Kashu-do (歌手道): Vocal Categorization: What Is the Most Defining Criterion?

There are many disagreements when it come to vocal categorization A.K.A. “Faching”, to use the American bastardization of the German term.

Many believe that timbre (vocal color) determines categorization! Upon hearing this Pollione’s first line or even second or third, would you call him a tenor?

Especially compared to his very bright comprimario colleague, Lorenzo Decaro sound very much like a baritone and probably will produce a considerably more potent sound than the average lyric baritone in the same range.  So why is he a tenor? Later!

How about the mighty Turkish Efe Kislali!

From the first notes and the bass-like physique and beard, one would think a bass.

Both of these tenors defy categorization by timbre in the lower range and by physique.  Even in the top range the color remains very baritonal.  Why not baritone?

The royal richness of the voice of the incomparable Jessye Norman defies categorization.  She has sung mezzo roles like Carmen and Dalilah, but has been equally convincing in such soprano roles as Mozart’s Contessa (on recording), Strauss’ Ariadne, Wagner’s Sieglinde and Isolde among others.

Violeta Urmana sang the most beautiful Tosca I had heard in years at the Deutsche Oper Berlin a little more than a year ago.

A few months later she opened the renovated Bolshoi Theater with a famous mezzo aria from Joan of Arc

Both Norman and Urmana settled on the categorization “dramatic soprano”.  Indeed, being referred to as a dramatic voice does have a strong impact on our discussion here.  Dramatic voices in general are equivocal.  They naturally have deeper qualities that are associated “superficially” with lower voice categories.

There are many reasons why categorization is problematic.  A few of them follow:

1) Range:  A young woman has a relatively bright voice but has not yet developed the top range.  She is called “mezzo”!

A young man exhibits a beautiful quality up to Eb4 and struggles with F and G.  He is called a baritone although the timbre of his voice clearly suggests tenor.  Since he was experiencing problems with his Fs and Gs, no one bothered to find out that he in fact had an exceptionally powerful and well coordinated voice beyond G up and beyond D5.  It is his “tenor” passaggio that had not yet been developed.  He discovered his tenor potential himself.

2) Technique:  A singer is trained as a dramatic tenor for many years struggling with his top.  He could sing the 9-high C aria from the Daughter of the Regiment, so no one ever assume he could be anything but a tenor.  He also had a physique that reminded of a celebrated Heldentenor of his time.  No one in his circle thought to examine whether his strong high C was modal voice or reinforced falsetto.  Turned out to be the latter.  Now he is successfully making his way as a Bass-baritone particularly impressive in the Buffo roles.  A more powerfully resonant voice is rarely to be heard.

3) Physique:  Many singers who are slight of physique do not develop a sense of the extreme physical demands of operatic singing.  The production of the operatic voice depends upon the development of many muscles, including the entire core structure for breathing and the generation of the breath pressure/coordination necessary to vibrate the  vocal folds.  Singers who have bigger frames (and therefore bigger muscular structures) have an advantage (all things being equal).  If the muscles of the throat are well-developed, the singer with the bigger physical frame will have an advantage in generating breath support for the voice.  I do not talk about small-framed singers who are obese.  Obesity is not an advantage in the athletic art of operatic singing.  But neither is a frail frame without strength (unfortunately, not much thought is given to this in today’s operatic meat market)!

Consequently, many singers (yours truly included) with smaller physical frames and more dramatic instruments begin their careers without the necessary physical strength to support the dramatic instrument in its natural range.  High notes are more difficult to produce because they require much stronger and much more precise breath support/coordination.  Indeed, singers like me begin their careers in the category that their physical strength can handle.  In my case, lyric baritone!  So why was that not enough?

We can now skip to the determining factor.  I was successful as a lyric baritone when my colleagues on stage had relatively more lyrical voices.  In conservatories and university settings, more lyric voices have an advantage.  Because dramatic voices take longer to develop, it is almost impossible, during the short time that students spend at a university, that a viable and balanced cast of dramatic voices would be available.  Even with a natural dramatic tenor voice, one music director at the University of Michigan found my voice too powerful for the baritone role of Malatesta (compared to the available cast of voices at the time) and convinced me to sing the bass role of Don Pasquale.  An argument could be made for the darker hue of my voice and for the fact that I had proven an excellent comic actor in some smaller parts in previous years.  However, by any professional standard, I should have sung Malatesta for that production especially given the fact that I interpolated a high Ab at the audition.

