Kashu-do (歌手道): Revisiting the Fach System: Sopranos Part 3–Queen of the Night and Discussion

The Queen of the Night from Mozart’s Magic Flute is superficially recognized as the archetypical coloratura role and yet it is not.  It has been sung by many singers who might not be considered high-tessitura sopranos.

Cheryl Studer

Cheryl Studer later made her career singing Spinto/Dramatic roles like Elsa, Eva, Aida, etc…

Diana Damrau

Diana Damrau made her career rise singing the Queen and then exchanged it for Pamina during a Metropolitan Opera run.  She continues to thrill audiences in the coloratura repertoire.

Lucia Popp

Arguably one of the finest dramatic coloraturas in recorded history, Lucia Popp concentrated on the lyric repertoire and operetta, oratorio and Lieder.

Cristina Deutekom

Cristina Deutekom followed the path of the dramatic coloratura and sang from Lucia di Lamermoor to the heaviest coloratura parts by Rossini and Verdi including Abigaile and Lady Macbeth.

Joan Sutherland (one tone lower)

Sang most of the coloratura repertoire both lighter and heavier and made a well-loved recording of Turandot (making a case that the tessitura of the role suits a big-voiced coloratura)

Beverly Hoch

One of the finest singers of her time, she sparkled in the lighter coloratura repertoire.

Luciana Serra

Luciana Serra practically owned the role for several decades and made a sensation singing the Queen in her 40s at the Metropolitan opera.  She must be in her 50s at least in the above video, making it clear that one does not have to lose top notes with age.

Yet more than a discussion about the Queen of the Night, per se, this discussion is more about the multi-faceted nature of vocal categorization.  The first two installments of this series established that soprano voices can be divided into  two types: low-tessitura and high tessitura.  The voices are then further divided by “weight”.  Lightest to heaviest.  A heavier voice can be higher than a lighter voice and a lighter voice can be lower than a heavier voice.  This has to do with fold depth vs. fold length.  The variations are many.

The point of this is more a cautionary one than anything else.  Why would I refer to Salome and Elektra as Dramatic Coloratura roles?  Because Strauss loved big high soprano voices and tended to write very high for bigger voices (tenors too, judging by the tenor parts in Ariadne, Daphne and Danae).  Although the lead Strauss roles are usually sung by what is called a Dramatic Soprano, it is not all Dramatic Sopranos who can sing all the Strauss roles.  The lower Dramatic Sopranos tend to sing Chrysothemis and the Dyer’s Wife instead of Elektra and Kaiserin.

Judging by the video of Hildegard Behrens singing Mozart’s Elettra (part 2 of this series), was she a dramatic coloratura?  The girly quality of her voice that made her successful as both Brünnhilde and Salome would support that contention.  Therefore is Brünnhilde a dramatic coloratura role?  That Eda Moser sang Salome so successfully, does this make Salome more suitable for a big-voiced coloratura than the traditional dramatic soprano? A question worth discussing.  Yet my examples of a low-tessitura dramatic soprano include Nina Stemme who has sung both Brünnhilde and Salome with extreme mastery.

There are roles that lie between the two types of tessituras and in the end as  with Sondra Radvanosky who sings a powerful Tosca and demonstrates a higher tessitura throughout her career, tessitura is not the only consideration for a role.  Some singers are very skilled and develop abilities beyond their traditional repertoire. That is admirable.  Yet there are some who venture too far from their center to their detriment.

There is a reason why some sopranos tend to steer away from Abigaile, Lady Macbeth and Odabella and the Bel Canto Verdi.  Those roles were written with a higher voice in mind and lower tessitura sopranos who sing these roles encounter certain difficulties.  They are not insurmountable, but a traditional spinto of the lower tessitura type who does well in Forza del Destino and Manon Lescaut might not find Odabella and Abigaile so easily handled.

In the end, tessitura plays the greatest part in comfort in a role, and some voices lie in between tessituras.  Was Birgitt Nilsson as low as the traditional dramatic soprano? Was Leontyne Price more of a dramatic coloratura (the ease of her top Eb may raise eyebrows)?

Opera singers are more than their voice types.  One should be neither limited by vocal category nor should one ignore the constraints that the natural tessitura and weight of the voice suggest.  Repertoire does not determine type.  Konstanze and the Queen of the night for instance have been sung lately by lyric coloraturas mostly.  A couple of generations ago, it was Eda Moser and Cristina Deutekom, dramatic coloraturas who sang those parts.  Little difference is made today between true dramatic coloraturas like Ravdanosly and Meade and the more traditional spintos.  Therefore, lyric coloraturas who sing the traditionally dramatic coloratura roles began calling themselves dramatic coloraturas and in some places the title is accepted.  Edita Gruberova now sings Norma with extreme success.  But why not?  Her voice is beautifully preserved and she brings amazing musicianship to the role and she has no problem with the orchestra.  She is an unusual artist who is able to make a part at the extreme limits of her vocal weight work efficiently.  We should know that and not think that any lyric coloratura can accomplish that just because they share the same vocal category as Gruberova.  As always, it is never black and white.  The truth of every singer lies in the grey area that makes them unique.

©  05/01/2014

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