You will not as easily notice the slight shift around D5/Eb5 to a more neutral space as the proverbial ‘lid comes off the pot’ and the voice prepares to shift into a more typically ‘soprano’ space, where there is a significant lack of weight from the lower register.

The distinguishing features of a contralto is an overly developed chest voice range without any kind of added darkness from tongue depression. It is masculine to a point and then becomes very similar to a lyric coloratura soprano. Some contraltos do not have this upper extension. Ewa Podles is a coloratura contralto, while there also exists a dramatic and lyric contralto. These voices do not have the same nimbleness in their upper extension, but enjoy a richer, warmer sound through their lower register and passagio.

For an example of a contemporary singer, I would suggest listening to Amy Winehouse:

She sits very comfortably in her chest register and has a fairly masculine quality to her voice. With contemporary singers, it is difficult to distinguish fully between contralto and mezzo, but I believe the telling factor is the masculine, ‘tenor’ quality that you can hear from around E4-C5.

Finally, another well known example of a true contralto is Judy Garland:

Garland’s voice has a slightly masculine quality to it, but also notice that she has access to the upper register at 0:43. This is an area that the contemporary contralto barely accesses, but should be encouraged to develop to avoid over-weighted singing in the lower and middle parts of the voice.

Dramatic Mezzo Soprano: Eb4/E4-Eb5/E5

The dramatic Mezzo soprano is a very robust sounding voice that sits very securely in the mezzo soprano range. Interestingly enough, the dramatic soprano, spinto soprano and dramatic mezzo soprano can sometimes be interchangeable. For instance, in the case of Leyontine Price, who has sung both dramatic Mezzo Soprano roles (Dalila from Samson and Delilah and Leonora from La forza del destino). Jesseye Norman could also be another example of a dramatic soprano who performs dramatic mezzo soprano roles like Dido from Dido and Aneas.

The dramatic mezzo is expected to have an upper extension to Bb5 for Dalila, but in the case of most Wagnerian music, they are only expected to sing up to a G5.

If you listen to the following example, you will hear the the dramatic Mezzo’s range is not dissimilar from a dramatic soprano, however she can sit more comfortably in her chest voice range at around C4-D4 and sings primarily between G4 and C5. Her climactic notes sit just above the passagio from E5-A5.

At 1:55 you can hear the tendency to move towards the very frontal ‘ih’ vowel where the upper passaggio has begun to fully transition into head voice. The sound teeters between middle and head voice – which is only achievable with an excellent support system. If this is not achieved, the larynx would shift positions at this point and the voice would loose its potency.

A true dramatic mezzo is in danger of over-darkening her voice or being miss-fached as a dramatic soprano. It is vital for the dramatic mezzo soprano to be aware of the ‘ng’ ring or the “silver string” as Kirsten Flagstad called it, while avoiding any over-compression of their larynx with their tongue. This is why, in the above example at the passaggio, Baker prefers a combination of an ‘ih’ vowel (for frontal ring) combined with a cavernous pharynx behind the tongue. The main difference between the dramatic mezzo and dramatic soprano is that a true dramatic soprano will sit more comfortably around C5-E5, while the dramatic mezzo will sit a little lower than this and have a lot more ‘masculine’ qualities in their range from D4-G4.

Lyric Mezzo soprano and coloratura mezzo-soprano: E4/F4-E5/F5:

The lyric mezzo soprano is an extremely warm voice. It is a lighter voice which floats a lot better in the E5-A5 area than the dramatic mezzo. They are commonly confused as lyric sopranos due to their lighter quality and ability to sing up to a Bb5 or even C6 – however, the distinctive difference is that their comfortable ‘sitting range’ is around G4-C5.

The coloratura mezzo soprano is one of the most nimble voice-types. They are expected to sing very comfortably below E4 while often making runs up to a Bb5-C5.

Both the lyric mezzo soprano and coloratura mezzo-soprano should be able to sing a vast majority of the same pieces. A full lyric mezzo soprano may prefer to melismas (runs) in long scales (e.g. Mozart), or in triplets, rather than sets of four, which is the case in a lot of Rossini’s music. The coloratura Mezzo Soprano should have no issue performing all lyric mezzo soprano and coloratura music. Both voice types may even find themselves capable of lower soprano pieces, but it is not advised to try this save for experimentation.

I would like to make a distinct comparison of a coloratura mezzo soprano to a coloratura soprano. The role of Rosina (The Barber of Seville) can be played by either a mezzo or a soprano. This is not to criticize one as superior to the other, but rather to compare the differences in vocal timbre.

Notice that there is an easy sounding fundamental placement to Di Donato’s voice through the run at 1:48. It sounds more like a deep “iih”. This is because the song sits more in the middle for her, which requires her to balance the frontal ‘ng’/’ih’ ring with her pharyngeal space and laryngeal tilt.

