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She doesn't prove a thing as there is no evidence that her vocal decline was caused by singing 'outside of her category', and quite a bit of evidence that it was caused by health & weight loss related issues. I picked those roles particularly because she was singing them (or parts of them in the case of Isolde) into the mid 50's. The example also points out just how easy it is to find cases that don't fit into what I consider to be rather arbitrary categories.
We can only speculate on what caused Callas' vocal decline, yet since there was a vocal decline, I don't think we should use her to as an example why a system of categories doesn't work. In any case, I think what I term a dramatic mezzo shouldn't have a problem singing all those roles. (I would class Martha Moedl and Astrid Varnay as dramatic mezzos, as well as Callas.) I wouldn't class any of those roles as dramatic mezzo roles, though. There's no reason why an accomplished dramatic soprano couldn't give us a full bodied, interesting Rosina, so a dramatic soprano might also be able to undertake all those roles. As Balalaikaboy has pointed out having a system doesn't mean having to observe it rigidly.

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She doesn't prove a thing as there is no evidence that her vocal decline was caused by singing 'outside of her category', and quite a bit of evidence that it was caused by health & weight loss related issues. I picked those roles particularly because she was singing them (or parts of them in the case of Isolde) into the mid 50's. The example also points out just how easy it is to find cases that don't fit into what I consider to be rather arbitrary categories.
Exactly. Calling Callas a mezzo, implying that she should have sung roles such as Amneris, Azucena, and Dalila rather than Lucia, Norma and Medea, or lumping her with Martha Modl and Astrid Varnay - singers of far different (and much more limited) capabilities - makes abundantly clear the perils of categorization.

The Callas revisionists should remember that Callas was trained, beginning in 1937, by soprano Maria Trivella, considered one of the finest voice teachers in Greece, and then by the brilliant soprano Elvira de Hidalgo. We have no reason to doubt that they knew in what range their pupil should be singing. Trivella at first felt that Callas, with her dark timbre, was a contralto, but very early changed her assessment. Callas herself said that as a beginner she had no chest voice. She began singing a variety of soprano roles in 1941, had a range extending to high Eb, and could execute flawlessly the most difficult coloratura throughout that range. Late in her career, when she recorded a number of mezzo arias, she said she was not entirely comfortable sustaining the low-lying phrases of Dalila's music. In her last recitals she exhibits weakness in the lower mid-range where a mezzo would be strong, and has to carry her chest voice high to compensate. These are not the characteristics of a singer meant to perform mezzo roles. The dramatic chest tones she developed - in order, she said, to have a vocal arsenal adequate for bel canto - shouldn't fool us, regardless of how creatively she uses them in her fascinating portrayal of Carmen.
 

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While there have been a few great artists who succeeded in specialising in a limited repertoire e.g. Schipa and Kraus - it seems to me that versatility has been a far greater factor in the success of Sutherland, Pavarotti, Domingo, Leontyne Price etc etc

In fact, the explanations for vocal decline based on singing outside a particular fach seem pretty suspect to me.

If we take Giuseppe di Stefano as an example, much is made of him singing heavier parts through the 1950s with the corresponding theory that he was singing outside his fach and causing harm to his voice. Critics can point to his Otello, Rienzi, Hoffmann and accuse him of hubris.

Although this seems commonsensical, his career was much more complex than that.

The aforementioned dramatic-tenor parts were in short runs and not repeated. He was still singing in Lucia di Lammermoor, L'incoronazione di Poppea(!), Elisir d'amore and Boheme, albeit less frequently, late into the 1960s/early seventies.

I don't subscribe to the idea that because his technique was problematic that singing 'lighter' roles would have been an answer. It seems implausible to me that anyone listening to his Almaviva, Arturo or Nemorino would think that by rights he should have been a bel-canto specialist?

