• Opera Terms

    This thread is for educational posts about opera terms and techniques.

    The passaggio is the transition between the chest voice and the head voice. When amateur/non-trained singers sing, they're using the chest voice - which is the same one we use to speak. They are breathing through the vocal cords and modulating the pitch by flexing their vocal cords, and the volume by increasing or decreasing the amount of air that is being expelled from the lungs. However to achieve more power and resonance, singers must use the head voice, which augments the sound that is coming from the vocal chords by using the spaces in their heads - mouth, nasal cavities, etc, and the way the head bones vibrate, as a sort of resonance chamber to amplify the voice. Correct use of the head voice can only be achieved by training (the amateur singer usually doesn't know how to transition to it appropriately). If singers are increasing the power with which they are producing a certain note, at one point they go as strongly as they can with the chest voice, and need next to transition to the head voice. The moment when the transition occurs - that is, they call to their help the bones and the cavities in their heads and push the power up - is called the passaggio. The higher the note, the more it will only be produced in a loud and well projected way (audible from a distance - think of those cavernous opera houses) if it's done in the head register (amateur singers are familiar with the phenomenon that makes them lose power when they try to go up the higher reaches of their range) - this is why the passaggio points are often referred to as residing on certain notes of the scale, above which singers will have to go to the next register if they want to be heard.

    So, it's not just a question of volume (it's actually not entirely correct to understand this from the standpoint of volume). Usually people *can* use a higher pitch if they drop the volume. It's a question of going up in pitch but in a still powerful and very audible way - this can only be done by switching to the head register.

    The main problem here is that once they make use of the head voice, it's a different set of cavities with different dimensions, therefore the sound waves produced by this additional chamber result in different set of amplitude/frequency of vibrations and sound quality of the vibrations - this other set is called another register (see below) - or in other words, when you up the pitch and go into another set of vibrations, the timbre of the voice may change.

    A poorly executed passaggio, therefore, will produce a sudden change in timbre that will be unpleasant to the ear and be heard as a vocal error. The trick of the well executed passaggio is to amplify the resonance and the power, but to conserve even the same timbre so that the voice soars to the next level without sounding like a sudden break has occurred.

    You've heard this, even if (in case you're a novice) you didn't know that it was a passagio error. You're familiar with tenors who push their voices up and then - eeeewww, something is not right - and you cringe! This is called a passaggio break or a register break.

    Here on the other hand is, for your delight, an example of well executed passaggi:

    At 1:50, and also at 3:49 and even more explicit at 4:03 and then in the long modulation from 4:28 through 4:46.

    Why are we talking about a passage - passaggio? Because it is a transition between registers. A register or vocal registration is a modality of production of sound with the same vibratory pattern. Notes can be produced and sang along the same vibratory pattern. There are four types of registers - chest, middle (for females; for males, zona di passagio, see below), and head; these three are the most common ones that both males and females can produce; and then males can produce another one called fry register, and females another one called whistle register .

    To make things more complex, the classical Italian school of singing recognizes two different degrees of passaggio - first and second (primo passaggio, secondo passaggio). In between them, is what we call the zona di passaggio for men, or the middle register for women.

    Many vocal teachers don’t acknowledge the existence of a middle register, but might instead treat the middle section of the voice as a zona di passaggio in which the chest and head tones will become blended or mixed. There may also be some disagreement on what constitutes head voice or how it is defined, and this confusion may explain why some teachers call the lighter tone of the voice that begins at the first passaggio in female students (or any tone that is produced at pitches above the chest register) “head voice” whereas classical Italian-style teachers would refer to this register as “middle” and the register beginning around E5-F#5 (at the second passaggio) as the true head register.

    The primo passaggio is the point between the speech-inflection range - that is, the range of pitches that people use to speak - and the call range - that is, the point in which they would have to yell in order to try to speak.

    About the interval of a major forth above this, is the point of the secondo passaggio which is the end of the zona de passaggio and the beginning of the true head voice.

    If someone tries to sing the same note and push it up in volume without readapting/reconfiguring the muscles to incorporate the head voice vibrations into it - that is, increasing volume with the chest but not doing the passaggio - the voice becomes strained due to increasing effort and discomfort.

    The tenor’s primo passaggio, (typically occurring somewhere between C#4 and E4, depending on the individual's voice), lies roughly a minor or major third above that of the baritone, (usually occurring around B3 or Bb3), with his secondo passaggio occurring roughly a major fourth above his primo passaggio. Most women experience their first registration pivotal point between Eb4 and G4, and their second passaggio between Eb5 and G5, with the alto’s voice switching into the next register a little earlier in the ascending scale than the soprano’s voice would.

    To make the passaggio smooth, a singer needs to allow the larynx to progressively make changes (e.g., the vocal folds should ideally change into different vibratory patterns and either elongate or shorten gradually) while ascending and descending in pitch. These progressive elongations or shortenings are physiologically called static laryngeal functions. It's by learning to control these functions that a singer can sing the passaggio without a register break. In musical terms, this gradual transition is called aggiustamento.

    Breaks are typically marked by noticeable changes of tone quality and volume. For example, when a female singer moves upward from her chest register into her middle register, her tone may abruptly become thin and weak, or her voice may crack or even cut out completely. Flatting or sharping notes are other problems that may occur during the passagio.