Dame Malvina Major has a higher placement for this same run at 1:20. You can see that it sits at a slightly brighter, lighter part of the voice, which is not used to carrying as much weight – while the top note at 1:18 is a more silvery sound. Di Donato’s identical note at 1:46 has a little more vocal ’roundness’ as it is in a peak part of her voice.

Dramatic Soprano: F4 and F5.

This soprano has a very metallic sound that easily carries across a larger orchestra. She has a grand depth to her lower and middle register, while her upper register is silvery and has a very piercing squilo. A commonly miss-fached voice type. The first instinct is to hear a female singer with an overly wide jaw and highly wobbly vibrato and to call her a dramatic soprano. On the contrary, the dramatic soprano should carry a lot of natural presence without any effort. This voice type often has a shaky diaphragm as a result of a locked solar-plexus. Some teachers will encourage the young dramatic to push more from their abdominal region. This is dangerous as it forces far too much air through the chords and may cause the voice to ‘pop’, which is a result of a lack of vocal closure from too much subglottal pressure. In layman’s terms, imagine trying to fill a balloon with a tyre pump set on high air pressure. The balloon would pop. While your vocal cords don’t literally ‘burst’, they will part very quickly to allow excess air to escape from the lungs.

It is also false to assume that dramatic sopranos cannot sing their top notes for very long. Ideally, the dramatic will be able to sing up to a C6 and can comfortably sit there, carrying considerable power and spin into their head voice. However, their tessitura is the lowest of the soprano voices, so they generally enjoy music that sits in the medium range of a typical female voice.

The best known dramatic soprano to date is Kirsten Flagstad. Her voice had a glowing presence that took what appeared to be very little effort to produce. Everything above the F5 is in an extremely long ‘oooh’ space, while all the notes in her middle register are altered towards an ‘awh’ (as in “Horse”, not backwards “awwww”), which allows her to access the depth of her lower register, while adding in upper harmonics. In the interview below, the piece that she ‘warms up’ with, is fundamentally place in the ‘yoooohhh’ position. The jaw does not sound overly open (or else we would hear “yaaauuhhh”), so in order to add the upper harmonic, her tongue would remain close to an ‘ng’ position. In order to correctly fach the dramatic soprano, a teacher should be very familiar with Flagstad’s sound.

Alternatively, the late Elizabeth Connell had a tremendous dramatic soprano voice. Even in the last year of her life, her Turandot was very unforced and easily cut across the heavy orchestra during the climactic parts of the aria:

It is important for the dramatic soprano to realize a fine balance of darkness to the tone matched with the ‘ih’ or ‘ng’ ring in their mask. The singer should sing a slow scale from D4 down to F4. This part of the voice should sound naturally like a mezzo soprano without any tongue retraction (trying to sound overly dark). Above a D4, the voice may have a natural ‘shriek’ to it, but a considerable range that potentially goes up to B-C6 (soprano high B-C). The ‘shriek’ needs to be harnessed to be connected to the lower support and from the back of the ribs. Without this, the voice will simply sound shrieky, rather than ‘metallic’. By shrieky, I mean wobby, and warbly, not unlike some of the older ladies you may have heard in church choir if you ever experienced this.

An excellent dramatic soprano is one who can balance their natural lower darkness, with their incredibly bright, metallic higher sound.

Spinto Soprano: F#4/G4 – F#5/G5

The spinto soprano is a voice that carries some of the presence of a dramatic, but whose middle and top have more spin and freedom. The are extremely suited to Verdi, Strauss and Puccini, but at times can bring sophistication and beauty to Mozart. Spintos can sometimes be incorrectly fached as a lyric soprano. While the two can be fairly interchangeable at times, it is important not to force the spinto to ‘sing quietly’ as they develop. It is more prudent to encourage development of their natural sound, which will easily cut across any piano accompaniment (particularly in voice institutes). Donna Elvira is a good role to train the young spinto voice on, as well as medium-high voiced art songs. The spinto soprano can have an uncanny soaring quality in their head voice from Bb5-D5, but ultimately they will prefer to sit lower than lyric sopranos. Eventually they go onto singing Rusalka (Rusalka), Ciao Ciao San (Madame Butterfly), Magda (La Rondine), Tosca (Tosca) and sometimes Leonora (La Forza Del Destino). It is also possible for some spintos to sing dramatic coloratura roles like in La Traviata if they are comfortable with their top.

Unlike the dramatic soprano, if the spinto soprano attempts the scale from D4 down to F4, they may not sound like mezzo sopranos at all. In fact they may feel a little uncomfortable and will lack the same depth that a dramatic soprano has in that part of the range. This should not put them off however. If they were to do the same scale on an ‘ooh’ (italian u) vowel, they will find that they do have a natural warmth there that they should harness.