It is worth mentioning that di Stefano was still singing Arturo in I Puritani as late as 1956 - i.e. after runs at La Scala in Cavalleria Rusticana and Forza del Destino. Yes, he sang the lyrical Nadir in Pecheurs de Perles in July 1953 but he was also singing Enzo in La Gioconda that month. His very best years are criss-crossed with examples of similar adaptability.

It seems to me, rather than looking at fach-flouting (?) as an automatic warning sign, as an intimation of problems to come, flouting these rather artificial categories should instead be seen as not only ok but positive: it was the lifeblood of his career, and the aforementioned careers which exceeded his in longevity.
 

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Exactly. Calling Callas a mezzo, implying that she should have sung roles such as Amneris, Azucena, and Dalila rather than Lucia, Norma and Medea, or lumping her with Martha Modl and Astrid Varnay - singers of far different (and much more limited) capabilities - makes abundantly clear the perils of categorization.
I don't consider Amneris, Azucena and Dalila mezzo roles. I would call them contralto roles.

Martha Moedl and Astrid Varnay may have had much more limitied capabilities, but I've never said that my system is about capabilities, it's about voice type. During their careers Callas, Moedl and Varnay were called 'sopranos' and nobody has a problem about that categorisation or sugests that it implies that they have limited capabilities. If you feel that 'dramatic', 'low' or 'heavy' mezzo as a term implies that a singer should only sing certain roles or has certain limitations or it describes the totality of what that singer is about as an artist, then you haven't understood what vocal categories are far.

A person who is 6 foot 5 is taller than someone 5 foot 8. Once they've reached adulthood they can't change that. They might both speak fluent french, but that doesn't make them the same height.

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Discussion Starter · #85 ·
I don't consider Amneris, Azucena and Dalila mezzo roles. I would call them contralto roles.
Dalilah could easily be classified that way, but Amneris is higherm and Azucena has high parts as well, including an optional high C in one scene.

Martha Moedl and Astrid Varnay may have had much more limitied capabilities, but I've never said that my system is about capabilities, it's about voice type. During their careers Callas, Moedl and Varnay were called 'sopranos' and nobody has a problem about that categorisation or sugests that it implies that they have limited capabilities. If you feel that 'dramatic', 'low' or 'heavy' mezzo as a term implies that a singer should only sing certain roles or has certain limitations or it describes the totality of what that singer is about as an artist, then you haven't understood what vocal categories are far.

A person who is 6 foot 5 is taller than someone 5 foot 8. Once they've reached adulthood they can't change that. They might both speak fluent french, but that doesn't make them the same height.

N.
allow me to reiterate to see if I'm getting your point: you see fach as a range of capabilities, and some singers can perform within multiple ranges of capabilities. ex: a dramatic soprano could sing Tosca even though they are dramatic and not spinto. I would be inclined to agree with that if that's the case.

as for Callas. early Callas was a thrilling dramatic soprano with shot-gun coloratura and glissandi. by the end of her career though, I agree she was solidly in the mezzo camp. the middle of her career is up for interpretation.
 

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Discussion Starter · #86 ·
Exactly. Calling Callas a mezzo, implying that she should have sung roles such as Amneris, Azucena, and Dalila rather than Lucia, Norma and Medea, or lumping her with Martha Modl and Astrid Varnay - singers of far different (and much more limited) capabilities - makes abundantly clear the perils of categorization.

The Callas revisionists should remember that Callas was trained, beginning in 1937, by soprano Maria Trivella, considered one of the finest voice teachers in Greece, and then by the brilliant soprano Elvira de Hidalgo. We have no reason to doubt that they knew in what range their pupil should be singing. Trivella at first felt that Callas, with her dark timbre, was a contralto, but very early changed her assessment. Callas herself said that as a beginner she had no chest voice. She began singing a variety of soprano roles in 1941, had a range extending to high Eb, and could execute flawlessly the most difficult coloratura throughout that range. Late in her career, when she recorded a number of mezzo arias, she said she was not entirely comfortable sustaining the low-lying phrases of Dalila's music. In her last recitals she exhibits weakness in the lower mid-range where a mezzo would be strong, and has to carry her chest voice high to compensate. These are not the characteristics of a singer meant to perform mezzo roles. The dramatic chest tones she developed - in order, she said, to have a vocal arsenal adequate for bel canto - shouldn't fool us, regardless of how creatively she uses them in her fascinating portrayal of Carmen.
Fair points. With that said, I don't think any singer who isn't a bass or contralto has good low notes before age 18. With that said, her low range was incredible even at age 23-24, even though this is clearly soprano singing here.
 