    By the way, let's define a bit more the odd/zebra registers I've mentioned above - the ones that are less common, unlike the chest/middle/head ones.

    The fry register (or pulsing register) is only possible for males. It sounds like a frying, sizzling, or rattling sound. It's the lower vocal register that can be produced by a human voice. This is used to obtain pitches at very low frequency. These pitches lay below the chest register. Not all singers can access them - some basses can. In addition to this, it is damaging to the voice and frequent use will cause voice deterioration.

    The whistle register (or flagiolet) occurs between C6 and D7 and is the highest sound a human voice can produce, only accessible to females. It sits above the head voice. It sounds like a whistle, obviously, thus its name. It is bright and edgy and ideally should be very similar to the head voice, to allow for a swift and pleasant transition into it. Most females except true contraltos can learn to produce the flagiolet.
    This article was originally published in forum thread: Opera Terms started by Almaviva View original post
    Comments 60 Comments
    1. Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
      Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) -
      The letter/number notation refers to a complete piano keyboard with 88 keys. The Middle C (this most important key) is the fourth C from left to right, therefore it is called C4. If you only count white keys, Middle C is the 24th white key from left to right. The note C marks the beginning of each octave, so the D above Middle C is labeled D4, while the B below Middle C is part of a different octave - the third octave - therefore it is labeled B3. One octave above C4, you have C5 which starts another octave. These notes simply written with a letter and a number are the white keys on the keyboard. Now, the small b and the # that can be written between the letter and the number refer to the black keys on the keyboard, either # for sharp or b for flat. Actually it is not b but rather a little symbol that looks like a b, called a b rotundum, but instead of inserting a symbol, in the name of convenience we just type a small b. In French, this symbol is called bémol (and the sharp symbol is called a bé carré or square b). A sharp raises the pitch of a note one semitone, while a flat lowers the pitch one semitone. So when I write F#5 I'm referring to the black key that is located immediately to the right of the fifth F key.

      If you sit in front of a keyboard, you can determine your vocal range by hitting the keys and trying to reproduce the sound with your voice.

      Here are the common vocal ranges, counting from Middle C:

    1. Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
      Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) -
      Here you have a passagio break at 4:20, and another one not as bad at 5:06; then there is one very clear at 6:01 (then right after that she does it better); these are all in the primo passagio. Then in the secondo passagio she starts by doing it well then she has a little break (a change in timbre, not too bad) at 8:18.

      Here you have a break at 1:12 and at 1:52:

      She demonstrates it in an exaggerated manner here:

    1. Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
      Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) -
      Voice types
      This one is pretty basic, folks, but we do have some opera novices joining from time to time so I thought I should write it up.

      To classify a voice, we need to take into consideration range, tessitura, vocal weight, and color (timbre). Many opera houses will keep lists of singers classified this way, for casting purposes.

      While for choral singers the range matters most, for solo singers tessitura is often more important than range.

      So, what is range, and what is tessitura?

      Range is the interval of notes a singer is able to produce. It goes from the lower note the singer can utter, to the highest. However, many of these notes are not useful, because the extremes (the lowest and the highest part) may suffer in volume and be inaudible in an opera house without amplification. Besides, when a singer goes too low or too high, there is discomfort and changes in tone. Tessitura is the comfort zone, the interval of notes where the singer is most comfortable and maintains a pleasant tone of voice. So while choral singers can add their voices to each other and be able to go usefully beyond the tessitura, soloists shouldn't be venturing too often beyond their tessitura.

      Sometimes singers are misclassified. Lyric baritones can be thought to be tenors because their voices are light and "tenor-like" in vocal quality. Some females who can sing high notes are said to be sopranos, but actually they may be mezzo-sopranos with an unusually long range.

      Singing too frequently in the wrong tessitura can strain the voice and lead to wear and tear.

      Timbre is the quality or color of the voice.

      Vocal Weight defines whether a voice is light or heavy. It is determined by the thickness of the vocal folds. The thicker the vocal folds are, the less agile and flexible the voice is. Therefore, heavier voices are less agile for florid coloratura, and less flexible for staccato.
      On the other hand, lighter voices are not as well equipped for legato, and have trouble projecting above and beyond the orchestra.

      (By the way, staccato refers to notes that are sung one after the other but are unconnected with the preceding note - it's Italian for detached. Legato refers to notes that are tied together and are sung smoothly and connected).

      So, it's by thinking of these characteristics that voice fachs are determined.

      Lighter voices are often called lyric and have a timbre that is smooth, silky, mellow, sensitive, graceful, soft, with good agility and strong diction.

      Coloratura voices are light but with great agility and can handle floridly ornamented or embellished lines, such as running passages, staccati, and trills (the latter has already been defined above).

      Heavier voices are often called dramatic because they are large, strong, powerful, vigorous, and rich, and can sing over a full orchestra (even those with one hundred or more instruments). They are not as agile, but are capable of giving gravitas to a role.

      Spinto voices are somewhat in between lyric and dramatic voices. They can display brightness and height like a lyric voice, but can also be pushed to dramatic effects without strain. It is often said that spinto voices slice through the orchestra instead of singing over it like a dramatic voice. Sometimes spinto voices are called "baby dramatic."