Spintos can fall prey to the damaging bright, light and forward technique. Since they do not carry the same natural weight of a dramatic, nor the silkier, gentler qualities of a lyric, it is essential for them to be striving for balance between the ‘dark’ and the ‘light’. Leontyne Price is considered to be a spinto soprano. If you listen to her opening notes, you will notice the intensity of her squilo. This middle part of her voice is incredibly effortless, has ‘some’ metallic ring, but ultimately does not have the same natural darkess of a dramatic soprano.

Notice at 0:28 the incredible ‘awh’ vowel on ‘pace’, which maintains both the space in the back of her mouth and the squilo at the front. Her top note at 5:04 has a vibrant spin to it that seems like far less effort than Connell’s and Flagstad’s highest notes. This incredible ‘spin’ at the top, is a telling sign of a spinto soprano. The dramatic coloratura will also find a similar ‘spin’ at the top of her range, so it is always a good experiment for people who believe themselves to be spinto sopranos or dramatic coloraturas to try singing some of the music in the other fach for a time to see if they are a good fit for that.

Note that it is entirely possible that this is where Maria Callas’s voice was best suited. She had an incredible range that did not quite reach the same heights as a dramatic coloratura, while containing a very powerful middle and lower register like the dramatic soprano. She did, however, play dramatic soprano roles in her time and some of those roles (e.g. Turandot) are considered to have contributed to her vocal fatigue.

 

Lyric Soprano F#4-G5

The lyric soprano is a lush, honey-like voice that lacks the intensity of the spinto or the dramatic, but who can navigate higher music with poise and grace. A good lyric soprano is especially effective in Mozart and some of Puccini’s lighter roles (like Mimi and sometimes Magda).

The ‘light, bright and forward’ method does not seem to affect the lyric soprano as much as the more dramatic voices. They seem to have very little trouble singing in this naturally ‘forward’ position most likely due to being more naturally inclined towards this more localized technique. However, it is imperative for the lyric soprano to develop an effective laryngeal tilt in order to navigate their passagio, where they will be singing most often.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa is an excellent example of someone who very religiously remained in her lyric soprano fach from day 1 right up until her official decision to leave the operatic stage in 2012’s La fille du regiment. She is particularly well known for her Mozart, but one of her most celebrated roles is Desdemona, which sits right in the middle for most sopranos.

It is important to notice how little jaw movement Dame Kiri uses when singing. Instead, she has a particular tendency to flair around the cheekbones and nostrils. As a result of her more ovular mouth, her pharynx will carry the majority of the vocal ‘weight’, while the flared cheek bones allow for lift and lyrical squilo in the front.

You will notice at 3:32 that the upper chest voice and lower middle is nowhere near as powerful as the previous examples. Instead, the lyric soprano may need to sacrifice vocal weight in the lower part of the scale in order to reduce any tension in their higher tessitura. Incidentally, it is important to note that the lyric can develop their chest register, as is the case of Renee Fleming. However, Dame Kiri generally opted not to do this.

At 7:34, while the recording does not carry the full impact of her voice, you will notice that the fundamental rule for high notes is still the same in the lyric soprano as with all voices; that the top notes are sung on a very neutral, ‘dumb’ vowel. In this case, it is a combination of Italian ‘u’ and ‘oh’. The top notes of the lyric soprano are full, but do not spin as much as the spinto. Instead, they are lush and beautiful. It is important never to cast a lyric soprano in a role like Turandot as they will struggle to out-sing the orchestra.  The lyric soprano should be celebrated for its graceful, sophisticated and buttery quality.

Lyric and dramatic coloratura F#4/G5/A5 – G5/A5

The coloratura sopranos are lighter voices with extremely large ranges and high flexibility. The dramatic coloratura may have the quality of a mezzo soprano in their low-middle range, but will have an extended whistle voice from D6-G6. Like the spinto soprano, their top notes will have tremendous spin and pierce. They will not, however, sound like a scream, this is important to remember.

The Lyric coloratura is a naturally more graceful, contained instrument. They delight in Mozart, Rossini and Baroque music in particular. Dame Malvina Major (mentioned earlier) is an excellent example of the nimble, flexible lyric coloratura, while Diana Damrau is a dramatic coloratura.

You will notice that when Diana Damrau sings Queen of the Night, every note from about G5 upward has a very bright and easy spin. At around C6 and upward, the note become extremely whistle-like in quality. This is because the dramatic coloratura needs to access the whistle register above a C6 in order to reach the potential G6s that they may have to sing. At this point, there is so little weight in the sound, that the voice will ‘squeak’ (for lack of better words) into its highest register. This requires a mastery of bel canto air-control from the pelvic floor and the muscles between the ribs. I want you to imagine blowing horizontally onto a piece of paper. With the right air pressure, the paper will create a ‘whistle’ sound. Similarly with the voice at its highest point, the singer needs to know exactly how to regulate their breath pressure to sing dramatic coloratura passages.