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I don't consider Amneris, Azucena and Dalila mezzo roles. I would call them contralto roles.
Considering the huge number of singers described as mezzos who've been successful in those roles, and the general scarcity of voices most of us would unambiguously call contralto, isn't yours either an eccentric view or simply quibbling? This is exactly what drives me crazy in the discussion of fachs.

Those roles, like any number of roles in opera, are for low sopranos, mezzos, contraltos, transsexuals, countertenors in drag, or whoever the hell can sing them effectively. To call them "contralto roles" is to reify an abstraction - to mistake a concept for reality. Fachs are only a rough guide, not a scientific nomenclature.
 

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While there have been a few great artists who succeeded in specialising in a limited repertoire e.g. Schipa and Kraus - it seems to me that versatility has been a far greater factor in the success of Sutherland, Pavarotti, Domingo, Leontyne Price etc etc

In fact, the explanations for vocal decline based on singing outside a particular fach seem pretty suspect to me.

It seems to me, rather than looking at fach-flouting (?) as an automatic warning sign, as an intimation of problems to come, flouting these rather artificial categories should instead be seen as not only ok but positive: it was the lifeblood of [Di Stefano's] career, and the aforementioned careers which exceeded his in longevity.
Versatility is not only not the exception among great singers; it's the rule. Most singers of sufficient technical accomplishment should be able to sing roles quite variable in their requirements, and most want to. Likewise, most roles can be sung effectively by very different singers. Carmen sung by Supervia, De los Angeles, Price, and Callas is quite a different experience in each case, but all are effective and their renderings are valid despite the fact that the singers are generally assigned to different fachs.

It's just common sense that a singer shouldn't push his voice beyond its capacity. Instances of this usually involve taking on parts that ask for too much sustained power, too extreme a tessitura, or both. A large, heavy voice might also get into trouble trying to do roles too light, although human psychology is more likely to favor the former problem. Consulting one's "fach" may help to avoid such mistakes, but it may also be unnecessarily limiting. Ultimately you have to try singing the music to know how it feels, and when you know that, it doesn't matter what fach anyone assigns to you.
 

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Dalilah could easily be classified that way, but Amneris is higherm and Azucena has high parts as well, including an optional high C in one scene.

allow me to reiterate to see if I'm getting your point: you see fach as a range of capabilities
I think the German fach system is based to some degree on capabilities and that's what I consider is its short coming. Therefore I prefer to use the term voice category. Voice categories are nothing to do with capabilities. Capisce?!

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Considering the huge number of singers described as mezzos who've been successful in those roles, and the general scarcity of voices most of us would unambiguously call contralto, isn't yours either an eccentric view or simply quibbling? This is exactly what drives me crazy in the discussion of fachs.
Apologies, my fault, I didn't write what I meant, which was that in my system those would be contralto roles. I don't think it eccentric to question nomenclature or perceived norms and I find it strange that someone who values independent thought like yourself, might think such a thing is so.

By the way, I'm not discussing fachs, I'm discussing voice categories, which is a similar, yet different concept.

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Apologies, my fault, I didn't write what I meant, which was that in my system those would be contralto roles. I don't think it eccentric to question nomenclature or perceived norms and I find it strange that someone who values independent thought like yourself, might think such a thing is so.

By the way, I'm not discussing fachs, I'm discussing voice categories, which is a similar, yet different concept.