      Soubrette as a voice type is a concept that is somewhat controversial. It started as a definition of a role - young, flirty, active roles - often a spicy servant that mocks the masters and is a mix of a a somewhat promiscuous airhead and a street-wise person. As singers who were cast to sing/play these roles often had a warm, bright, sweet timbre with lighter weight than other sopranos, and also richer in the middle and upper middle of their voices than in the upper range, this term got to be applied to this exact voice type and today we can classify a voice as soubrette regardless of the role being sung.

      Male voices also have the same general classification, with light-lyric (leggiero in Italian) being applied to the male equivalent of a lyric coloratura, lyric refering to a strong yet light voice with a high tessitura, spinto referring to a voice in between lyric and dramatic, and dramatic referring to a powerful, rich voice with a lower tessitura.

      These classifications can combine - e.g., lyric coloratura soprano.

      In addition to this, we say full when a voice is more mature and more suitable for mature roles, with less of a youthful quality, as opposed to the youthful quality of light voices and soubrette voices.

      Heldentenor - (heroic tenor) refers to a dramatic tenor with baritone qualities, or a baritone with unusually strong top register who can reach the tenor range. These singers are suitable for the German romantic repertoire and for Wagnerian roles such as Siegfried, Tristan, Lohengrin, and Tannhäuser.

      So, the above terms are adjectives applied to the voice types. Then, you'll see these adjectives applied to the range itself, that is, to the interval of notes the singer can produce, as in, for example, full dramatic soprano.

      These ranges are:

      Male voices

      Contrabass - a bass who can sing G1 or lower is called a sub-bass, a contrabass, or a basso profundo.

      Bass - the typical range is F2-E4, with the comfort zone falling between G2 and A3. True basses are rarer that bass-baritones, which are baritones who can also access bass notes.

      Baritone - typically F2-G4 in choral music and G2-E4 in operatic music.

      Tenor - Usually C3-G4, although the extremes can vary.

      Countertenor - males with high vocal ranges or who can project falsetto pitches in a clear sound. They have ranges equivalent to the female ranges alto, mezzo-soprano, and soprano. A male soprano is often called a sopranist.

      Female voices

      Contralto - lowest range for female singers who can sing below E3

      Alto - E3-E5

      Mezzo-soprano - A3-F5

      Soprano - C4-A5 or higher.

      Sopranino - Sopranos who can sing higher than C#6
    1. Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
      Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) -
      Vibrato is the alternation between two pitches (frequencies) that are very close together - it sounds like a pulsation.
      It shouldn't vary by more than one semitone around the note that is being sung, in both directions, that is, half a semitone up and down from the pitch center.
      It adds warmth to the voice and improves intonation centering (that is, it is easier to maintain the pitch when singing vibrato than it is when singing a straight tone).
      Vibrato has certain parameters.
      They are:
      Oscillation or pitch excursion
      Temporal rate (cycles per second) - ideally it is six to eight cycles per second
      Amplitude variance

      Vibrato is useful to rest the voice a bit, since a sustained pitch is more tiresome to produce.
      True vibrato is an alternating pulse in the laryngeal muscles. It's not to be produced by vibrating the jaw.
      This alternating pulse is similar to what happens when you lift a weight and after a certain point of long tension or strain your muscles start to shake. The muscles of the larynx start to pulse in response to subglottic pressure.

      But it's not just the larynx. These vibrations also transmit to the tongue, epiglottis, and pharyngeal wall. They get to be visible in the neck muscles of singers with thin necks and prominent Adam's Apple (but being too visible may be a sign of forceful and incorrect production).

      When the muscles of the larynx develop chronic fatigue and weakness due to overuse of the voice or aging, they stop being able to sustain and contain the vibrato, resulting in wobble or tremolo (more on this later).

      Vibrato shouldn't be overused either, even when well done. Singers who sing with constant vibrato get to be as predictable and uninteresting as those who don't use vibrato at all.

      The problem with using the wagging jaw or tongue to fake a vibrato (instead of allowing the laryngeal muscles to vibrate) is that it becomes strenuous and forceful, with too much tension. This is referred to as "the Gospel jaw." Another trick like moving the stomach in and out with the hands will make the voice waver but it is not a true vibrato. Some singers will pant and train their diaphragm to pulsate, which is called diaphragmatic vibrato, but this type of vocalization produces a tremolo, not a vibrato.

      Tremolo is an effect in which dynamic level (in other words, volume) changes but the pitch remains the same.

      Singers must also be careful to avoid mixing a trill and a vibrato. The trill has wider pitch excursion and is not the natural vibrancy rate of the voice (which is the vibrato, not the trill). A trill will be an alternation between two notes (therefore going from one semitone to the next) or even notes one tone apart, while the vibrato will be a vibration around the pitch center. The maximum pitch excursion of a well-produced vibrato is at least half of that of a trill, or even four times smaller.

      Vibrato errors:

      When a singer is not technically skilled in producing a natural vibrato, errors may occur. The vibrato may not happen, or happen too fast, too slowly, too narrowly, or too widely.

      Here are some of these errors:

      Caprino, or goat-like - it's when instead of vibrating in between a semitone, the voice instead produces a pulsation of only one note, like the bleating of a goat. Its frequency is higher than that of a healthy vibrato.