Therefore, the ultimate determinant is dramatic intensity in the context of the available ensemble and environment.  This not only drives academic norms in the world today but also the opera marketing machine for the most part.

How do you market Juan Diego Florez?  A handsome latin tenor of small frame who makes Rossini exciting to listen to.  He sings the difficult 9 high-Cs aria that Pavarotti made famous in Daughter of the Regiment and he does it easily.  We will not tell you that Mr. Florez has a very light voice and it will not have the sound pressure impact in the hall that Pavarotti’s more traditional full lyric voice had.  We will surround him with voices that work well with his.  Lighter voices!  So the singers around Mr. Florez have to be singers who do not overwhelm him either physically or vocally.  So smaller and smaller-voiced singers will do well in his company. A natural baritone could easily sing bass roles in such company.  And some do!  It is logical!  If money is to be made from Mr. Florez’s considerable charm and vocal flexibility, he must be surrounded with colleagues who will help feature his specific talent.

On the other side of the spectrum are the Wagnerian singers.  The Met Walküre last year featured Stephanie Blythe and Hans Peter König. Two bona fide Wagnerian voices that leave nothing to be desired.  They filled the hall with grand sounds.  It is a little bit more difficult to find singers who match them in voice. Wagnerian baritones and tenors are still the most sought after voices at the current time. That two very high profile singers Bryn Terfel and Jonas Kaufmann filled the cast speak more to– 1) their marquee value (name recognition sells) in a very expensive production and 2) to their multi-faceted talents (i.e. extra-ordinary musicianship and stage-presence– than it does to their ability to balance the likes of old school Wagnerian voices such as those of Blythe and König.  From my vantage point, they were both overwhelmed in scenes with Blythe and König.

However, it must be remembered that the operatic machine is at least two-sided today.  There is live opera and there is “opera at the movies!”  This impacts voice categorization in a direct manner, relating to tangible financial considerations.  If I was not satisfied with Terfel and Kaufmann’s vocal power in the house, particularly in the presence of their mighty colleagues, Blythe and König respectively, I was blown away by them at the HD simulcast on the giant screen of my local movie theater.  Here is a situation whereby one can use microphones for opera while maintaining operatic purity in the house.  The experiences in the opera house and at the movies are extremely different from each other.  I must add that Blythe and König were just as impressive at the movies as they were in the house.  The only disadvantage (if it should be seen as one) is that their vocal superiority was less evident in the HD experience since the microphone levels are controlled to guarantee balance between the voices.

Vocal categorization in today’s market goes beyond vocal considerations.  The major consideration for managers and casting directors are whether the singer fits in a predetermined niche.  Thomas Hampson is often asked whether he would consider dramatic tenor roles.  Such queries date as far back as this 1998 interview.  He replied categorically that he is a baritone and has no plans to sing tenor roles.  Hampson, one of the most successful classical singers in the world, filled a niche at a crucial time.  Hampson became prominent at the twilight of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s career.  His Mahler cycles with Bernstein remain a testament of his finest singing.

Everyone saw in him a superlative interpreter of songs with a beautiful voice and physique reminiscent of Dieskau.  That he also has the ability to render one of the best readings of Siegmund “Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond…” from Wagner’s Walküre to be found on recording has indeed caused many to wonder whether he would have done better in this repertoire, rather than the dramatic baritone roles that seem currently ill-suited to his natural instrument.  His response in the 1998 article explains everything:

“Do you know what the real definition of a lazy tenor is? …A very rich baritone!”

This response symbolizes the times we are living in.  Opera is not what it used to be.  It is ever changing.  Even something as fundamental as vocal categorization in an operatic context is no longer a subject of any certainty.  Perhaps it never was.  If I am saddened about anything relative to vocal categorization is that those decisions are not made relative to the artist’s ability to sound exciting on stage with an orchestra without a microphone.  Those are my personal criteria for a viable operatic voice.  Voice type should be gauged by the sweet spot of the voice.  Where, in a fully developed voice does the singer exhibit the most dramatic intensity and does it concur with the composer’s music?  In other words, as a soprano, if you sing “Vissi d’arte” does the climactic Bb sound climactic or does it sound like a step higher might sound more satisfying?  If the latter, than you are more than likely a lyric and not a spinto. Yet in today’s market, if you are attractive on screen, you may get to sing Tosca on an HD broadcast performance.