N.
Perhaps the logical question, then, is what it is about those roles that makes you want to give them to contraltos in particular. Contralto, as generally understood, is the deepest and darkest of female voices, and the sounds that come to my mind's ear are those of voices like Marian Anderson's, Maureen Forrester's, and Kathleen Ferrier's. Maybe these singers could all have handled the roles in question (or maybe not), but the only Verdi role that comes to mind that's unambiguously for that sort of voice is Ulrica, which I believe was Marian Anderson's Met debut role. In Wagner, I think, we have only Erda, the First Norn, and the celestial voice at the end of Act 1 of Parsifal. Most of Verdi's roles for lower female voice go pretty high and require great intensity at the top, and Wagner actually refers to most of his as "tiefer Sopran." Dalila was written with Pauline Viardot in mind, and she's generally referred to as a mezzo. How many major roles in opera actually specify contralto in the score?
 

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How about Amahl's mother? And La Cieca, La Gioconda's mother? (If those are major roles... Maybe you have to be someone's mother.)
I've just had a look through my scores and Angelina in Cenerentola is listed as a contralto role, whereas Rosina in Barber is a Mezzo one. One thing to bear in mind is that Baritone and Mezzo as terms for voice types weren't universally adopted until the mid 19th century. If Mozart is to be believed he only wrote roles for Sopranos, Tenors and Basses in Nozze di Figaro! Isabella Colbran who Rossini wrote many roles for is often termed a contralto, but perhaps we would call her a mezzo today. Interestingly the great contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink debuted as Azucena!

This is the list of contralto roles on Wikipedia:

Examples of contralto roles in the standard operatic repertoire include the following:.[13]

Angelina*, La Cenerentola (Rossini)
Arsace, Semiramide (Rossini)
Art Banker, Facing Goya (Nyman)
Auntie*, landlady of The Boar, Peter Grimes (Britten)
Azucena*, Il trovatore (Verdi)
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.

I don't necessarily agree with that list, but it's not as clear cut as we think, perhaps.

N.
 

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Perhaps the logical question, then, is what it is about those roles that makes you want to give them to contraltos in particular. Contralto, as generally understood, is the deepest and darkest of female voices, and the sounds that come to my mind's ear are those of voices like Marian Anderson's, Maureen Forrester's, and Kathleen Ferrier's. Maybe these singers could all have handled the roles in question (or maybe not), but the only Verdi role that comes to mind that's unambiguously for that sort of voice is Ulrica, which I believe was Marian Anderson's Met debut role. In Wagner, I think, we have only Erda, the First Norn, and the celestial voice at the end of Act 1 of Parsifal. Most of Verdi's roles for lower female voice go pretty high and require great intensity at the top, and Wagner actually refers to most of his as "tiefer Sopran." Dalila was written with Pauline Viardot in mind, and she's generally referred to as a mezzo. How many major roles in opera actually specify contralto in the score?
There's an interesting reference in Kathleen Ferrier's letters and diaries to being offered the part of Ulrica in the 1949 Edinburgh Festival
She declined politely [...] she recognised herself that for Verdi a weightier voice than hers is required. Yet she did make the occasional concessions, such as taking the contralto part of Maddalena in the Quartet from Rigoletto
Re: Azucena in her diaries/letters
I feel that the tessitura is high, and that I should be inclined to tie myself in knots
Also from her diaries/letters
I'm sorry about the Verdi Requiem, it breaks mi bloomin' heart, but it's no good it's too high. The more I see of opera, the less I want to take part in it, except Orfeo
 

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I've just had a look through my scores and Angelina in Cenerentola is listed as a contralto role, whereas Rosina in Barber is a Mezzo one. One thing to bear in mind is that Baritone and Mezzo as terms for voice types weren't universally adopted until the mid 19th century. If Mozart is to be believed he only wrote roles for Sopranos, Tenors and Basses in Nozze di Figaro! Isabella Colbran who Rossini wrote many roles for is often termed a contralto, but perhaps we would call her a mezzo today. Interestingly the great contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink debuted as Azucena!