      An overly wide and slow vibrato is called a vocal wobble. It has a larger variation in pitch and its frequency is lower. It happens due to several defects, such as improper adduction (closure) of the vocal chords due to chronic weakness, or a shaking diaphragm, or too much thickness in the vocal chord mass, or excessive use of the chest voice.

      The tremolo is an overly fast oscillatory rate affecting the volume. It happens when singers try to support the vibrato by using too much pressure.

      So how is the natural, healthy, correct vibrato produced?

      It is a steady tonal oscillation of the pitch center - a slight variation in pitch. It results from an open pharynx, or open throat, in which the external and the intrinsic muscles remain in a relaxed "ooh" posture along with healthy closure (adduction) of the vocal chords and good breath management. It needs to vibrate in an even rate which can only be achieved with good breathing technique. There is need for good posture with alignment of back, neck, and head. Subglottic pressure needs to be moderate and regulated by the support muscles (abdominal, intercostal, pectoral muscles).

      Good vibrato needs relaxation, but not too much relaxation. Relaxing the vocal apparatus is essential to allowing or inciting vibrato.

      Vibrato can also be undesirable in certain situations. When a singer is singing a melisma (string of notes on a single syllable) the singer needs to suppress the vibrato. It is also undesirable in very quick passages (there is no time for each note to accommodate the vibrato). In choral music, different singers will have different frequencies of vibrato so they must all suppress it otherwise the effect will be unpleasant and destroy the quality of a unison passage. Singers will need to sing in straight tone.

      Therefore, singers need to not only learn to produce the vibrato, but also to suppress it because they can't use it when they are singing an ensemble. However singing in straight tone can limit the color of the voice, so, some choral directors want to achieve choral blend through other means such as vocal alignment and acoustical alignment.

      To understand the difference between vibrato and trill, it's good to listen to Marilyn Horne here:

      Horne is not vibrating one single note by one half of a semitone up and down, but is oscillating between two notes and producing both notes - which is a trill, not a vibrato.

      So now we gotta get to examples of bad technique. I'll be on the lookout for those.

      OK, got it, a very excellent demonstration of caprino and wobble. This voice teacher demonstrates the whole gamut, you may skip the first 4:30 that refer to no non-operatic music. What he calls controlled vibrato to me sounds like a slow trill (at 8:00), but other than that I think this is a good educational video (of course all these educational videos exaggerate things a bit, but it gets really easy to understand).

    1. Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
      Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) -
      I was about to write up a list of opera genres with their definitions, main characteristics, and representative composers, when I found out that Wikipedia contributors have done it already and quite well, so I see no need to redo it here. I'll just post a link to that page:


      Don't miss the very useful link on the bottom of the page, "Operas by Genre" - when you click on it you get to an alphabetic list of genres, and when you click on each genre, you get to an alphabetic list of the operas that are representative of that genre. Pretty neat.
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      A brief introduction to the Twelve-tone system.

      Tonality, the musical system used in the West since the 16th century, is only one of the many ways that can be used to write music. If we could get our hands on all the music written by Mankind, most of this music won't be tonal. Gregorian chant, Javanese gamelan, Navajo lullabies, Hindustani ragas... or operas like Lulu, are outside of the tonal system.

      Some people, naively, think that there is a kind of mathematical or physical reality that impose some specific chords, or relations among them. But there isn't. It's just a convention.

      During the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th, composers like Wagner, Debussy, Mahler,... were going more and more outside the limits of tonality. Schönberg was the first to flatly renounce tonality, and compose "atonal music", breaking with the attractions among notes, and harmonic relations. However, Schönberg was not happy because atonalism was more a denial of tonality, that something new.

      Twelve-tone was not created to refine atonalism, but rather to use as the basic stone of the new musical building "atonicism", to take away the tonic, and give all the notes the same importance. Because, how do you give more importance in a musical phrase to some notes, over others?

      1. By repeating the note more
      2. By playing it longer
      3. By placing it in a determined place
      4. By stressing the rhythm in this note...

      Twelve-tone techniques try to avoid these situations, and place all the notes in the same plane.

      Looking at the piano keyboard, we can see there is an unit that repeats itself, formed by 5 black keys, and 7 white keys. This unit is an octave and is divided in 12 notes, that are the basis of the Western harmonic system. Together, they are the chromatic scale:

      C - C sharp - D - D sharp - E - F - F sharp - G - G sharp - A - A sharp - B


      0 - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 - 11

      and the distance between two adjacent notes, is a semitone.

      Within the Twelve-tone system, all the 12 notes must be played (in any octave) before you can start again the cycle. When the order in which the notes are played is decided, we get a Twelve-tone row, that gets indentified by its numerical sequence. In this way, the following Twelve-tone row:

      D - E - F - F sharp - C - C sharp - B - A - D sharp - A sharp - G - G sharp

      is also: 2 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 0 - 1 - 11 - 9 - 3 - 10 - 7 - 8

      and it will be for us a prime series, P(2), the 2 is because starts in D, and could be the basis to write one piece of music.

