Cherubin et Figaro dans "Le Mariage de Figaro" de Mozart
Cherubin et Figaro dans "Le Mariage de Figaro" de Mozart © Getty

Baritone, tenor, soprano, mezzo... Can singers choose their voice?

A singer’s voice depends on their morphology and their personality. So, no, singers cannot choose their voice. The idea is to tame it and develop it.

Are all tenors small and podgy? Obviously not. Take Jonas Kaufmann for example. He is not plumper than he is a baritone. If a singer’s voice is first shaped by their morphology, it doesn’t necessarily means that it can be guessed solely based on physical appearances. 

It is difficult indeed to estimate just by looking with a naked eye the size and thickness of vocal cords, the lungs’ capacity, the nasopharyngeal cavity’s volume (or with simpler words the area that goes from the nose to the top of the digestive track)…

The human body reacts as a prism does with light. Except that for the voice, it is air that is projected. And, in the same way you have to know how to use a prism to decompose light, you have to acquire a minimum of vocal technique to know your voice and identify its capacity.

Luciano Pavarotti ou la caricature du ténor petit et enrobé
Luciano Pavarotti ou la caricature du ténor petit et enrobé © Getty

The notion of tessitura you shall understand

Singers are sorted in accordance with their tessitura, meaning according to the notes they sing the most easily. It allows the composers to write according to each type of voice’s capacities. As an example, when Bizet decided that his great heroine Carmen would charm Don José with deep and sensual sounds, he also knew that she would not be able to dazzle the audience with the shiny high-pitched sounds of her young rival Micaëla. 

The voice’s typology is as essential for the singer. For a soloist, their tessitura determines their repertoire, meaning the pieces and roles they are able to endorse.

As for the choristers, they have to choose carefully their section according to their voice, at the risk of pushing too hard and getting tired. We hear particularly well the different voices in the final choir of the Cantata BW 21 of Bach (see below). After a first part in unison, the theme is introduced by each pitch of voice, deep and high, first by men then by women.

Ranges of voices you shall know 

In this cantata, we hear basses and tenors on the men’s side, altos and sopranos on the women’s side. Are their only four categories? As you can imagine, it is not enough, not now anyway, to describe the huge range of singing voices. Today, we count at least six main tessituras.

The three types of male voices can be heard in The Magic Flute, famous opera by Mozart. The role of the powerful Sarastro matches a bass voice, the deepest male tessitura. Above, there is the vocal line of Papageno, which suits a baritone. As for Tamino, it is a tenor – as it is often the case for the bashful lovers of the opera. 

The female tessituras are also divided in three categories with, from the deepest to the most high-pitched voice, the contralto (as beautiful as it is rare, listen below to Delphine Galou), the mezzo-soprano (middle) and the soprano (the most standard female tessitura but also the most varied).

So, six types? Well, no, it still doesn’t show their diversity. Other terms are used to be more precise with each tessitura’s description. The term light points out the singers with a “pure” timbre, with shiny and easy high notes. Natalie Dessay was at the beginning of her career a light soprano. 

A lyrical voice is more powerful and rounder, like the one of Anna Netrebko’s. As for the dramatic characterisation, it applies for dark and particularly wide voices, like the one of Maria Callas’ for example.

Therefore, we can find light lyrical tenors, mezzo-contraltos… but also coloraturas: those female voices can perform impressive singing exercises. The famous tune Una voce poco fa sang by Rosine in The Barber of Seville was written for a mezzo coloratura. 

Your voice you shall look for

We’ve established that tessitura is a synonym to a form of ease. And, because ease comes with practice, a voice’s potential is rarely identified at the first singing lesson. Elsa Mauras, teacher at the Conservatoire Régional de Paris, at the Conservatoire Nadia et Lili Boulanger, and at Sciences Po Paris said “I need about six months to determine a tessitura

During that period of time, the students become aware of the main vocal and breathing mechanisms. It gives them the opportunity to properly evaluate the notes they sing the most easily and which part of their voice is the richest harmony wise. 

For it is harmonic wealth that will allow them to be heard above the orchestra, and never the effort of singing loudly. Elsa Maurus also said “When we try to copy opera singers, we often take a heavy voice, a bit stressed”. On the contrary, in reality singers have to make sure their voice keeps all of their freedom and the same flexibility to be heard properly by the audience, whereas it is a forte or pianissimo section of their partition.

The color and timbre you shall listen

Does any hint exist for the beginner singers to discover their tessitura? Of course, there is one: it is the color of the voice, the timbre. A darkish voice for example will probably fall in the deep tessitura category. On the other hand, a timbre more pure, shinier, might lead us to think the voice is more the one of a soprano or a tenor’s.

There are obviously exceptions to the rule… But most of the singers develop a vocal color matching their tessitura or their repertoire. Soprano Agnès Mellon’s clear timbre is therefore and without a doubt the one of a soprano’s. As for her voice’s purity (of which we rarely or never can hear the vibrations), it suits a baroque aesthetics, her predilection repertoire.

It remains the identification of the tessitura is not the sole aim. Elsa Maurus thus insists on that point: “singers have to explore their voice in all of its length (ed: all its stretch, from the deep sounds to the high-pitched ones)” and have to do so during their entire career because a voice changes: mezzos can become sopranos, tenors turn into baritones.

This exception you shall distrust

Andreas Scholl, Philippe Jaroussky, Gérard Lesne… countertenors voices are definitely high-pitched. But be aware of confusion: it doesn’t mean they are castratos. Between the 16th and the beginning of the 19th century, those poor men were forced to endure an unfortunate and irreversible surgery to keep their child voice.

Countertenors on their side have worked and developed their head voice (the one we use to produce a high-pitched sound and seems to resonate at the top of the skull). But they also have another tessitura, tenor or baritone, which goes with their chest voice (the one we use, for example, to speak).

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