This is the list of contralto roles on Wikipedia:

Examples of contralto roles in the standard operatic repertoire include the following:.[13]

Angelina*, La Cenerentola (Rossini)
Arsace, Semiramide (Rossini)
Art Banker, Facing Goya (Nyman)
Auntie*, landlady of The Boar, Peter Grimes (Britten)
Azucena*, Il trovatore (Verdi)
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.

I don't necessarily agree with that list, but it's not as clear cut as we think, perhaps.

N.
It's rarely clear cut, I'd say. Sometimes the call for a certain voice type might to refer to range, sometimes to timbre. We'll never know what some composers had in mind if we can no longer ask them. I wonder how many of the roles on that list actually specified contralto? When did the category actually acquire a separate designation? Wasn't everyone just "soprano" or "alto" before sometime in the 19th century?
 

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I thought it would be interesting to go back to the OP and reconsider the question that was posed at the beginning of the thread.

It was suggested that as singers' voices change throughout their careers, then they should also change fach.

It seems to me that that is what the fach system does do, which makes sense for a system designed for use by theatres and agents. Whilst there are always exceptions, most voices develop in the same way as a singer ages and become somewhat darker and fuller. However, singers normally don't change voice type as they age. If you have a system of 30 categories such as the German fach model, then singers are going to move through different fachs (this is inevitable in a system where some categories only have as few as 2 roles).

I am interested in how we can categorise voices best to help teachers and students. Whilst an open mind is necessary during study, it is also useful to have an idea of where you are going and which roles a student can start with, which they should avoid and which should be left for now, but are likely to be future roles. All singers should be prepared to sing outside their category, but most of their roles should be within their category. If most of their roles are in categories that are wildly different to their voice category then they could end up damaging the voice.

I wouldn't limit categories solely to the six voice types, but the 25-30 fachs is too prescriptive to be useful to singers. Whilst a voice changes I wouldn't expect most singers to change voice category in my system of 14 categories over their career, but I would expect them to sing roles at the heavier end of their category that they weren't ready for previously. Taking Sutherland as an example I would class her a spinto (or middle or medium soprano if you don't like the term 'spinto'), that she had a high extension, the flexibility to sing coloratura and the volume of a dramatic soprano is neither here nor there. Therefore had she moved from bel canto to what are normally considered spinto roles I would have seen it as a natural development of the voice within her category.

N.
 

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Piggybacking from The Conte's list, how about categories as simple as this?

Lyric Soprano
Dramatic Soprano
Lyric Mezzo
Dramatic Mezzo
Contralto
Lyric Tenor
Dramatic Tenor
Lyric Baritone
Dramatic Baritone
Bass Baritone
Lyric Bass
Dramatic Bass

I think I covered everyone & every role...
 

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Piggybacking from The Conte's list, how about categories as simple as this?

Lyric Soprano
Dramatic Soprano
Lyric Mezzo
Dramatic Mezzo
Contralto
Lyric Tenor
Dramatic Tenor
Lyric Baritone
Dramatic Baritone
Bass Baritone
Lyric Bass
Dramatic Bass

I think I covered everyone & every role...
A noble effort. But if the fach system is to serve its purpose of guiding casting by opera managements, I'll have to suggest a few additions. 1. We need to specify skill in coloratura for all vocal ranges. Most singers are not up to the demands of Rossini and other bel canto roles, or of certain coloratura specialty roles such as Lakme or Zerlina. 2. The heldentenor (basically, Tannhauser, Tristan, Siegmund and Siegfried) really is a bit different from the dramatic tenor in needing not only great power and endurance but a full-bodied lower range and the ability to sing for long periods around the passaggio. 3. Contraltos should surely be differentiated like other range categories. Kathleen Ferrier (see story above) was a very different singer from Ewa Podles.
 
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