      We can use three basic techniques to work with series:

      a) Transposition, each note of the prime series moves up or down a fixed number of semitones. If we move down P(2) two semitones, we get 0 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 10 - 11 - 9 - 7 - 1 - 8 - 5 - 6, i.e. a P(0) Twelve-tone series.

      b) Retrograde, each note in the prime series invert the original ordering. In our example it will be :

      R(2) ==> 8 - 7 - 10 - 3 - 9 - 11 - 1 - 0 - 6 - 5 - 4 - 2

      c) Inversion, each notes is replaced by her mirror note in the chromatic scale, taking as center the first note in the prime series. In our example;

      I(2) ==> 2 - 0 - 11 - 10 - 4 - 3 - 5 - 7 - 1 - 6 - 9 - 8

      Of course all three transformations can be combined.

      Also, the composer can choose to present the Twelve-tone row either in the melody, or in the harmony. That means that our P2) can be just played note after note or, maybe, we can start with D, the use a chord with E, F, F sharp and C, continue in the melody with B, another chord using A, D sharp, A sharp and G,...

      All this in the octave of your choosing, with the instruments you want, any rhythm .....

      It's a system less predictable than tonality, and you can use it to write marvels like Alban Berg's violin concert, Dem Andenken eines Engels.

      In the Opera world, there are several very good pieces. Just to name a few:

      Lulu by Alban Berg

      Moses und Aron by Schönberg

      Karl V by Ernst Krenek
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -

      After the Twelve-tone system was in place for a quarter of a century, more or less, a further step was taken, trying to determine an ordering not only for the pitches, but also for the note values, the dynamics, the rythm,.. This was called "serialism" or "total serialism".

      Perhaps the easiest way to understand what that means, is to review a seminal piece by Olivier Messiaen, Mode de valeurs et d'intensités, for piano.

      Messiaen prepared 3 series of 12 elements. Then each element in each series is assigned a note (among 12), an octave (among 3), a value (among 24) , a dynamic (among 7) and a way to play the note (among 12).

      Then the notes of the three series are arranged in descending mode, adding to each element one more note value, as configured in the series. (In the first, that begins with a demisemiquaver, we add in each element another demisemiquaver, for instance). The different ways to play the notes and the dynamic levels can be freely distributed. Of course all this prefigures somehow the content of the piece.

      This is the basics, it was further developed by other composers, notably Pierre Boulez and Karel Goeyvaerts. Later, random elements were added, and serialism fragmented into several different flavours, that dominated classical music until well into the 1970s.

      Now, serialism is mostly defunct, except as the basis of some other compositional systems. In the history of Opera, we can find some interesting pieces that are using partly serialism techniques, such as:

    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      Minimalist music, in a simple yet accurate sense, it's the one made using just a few musical materials: a few notes, pieces that perpetuates themselves, works that takes a (very) long time to evolve, compositions with tempi reduced to just a couple of notes per minute,...

      We can find pieces like those from Erik Satie.

      But in another, and most important to Opera, sense, we call minimalism to the music coming from the US in the 1960s, and composers like Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass or La Monte Young.

      What means minimalism in Opera?. Basically, some pieces written by a group of composers, using minimalist techniques, to a variable extent.

      First, we can hear the first operas by Philip Glass, perhaps the best examples of minimalist opera itself (as definition, not talking about the quality of the piece at hand, here):

      In 1987, John Adams presented his first opera, the very succesful Nixon in China:

      Steve Reich has never composed an opera, but there are a couple of 'video-operas' instead:

      In Europe, we can trace minimalism in operas written by Nyman or Andriessen:

    1. Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
      Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) -
      Chromaticism and dodecaphony

      Basically the relationship between chromaticism and dodecaphony is one of whole and part.
      Dodecaphony can be considered as a type of chromaticism, but there are numerous types of chromaticism that are not dodecaphonic so one can't make the concepts to be equivalent to each other.

      Chromaticism is defined as the use of other pitches of the chromatic scale to add color to the traditional diatonic scales. So instead of just using major and minor scales for composition, one introduces other pitches inside the same piece. So tonal music or diatonicism uses only the major and minor scales while chromatic music uses diferent combinations of keys.

      Then you get several different methods for doing this. One famous example is Wagner's Tristan Chord, that is, he used a non-tonal chord - in this specific case, F, B, Dsharp and Gsharp - that is, a chord that doesn't belong to the scale that is being employed at the time and doesn't fit inside one of the traditional scales. It's called the Tristan Chord because it comes up as Tristan's leitmotif in Tristan und Isolde. So that thing pops up outside of the usual scale, that's why it's chromaticism.

      One type of chromaticism employs all 12 tones without giving to any of them any prevalence. One make sures that each one of the twelve tones occurs about as often as each of the other 11, so you can't say that the music is on a specific key like C Major, or D minor, etc., because nothing predominates. This is what dodecaphony is, also known as twelve-tone technique. If often sounds to the untrained ear as a lack of resolution with some ramdom sounds, but it is also interesting for its aspects of dramatic, fractured, emotionally intense, surprising experience.

      But of course not all examples of chromaticism employ a twelve-tone technique.
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      More basic stuff, just to provide a point of reference for things that are usually taken for granted, but can be difficult for a person starting his interest in Opera, to fully understand.

      On this vein, let's explore then the standard operatic vocalities.

      I will start with lyric baritone. Please feel free to add any other type or complete my entry.

      Baritone comes from Greek, and means "low voice". However, it just there in the middle between tenor and bass. It's a relatively modern concept. Traditional choir music usually identified only four voices: tenor, soprano, bass and alto. The origin of the baritone, and its split from bass, is in the beginning of the 19th century.

      It's a fairly common voice type, most males are baritones. Vocal chords measure usually between 2,2 and 2,4 centimeters. A good, and average, baritone has a range from A1 to A3, but most important to sing many operatic roles is to get a bright and powerful sound in F3 and G3.

      Lyric baritone

      It's the less dark of baritones, light, flexible, able to perform some agilities. This type of baritone can sing some roles from Mozart like Count Almaviva, Guglielmo or even Don Giovanni, that has sometimes been sung by basses like Pinza, Siepi or Ghiaurov, but a lyric baritone is closer to what we know about the vocality of Luigi Bassi, the first Don.

      For Bellini and Donizetti roles, this is the ideal baritone, if he can also provide some weight in his low octave. Those belcanto baritones sing in a fairly central tessitura, with limited high notes, but of course need some coloratura. The two more outstanding roles are Riccardo, from I Puritani, and Enrico, for Lucia di Lammermoor. The first baritones (Tamburini, Ronconi, Barroilhet,...) were just starting their careers, when those roles were being composed.

      Let's listen to Mattia Battistini singing "Ah per sempre io ti perdei" to understand better this type of voice:

      Mattia Battistini - Ah per sempre io ti perdei

      Some verdian roles, like Germont in his aerial canzonetta "Di Provenza", or the beatiful aria "Questo amor, vergogna mia", from Puccini's Edgar can also be sung by a lyric baritone:

      Mario Ancona - Di Provenza

      In Wagnerian roles, we have Wolfram from Tannhäuser:

      Herbert Janssen - O Du mein holder Abendstern

      Thomas Hampson or Simon Keenlyside are examples of the lyric baritone in the 21st century.

      There are two lyric subtypes usually mentioned. The Baryton-Martin (the name comes from Jean-Blaise Martin), with a great range, less rotund low register, light timbre, used for comic roles, but also for some dramatic, like Pelléas, first sung by Jean Périer, and also the Spielbariton or Kavalierbariton, a very light baritone, with coloratura, a kind of 'buffo' baritone. Papageno is a typical role, but Figaro from Barbiere, Dandini from Cenerentola or Malatesta from Don Pasquale can also be well served by this type of baritone, like the young Sesto Bruscantini.
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      Verdi baritone

      Though this is a popular denomination, due to the fact that most Verdi baritone roles fall into this category, it would be better to use something like 'spinto' to assimilate to the tenor voice. We are talking here about a vocality between the lyric baritone of the previous post, and the dramatic baritone, that we will soon address.

      Apart from Verdi (Nabucco, Don Carlo from Ernani, Rigoletto, Luna, Renato, Don Carlo di Vargas, Posa, Amonasro, Iago, Ford,...), other roles like Barnaba, Gerard or Scarpia are also well served by this type of baritone.

      Many historical baritones can be considered here, from the great Verdi baritones of the end of 19th century and beginnings of the 20th: Giuseppe de Luca, Tita Ruffo, Riccardo Stracciari, Pasquale Amato... to American baritones like Lawrence Tibbett, Cornell McNeil,... to the still active Leo Nucci or Renato Bruson.

      An example by Ruffo and Bruson:

      In German opera, we can find Mandryka from Arabella, or Berg's Wozzeck.
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      Dramatic baritone

      A step beyond the italian 'spinto', just bordering with the bass (or bass-baritone), there is this type of baritone, found mainly in German Romantic opera. A voice darker, more heroic, wide, with strong low notes.

      We can find the origin of this voice in roles like Pizarro or Lysiart (from Euryanthe), but of course the main characters are from Wagner: Telramund, Alberich, Hans Sachs and Wotan. Then, some Strauss roles can also be assigned to this fach, like Jokanaan, Orestes or Barak.

      Some of the best dramatic baritone (Heldenbariton) voices are Anton van Rooy, Friedrich Schorr, Ferdinand Frantz, Hans Hotter, George London, Theo Adam ... Today, we can listen to Alan Titus, Albert Dohmen or Donald McIntyre.

      An example:

      Also, some roles in Russian opera come to mind. Above all, Boris Godunov, especially in the Rimski Korsakov version, that lift the role up to G3. A good example is Alexander Pirogov.
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      In Italy, during the first decades of the 19th century, a huge number of new operas were being performed. Many composers and librettist were working on them, and all shared a formal language, a way to build and structure the opera.

      It was the librettist's responsibility to outline the ordering of the different scenes: arias, duets, ensembles,... Just like preparing a canvas for a painter, but in this case leaving the drama prepared to receive the music. Of course, the composer could also interact with the writer, but many of the composers: Mercadante, Pacini, Vaccai, Donizetti himself,... were happy to trust the poet with this preparation, and if the poet was a very good one, like Romani or Cammarano, with more reason.

      Others, like Bellini or the young Verdi, were much more involved since the beginning.