Perhaps I am old fashion, but in my experience, a singer singing roles that are truly compatible with his/her best, fully developed vocal material is many times more exciting than someone pretending, while singing in a tessitura that is easier but lacking in character and presence. Using a term borrowed from one of my students, my real definition of a lazy tenor is basso pretendo!

© 01/09/2013

7 thoughts on “Kashu-do (歌手道): Vocal Categorization: What Is the Most Defining Criterion?

Add yours

  1. Great post. I must say that I don't buy that Urmana should be singing mezzo rep from that performance. For me, it's just not as satisfying to listen to as the Tosca and sounds generally unbalanced.


  2. Thank you for articulating something I've felt and been trying to put into words for a long time. Categories and labels are always, to a certain extent, artificial and inadequate when trying to describe the individual qualities of a voice. Context has a lot to do with what appropriate repertoire and casting is, and that context is affected by all kinds of things including size of house, ensemble, technical development and even the specific audience. Though I share with you those old-school operatic values that much prefer a full voiced singer singing music perfect for them, always in that “sweet spot”, to anything else, understanding this context thing helps me to feel better about certain casting choices I see out there. Sometimes context can make the only appropriately cast singer in a group seem like the one that's out of place (as perhaps in the case of the you in that Pasquale production you mentioned, to use one of your examples). Also, matching singers to music is extremely difficult, which is why this categorization thing gets so messy. Vocal requirements can vary over the course of a role (I've even had the experience of a single fitting perfectly except for a single, albeit difficult and climactic phrase, and it seeming in appropriate because of that). I think that rather than lamenting this trend, it would be most productive to embrace, increase our sensitivity to these contextual considerations and make the best of them! I see the fact that Florez has figured out how to frame his own talent to show it at it's best as a positive thing for the opera world, not a negative. If every singer had the self-knowledge to present themselves and their own strengths in the best light, so that they may always appear in appropriate contexts that displays what they do well rather than what is un-ideal in their “package” imagine the kind self-confidence singers would have in presenting themselves and the ease with which casting disappointments could be taken (it could always be understood as being a mismatching of context, and not a rejection of talent). I think the result would be a much healthier social environment among practitioners of our beautiful art form, and that a lot more great work would come out of it!


  3. Oakins, I agree that Urmana is a soprano by nature, but she began her career as a mezzo. In the current market, there are many who love her as a mezzo. If you have ever heard her live, it is one of the most substantial voices on the planet when she sings her best rep. Recordings, even live ones, do not tell us everything! I prefer her as a soprano, but she makes a pretty good case for a mezzo.


  4. Alan, you have such a good head on your shoulders. So aware for such a young singer. You have a great future. All the best with your upcoming recital!


  5. Dear Kashu-Do,

    You state that Jessye Norman «has sung mezzo roles like Carmen and Dalilah, but has been equally convincing in such soprano roles as Mozart's Contessa (on recording), Strauss' Ariadne, Wagner's Sieglinde and Isolde among others.»

    That is not quite correct: Ariadne and Sieglinde were part of her stage repertoire (and famously so). Both the Contessa and the Carmen were both only for recording. Of the Dalila she sang «Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix» in performance but never the entire role (she had to cancel a 1994 Boston Symphony concert performance of act II), and likewise of Isolde she sang the Liebestod in performance but never the entire role.

    In all cases is that JN had, at her best, a great magic about her and a love for her art in whatever repertoire she sang.


  6. Thank you for the precisions, “Fil di voce”! As you corrected that she did in fact sing Isolde in concert (not just the Liebestod), we are saying more or less the same thing. The Carmen she did sing in concert (entire role) at Tanglewood one summer in the 90s.

    Feel free to bring out corrections of this kind when you find them. It only helps the blog to become a better resource.

    All the best,



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Website Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: