Kashu-do (歌手道): The Paradox of the Zwischen-Fach: Dedication to a very gifted Singer

Fiorenza Cossotto was the Verdian mezzo of my generation of operatic fans. She was the Amneris par excellence of her time and equally known for the role of Lady Macbeth. She sang all of the great Verdian mezzo roles exhibiting equal ease in Ulrica’s contralto depths as in Eboli’s stratospheric heights. But is Lady Macbeth a mezzo role?

How would you Fach the following roles: Purcell’s Dido, Lady Macbeth, Santuzza, Komponist, Leonore (Fidelio), Cherubino, Dorabella, Siebel, Stephano, Fenena, Adalgisa, Venus, Kundry, Ortrud?

Christa Ludwig, a modern legend in the German repertoire sang probably all of the above roles. They are all listed as soprano roles in the scores. These parts are made for a specific voice that is called mezzo-soprano only because the singer in question has a voice that lies just below the comfort zone for the traditional spinto parts. Such voices, including that of Grace Bumbry, Fiorenza Cossotto, Shirley Verrett, Giulietta Simionato, Margarete Klose, Tatyana Troyanos, to name a few, were not soprano voices in the spinto sense. Bumbry and Verrett who made forays as Tosca among other traditional spinto parts did not fare too well in those roles. 

I wrote this post specifically after having a difficult talk with a very talented student of mine. I have agreed with her from the beginning that her voice is that of a mezzo-soprano because I hear her as that type of voice that would not do well as Tosca or even the Forza Leonora. Yet when she brought in Santuzza the other day, a sparkle came into the voice that I had not experienced before. There was a kind of brilliance I had hoped to hear from her that did not come out so consistently until she sang that role. Her voice blooms higher than a classic mezzo and slightly lower than the average spinto.  As Komponist, she is extraordinary as well. The problem in this case is that the chest voice is not yet developed enough to bring out the power necessary in the lower mezzo, quasi contralto parts.  Roles like Carmen or the Favorita Leonora or Gluck’s orfeo require such strength in the lower range that this singer does not yet possess. Even Charlotte in Werther requires a presence in the lower passaggio that is not native to this voice.  The power that this singer possesses in the top register is extraordinary, but she identifies so much with the label mezzo-soprano that any other title is unacceptable.

The problem is the following: How does such a singer audition? The voice is powerful and clear enough to handle the Santuzza aria with no problem. Would she have to work to gain the stamina necessary for an Ortrud or even Kundry? Certainly. Does it make more sense than attempting to develop the low? I think the low should be further developed, but the middle and upper are so much more ready. My instincts tell me that this singer should sing these zwischen-Fach roles, but would her strong identification with the mezzo label make it psychologically difficult to assume this tessitura, which she proves to handle strongly by way of Komponist and Santuzza?  When dealing with an advanced singer, we cannot dictate as teachers. I have to trust the singer to follow her own path, but at the same time I have to help the singer see her own reality from a different angle. 

Janet Baker as Dido (Purcell)

Giulietta Simionato as Santuzza

Margarete Klose as Ortrud

Troyanos as Komponist

Troyanos as Kundry

The main difference between my student and these fully-developed legends is that the legends had developed their chest voice considerably where as my student began with a very top-heavy approach. Although she has balanced the top and the middle beautifully, the low lags behind a bit, which inspires thoughts by agents and intendants that she might be a soprano.  I do not believe she is a soprano in terms of the standard soprano repertoire (i.e. lyric or spinto or even the hoch-dramatisch type that sings Turandot and so on).  The time it would take to develop the stamina to sing a Turandot or a Brünnhilde might be too much. But the time it would take to develop considerable strength in the low that would make Carmen or Dalilah viable is also long.
She is also afraid of singing repertoire that is too big, and her excellent coach cautioned her against roles like the Favorita Leonora. This is correct in that she lacks the strength in the low to make that part work well. But as Komponist or Santuzza she sounds very big because those parts lie in the “sweet spot” of her voice.

I write this post, such that my very talented student might read this in black and white rather than in the emotion-filled environment of the studio right after a lesson.  As I believe she is ridiculously talented I hope she will consider this approach with her usually logical mind. Personally, I believe it will make a difference in the coming audition season.

I am not a fan of labels, but sometimes it helps a singer to feel more secure.  I have heard singers throw the label zwischen-Fach around for specifically this voice type. It always seemed strange to me as the words mean simply “between categories”. Indeed many of these labels like Bass-baritone or mezzo-soprano developed because certain voices lie between the standard categories. So my dear, I am not calling you a soprano, although all the roles above are listed as Soprano and are traditionally sung by mezzos.  As I said before, it does not matter to me what you call yourself, as your lengendary predecessors, like you, favored the calling-card “mezzo-soprano”. I do think however, we need to come up with parts that make your voice sparkle like Komponist and Santuzza. The paradox is this: the label Zwischen-Fach at once defies categories but also gives a category to those who need one.  I hope we will come together on this rather important development.

© 06/07/2010

11 thoughts on “Kashu-do (歌手道): The Paradox of the Zwischen-Fach: Dedication to a very gifted Singer

Add yours

  1. Obviously, without hearing her sing and working with her, my opinion is worth very little.
    But I would caution against thinking of her weaker bottom notes as a weakness of chest voice. In my experience it is due to a weakness of the amount of head voice necessary to balance the desired amount of chest. I bet if she sang in a more pure chest the volume would be there and then some, but the tone wouldn't be viable. The key is to do it in a head-dominated production which nevertheless has a strong “thick” component. The analogy that I find appropriate in my teaching and singing is that you can increase the amount of power in your bowling by increasing the weight of the ball, but only as far as your strength will allow you to maintain accuracy. The weakness is not the weight of the ball, it's the strength of your body to handle that weight. You mention you've worked on balancing the middle and top; my instincts say that that's where the work needs to continue to happen to make the bottom grow.
    But I offer this perspective in all humility and, as I said above, without hearing her sing. It's really just a reminder.
    And three cheers for Zwischenfaecher! Now if only we could bring Mozart and Puccini back and ask them to write some more roles for some of us…


  2. And a very important reminder it is Klaus. I did consider this in her training. The coordination is there, but it is a relatively less used part of the voice. It cannot yet handle the breath pressure that would make for a really strong tone there. I haver coloraturas who make more sound there. I don't believe in a full chest production because it does not have the closure component that would connect smoothly with the middle voice. Down there the vocalis dominates for sure, but the crico-thyroid must also participate such that proper closure can be induced (IAs) to accomplish the timing of each vibration cycle relative to the pitch in question. What feels like head voice dominance is complete closure, which by extension would change the pitch balance in favor of the CT. Just a different way of explaining your point.

    I Always appreciate your input!


  3. This actually brings up a key point that I've been meaning to blog about for a while.
    I think many people (I'm not suggesting you are one of them) conflate two different ideas which both are related to our experience of head vs. chest.
    One is the vibratory pattern of the folds, which voice science tells us is different for chest and head. (There are also distinct patterns for fry and whistle.) These vibratory patterns cannot be blended–they simply switch from one to the other, though the switch can be acoustically masked.
    The second is the action of the vocalis vs. the CT muscle groups. These can achieve many different balances or mixes within the different vibration patterns.
    Traditional male singing is in the “chest” mode, while women and countertenors sing in the “head” mode.
    Thus “chesty” in the sense I see you mean it above refers to muscle activity, not vibration pattern. The big question of course is does training a muscle in the “wrong” vibration mode help its strength in the right one? Ie: women singing in belty chest to “strengthen the chest” and men singing in falsetto to “strengthen the head.” I don't pretend to know the answer, though I have some guesses. Are you doing exercises with her in this vein or are you sticking to a “correct” (aesthetically viable) mode of production?
    In any case, the right balance of vocalis and CT has to be found for different volumes, vowels, pitches, etc. which is clearly your goal with her as well as with every singer you blog about.
    Thanks for an interesting discussion!


  4. One question – I am not sure what you mean when you talk about the time it would take to develop the stamina for a Turandot, and also that it will take too long to develop the strength for Carmen. Is time at issue here because you are talking about the coming audition season? Otherwise I am not sure what you are suggesting.

    Obviously we all want to find that sweet spot where the voice really shines, and most singers don't fit perfectly into any one fach. But I find that the emotional makeup of a person also influences the fach they shine in the most. With a great voice it is not always cut and dried, as you are illustrating here. But maybe it surpasses a muscular adjustment at some point and becomes an emotional choice.


  5. That is precisely the point Hari. In some cases it is an emotional choice and that has to be respected.

    The time I refer to is relative. I believe it will take longer before the lower end of the voice can be developed. So practically I would counsel for the zwischen-Fach strategy. In this case however, the singer is committed to develop as a mezzo.

    Klaus, I am preparing a post to address your very excellent point.


  6. Hello Audrey, Sorry for the late reply. I have been very busy with our Summer Academy. My student finally gave in to the “soprano” idea when three agents in a row recommended she looks at Sieglinde. She was surprised to find that most of Sieglinde lied lower than Komponist and even Santuzza. She has since done the role professionally and feels very comfortable with the label dramatic soprano. Yet, more than the label, finding roles that truly make the voice shine is key and sometimes the appropriate roles fall in different categories, especially for more dramatic voices.


  7. what an interesting post! I see quite some time has passed since, but I was wandering, what would You recommend writing on your cv regarding fach to someone potentionally in the middle? I have never seen a case where someone has written “zwischen-fach”…thanks!


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