      This will be the standard framework in Italian melodramma for a "scena ed aria", to be sung by a soloist:

      Scena ed Aria

      Section Poetry Type of Music
      Introduction with orchestra, choir Versi sciolti accompagnato, secco
      Recitative Versi sciolti arioso, parlando
      Cantabile Versi lirici lyric melody
      Tempo di mezzo Versi lirici modulation (changing of key), arioso, parlando
      Cabaletta Versi lirici upbeat melody, generally in fast tempo

      'Versi sciolti' is the style for recitative, generally poetry written in 'endecasillabi' (hendecasyllable) or 'settenari' (heptasyllable). They are use freely, without rhyme or just the occasional rhyme. Of course, one line of verse can be divided into several characters.

      However, in other sections, the poetry is usually rhymed, 'Versi lirici', using only one meter, or combining two, mainly 'settenari', 'ottonari' (eight syllables) and 'senari' (six syllables).

      In earlier centuries the recitativo "secco" was accompanied by a harpsichord and a violoncello. However, in melodramma, this type of recitative was no longer used, or just occasionally, and replacing the harpsichord by a violoncello, reinforced by double bass. The "accompagnato" employed the whole orchestra, and was more lyrical, moving from 'parlando' to 'arioso'.

      The "cantabile" itself, it's what sometimes is unproperly called 'aria'. The real aria is however recitative+cantabile+tempo di mezzo+cabaletta. When the "cantabile" is the first appearance of a leading role, it receives the name of "cavatina".

      Let's hear an example of Scena ed Aria, using Pollione's solo number in Norma.

      • Recitative Svanir le voci (in C minor)
      • Cantabile (in this case, as it's the first number of Pollione, also a cavatina) Meco all’altar di Venere in C major.
      • Tempo di mezzo in E-flat major
      • Cabaletta Me protegge, me difende in E-flat major.

      [Video here before was removed from YouTube]

      The schema for a duet will be similar, introducing sometimes a "tempo d'attaco" before the "cantabile". Basically, the orchestra play the melody and the singers are interchanging lines in a kind of arioso, as an introduction to the "cantabile" proper, giving a nice contrast.

      Again we can go to Norma for an example. In the fantastic duet between Pollione and Adalgisa, we have a typical bellinian melody Va crudele / E tu pur, with the "tempo d’attacco" in F minor, before the cantabile in A-flat major, sang with fury and desperation by Pollione, with passion and remorse by Adalgisa:

      [Video here before was removed from YouTube]

      In case of an ensemble the schema is the same, but instead of "cabaletta" the last section receives the name of "stretta".
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      Lyrical Mezzo

      All mezzosopranos should share a (more or less) dark timbre, at the very least darker than sopranos, and some robust low notes. Though there are some mezzos that can reach a C5, the usual top limit is in the B or B-flat 4, with the low limit around G2.

      The lyrical mezzo is the most similar to the soprano. It must be flexible, and with an easy top range. A typical example of lyrical mezzo is Adalgisa (that was in origin a soprano, Giulia Grisi, but tradition has cast the role as mezzo).

      Many trouser roles are also perfect for a lyrical mezzo: Orsini from Lucrezia Borgia, Octavian from Der Rosenkavalier, Orlofsky from Die Fledermaus... Also some Mozart parts, like those of Cherubino or Idamante can be sung by this type of voice.

      Some historical singers comes to mind: Teresa Berganza, Tatiata Troyanos, Yvonne Minton,... Today, we can mention Liliana Nikiteanu or Carmen Oprisanu.

    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      Dramatic Mezzo

      Some of those voices are today singing the roles of alto-coloratura (drammatica d'agilità) that Rossini created: Malcolm, Isabella, Angelina, Arsace, Tancredi, Neocle... even the original Rosina. However, there are no longer voices like that of Adelaida Malanotte or Rosmunda Pisaroni. Those roles are usually sung by mezzos like Marilyn Horne some years ago, or Daniela Barcellona today. Also, given that castrati are even in less availability that Malanottes or Pisaronis, singers like Vivica Genaux take charge of some roles from Handel, Vivaldi and other Baroque composers, .

      Other roles need darker voices, of greater weigth in the lower octave, but able also to rise safely to the top notes: Dido from Berlioz's Les Troyens, Azucena, Ulrica, Eboli, Amneris, Laura, Dalila,... Historically we can find singers like Irene Minghini-Cattaneo or Gianna Pederzini. Then, in more recent years, Fedora Barbieri, Giulietta Simionato,... Today, one of the best representatives of this fach is Dolora Zajick:

      In German repertoire, there are also several important roles: Waltraute, Fricka... even they can be cast as Ortrude, Venus or Kundry, dramatic roles that can be sung either by sopranos or mezzos. Arguably the greatest active singer, Waltraud Meier, is a good example:

    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -

      This is a male voice produced by a widening of the head register. It's a falsetto voice, emitted through the high pitched resonances in the head, after an extensive training.

      From the point of view of timbre, it's a voice between soprano and contralto. A clear, piercing, pure voice.

      From a historical point of view, the origin of this fach lies in the Middle Ages, in choral music. However, the appearance of the castrato was a blow for the countertenor. Composers like Handel were writing parts for this fach (for instance, in the Messiah), and then rewriting for castrato.