It is important to remember that the dramatic coloratura is not like the dramatic soprano. The ‘dramatic’ quality comes as a result of the highly energized sound that exists right through the range. While for the dramatic soprano, the ‘dramatic’ quality comes from a particularly brassy quality. The dramatic coloratura should never be put in dramatic soprano roles as they do not have the same type of cut.

Alternatively, the lyric coloratura navigates passages of belcanto music with flourish and accuracy. The music best suited to this voice is less declamatory and contains more melismas. Rossini, Donizetti and Baroque music is particularly suited to this voice type, however they are also capable of some lighter lyric soprano repertoire. The top has a spin on it, but it is distinctly more silvery than the more brassy dramatic coloratura. There is more ‘freedom’ to this top, while in the case of the dramatic, the top is like a whistle and ‘emerges’ out of the voice with a lot of ping and bounce.

Kathleen Battle is another excellent example of the lyric coloratura.

You will instantly notice the fine-tuned flexibility (similarly to Dame Malvina Major) in Battle’s voice right from the start. The passages are extremely accurate and seamless and the voice does not have a hint of brassy quality. It is more representative of a piccolo.

The telling sign of a lyric coloratura is the particular ease of the voice right through the range. They are often discovered at a much younger age to other voice types. This is because the voice quality does not require the same power or maturity as other voice types. As a result, someone in their early 20s who already has good breath control and tilt can easily make a career.

It is not recommended for a lyric coloratura to perform dramatic coloratura roles as they do not necessarily have the same level of power. Their strength is speed and flourish, while the dramatic coloratura’s strength is ping and power.

Other voice types:

I am currently in the process of writing on other voice types. I have written some short segments below on a few of them. Please feel free to follow us if you wish to be notified when the next article is out!

Soubrette

I believe that the ‘soubrette’ is one of two things:

  1. It is a younger soprano who has elected to sing smaller roles in order to preserve her voice, and because she is making a career performing these roles. Barbarina (The Marriage of Figaro), Zerlina (Don Giovanni) and Musetta (La Boheme) are typical soubrette roles. They are often a little more comical or light hearted roles and can demand quite a large range. However, one makes a choice to perform these roles because they are less demanding on the voice and do not always maintain the limelight. In time, the singer may have to decide to sing larger roles if their instrument grows and requires that they sing more in the Lyric soprano or lyric coloratura repertoire.

The soubrette can also enjoy a wonderful career singing roles like Maria (West Side Story), Maria (The Sound of Music), Christine (Phantom of the Opera) and many other musical theatre roles as the audience demands a much finer sound for such characters, especially when they are often amplified.

  1. The second version of the soubrette is, I believe, a soprano who has been miss-fached by an unruly teacher or by other singers who look at the ‘soubrette’ as an inferior voice type. You will commonly see this happen, particularly when sopranos talk to each other (or about each other).

As a general rule, Soubrettes have the range and flexibility to sing lyric coloratura roles, and may develop the presence to sing full lyric soprano roles, so, for the most part, being a ‘soubrette’ is a career decision.

Countertenor

I am currently writing an article on the counter tenor which will feature as a short part 4 to this series.

Belt voice types

My next large project focuses on discussing voice type for belt singers. I believe that ‘belt’ singing can change out apparent fach. However, as a general rule, you will find that baritones, bari-tenors and dramatic tenors can perform similar types of music in belt voice, while higher tenors (spinto-leggerio) can perform higher belt music. This is because musical theatre music tends to be composed for specific characteristics different to opera. Alternatively, contraltos, mezzo sopranos and sopranos all have the capacity to belt certain roles (Eponine, Fantine, Elphaba), while some parts are reserved for voices that have a specific tessitura (Norma Demond, Sally Bowls and Mrs Lovett are more suited to mezzo soprano and contralto, while Galinda, Mary Poppins, Maria (West Side Story and Sound of Music) require that the voice have the capacity to sing in the higher reaches of the soprano range.

Closing statements:

You cannot ultimately choose your fach, however, I would be hesitant to say that you should try to find your fach at too early an age. Stick with comfortable, middle ranged art songs and simpler show tunes at first. Voice type can only be truly decided when you develop laryngeal tilt. You will know that you have developed a consistent tilt when you can sing each note of your rate with relevant consistency (no sudden change of tone) at each step. Only then can you truly discover your true fach.

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3 thoughts on “The trouble with fach these days Part 3: Female voice types and passaggio locations.

  1. Thank you for this site. You described my voice perfectly in the dramatic soprano category. I’ve been hating the metal for years not realizing what it was. I would love more information or to read your ideas about connecting the “shriek” to the lower support. Help!

    Like

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