      The resurgence of the fach took place just after the Second World War, with artists like Alfred Deller, and new roles like Oberon in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

      Sometimes, there is a tendency to confuse the countertenor with the French 'haute-contre' that in reality is a singer more in the likeness of Juan Diego Flórez, or the English light tenor roles, that are more for someone like John Mark Ainsley.

      We can recognize three types of countertenor:

      1) Soprano

      This is the lightest countertenor voice. It can easily reach beyond C5, and perform some coloratura. Michael Maniaci, Aris Christofellis or Dominique Visse are singers belonging to this fach:

      2) Mezzo-soprano

      This is the more usual vocality, and it was the voice of Alfred Deller. It was also, probably, the color of the castrato voice. There are many singers we can enjoy in this fach, like James Bowman, Andreas Scholl, Brian Asawa, David Daniels or Iestyn Davies:

      3) Alto

      The timbre is similar to the woman alto. It can also use some resonance outside the head voice. Some examples are René Jacobs or Carlos Mena:

    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -

      This was the old 'altus' of ancient poliphony, that was many times incorporated by countertenors, castrati or even children.

      As a woman's voice, it's very rare. Her dark color, her velvety tone, her cello sound, her consistency are trademarks ot this fach.

      What operatic roles are suitable for altos?. Not very many. The Sorceress from Dido and Aeneas, Zia Principessa, Clitemnestra, even Ulrica... Some Wagnerian roles like Erda o Waltraute... They are mostly sung by dramatic mezzos, anyway.

      Great historical altos:

      Kathleen Ferrier - Where 'er You Walk - Semele

      Marian Anderson - Re dell' abisso - Un Ballo in Maschera

      Ernestine Schumann-Heink - Höre mit sin - Götterdämmerung

      Ewa Podles - Ogni indugio d'un amante - Rinaldo
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -

      This is the lowest voice, used since antiquity to offer a harmonic support for the melodic lines sung by lighter voices.

      The chest resonances are paramount. Passage is usually around D-flat 3, with an average tessitura of F1-G3.

      In the Baroque period, there low notes were writtenmore often, descending to E1, D1 or even lower. However, the composers of the Romantic era rarely go beyond F1, that is about a kind of limit. Even in Verdi's times, everyone in the audience was expecting the F1 of Sparafucile at the end of the duo with Rigoletto, to judge the note and the singer. But the tendency to give the bass higher notes, a lighter line of singing, was unstoppable. Wagner, for instance, never requires anything lower than a G1.


      The old "serioso" of Italian music. It needs a stupendous consistence in the middle and low ranges. Also, to offer the dramatic function usually required from them, they need the proper timbre and color for that.

      Some standard repertoire roles are Sarastro, Prince Gremin, Cardenal Brogni, Marcel (from Huguenots), the Grand Inquisitor, Rocco, Pimen... In Wagner operas, Hunding, Hagen, Fafner,.... granitic voices. A little more lighter roles like Gurnemanz or Heinrich also need this kind of bass voice. Even Sir Morosus, the Strauss character from Die schweigsame Frau.

      A few examples of outstanding bass profondo voices:

      Ivar Andresen - Brogni's cavatina

      Alexander Kipnis - O Isis und Osiris

      Emanuel List - Lohengrin

      Gottlob Frick - Hagen

      Today, we have still a giant like Salminen, or good singers like Hans-Peter König.
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      Buffo Bass

      There are parts written in a bass tessiture that are comic in nature. For instance, Osmin (that can be also served by a profondo with acting abilities), Leporello, Don Bartolo, Don Magnifico, Don Pasquale, Dulcamara...

      In German opera, this voice is commonly named Spielbass.

      There is usually a fine line here to walk between the acting and the singing. Comic effects are welcome, but can't be the only basis of the performance.

      Historically we can find singers like Salvatore Baccaloni, Enzo Dara or Fernando Corena (this last one, bordering with the excess of caricature mentioned above). Today, one of the best singers of the fach is Carlos Chausson.

    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      Lyrical Bass

      This is the traditional basso cantante.

      Many roles are written for this fach. Roundness, balance, strong low notes, but ability to sing also with the same colour in the center of the tessitura...

      Verdi was one of the composers that made use frequently of this kind of voice: Zaccaria, Silva, Fiesco, Procida, Attila, Filippo,... In Italian opera we can find also the Mefistofele from Boito, Raimondo, Baldasarre, Colline,... Roles like Ivan Susanin, Dosifei, Varlaam, Don Alfonso, Gounod's Mefistofeles, Daland, Marke, ... are more examples.

      Of course, the first name of a singer coming to mind is Fiodor Chaliapin. In the Russian school there are also very good basses, like Mark Reizen. From Bulgaria, Boris Christoff or Nicolai Ghiaurov.

      Perhaps the most accomplished singers of the fach came from Italy: Nazareno de Angelis, Ezio Pinza, Cesare Siepi, Tancredi Pasero... Historical French basses like Pol Plançon or Marcel Journet, Jerome Hines,...

      Still singing are artists like Samuel Ramey or Ruggero Raimondi but the best bass of our times is the German René Pape.

      Feodor Chaliapin - Ivan Susanin

      Boris Christoff - Attila

      Tancredi Pasero - Don Carlo

      Samuel Ramey - Mefistofele

      René Pape - Tristan und Isolde

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