Bass – The Adversary…

Bass - The adversary


The Bass is the lowest of the male voices. And it’s the lowest human voice, full stop. In Russia, in the Christian Orthodox church, there is a very long tradition of so-called Oktavists. These are extremely low voices that can sing a full octave under the line of the normal lowest voices. Some of them are almost supernatural in their exhibitions. 

The equivalent in the opera world could be the Basso profundo, a type of low voice specialized in singing a few roles with very low pitch. These voices are rare, and if you are able to sing these very low notes, you could possibly initiate a very lucrative career.

bassAs I’ve stated elsewhere, the ability to sing low notes isn’t something you can train. At least not to any significant degree. You can definitely gain volume, beauty, legato, and spark to your low notes. But you can’t really learn to sing much lower than you already can. If you are not born a Bass, you will not be able to become one.

The lowest written note in a standard opera score is D2. The note is in Osmin’s aria  O, wie will ich triumphieren from Mozart’s opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio). Mozart wrote this part for a specific singer namely the excellent Ludwig Fischer. Otherwise, he most certainly wouldn’t have included these low notes as it definitely limits the number of artists who are at all able to do Osmin.

Still, unlike the Tenor who usually doesn’t have much of a problem when showing off his high notes… For a Bass, it is not enough to be able to produce the note. You also need a certain volume. In the lowest register of a voice, the sound is generally so weak that it can be difficult to be heard at all. In Osmin’s Aria, the artist sings the low D for quite a bit while the orchestra continues above him. 

For all you young singers out there, there are two warnings I have to issue:

  1. The classification of a voice or the distinction between different voice types is never, ever universal or even very scientific. It very much depends on preferences, size of and the acoustics in the theater, personality, etc… And it has changed a lot during the centuries.
  2. Labeling a voice this or that has to be done in person. Reading an article like this one can never substitute a voice coach, a colleague, or even a friend. And even they cannot really see what is inside of you, how you feel, what is comfortable and what is not. You are your voice’s greatest safeguard. 

The color of a Bass. 

Well, it is nice if the voice has an open, round timbre. The dark, full quality is delightful in most voices. When it comes to the Bass, the sheer fact that it is so low gives it automatically a certain darkness. Instead, the problem for a deep voice is volume. To be heard at these levels, you will need to have a strong vocal ring, which should give the voice a metallic timbre. That is all good and well.

Sometimes the bigger issue is how to be able to maintain the Bassy sound, be it metallic or round and full, even in the higher end of the register. This is a general aspect of all voices. Your voice should sound more or less equal throughout your range (equalization). But for lower voices, this is generally more difficult, and, I would say, more important.

The range of a Bass.

Traditionally the range of a Bass is from E2 to E4. 

bassAs already stated, when it comes to the very low register, the notes in the so-called great octave (C2 – C3), the sound must have a certain punch. Being able or not to produce these notes is almost indifferent to the fact that they need to be audible. If you can’t make yourself heard through the orchestra, it’s more or less useless to sing. 

This is physics, and we can’t argue against it. The mere ability to produce notes as low as G2, F2, or E2 might not matter all that much if they are not strong enough to be heard. Most Bass roles don’t go under G2 anyway. What’s important, and I would say crucial, is how much power there is down there. 

I personally know very good Basses, great artists who have pursued international careers, and sung in the most important theaters in the world, but who really don’t have much power below G2. It might be enough to have good volume and a pleasant timbre down to that region, to be a valuable performer. It is more about how you sound within your comfort zone, than how stretched that comfort zone is.

Still, a Bass should have a deep, full, harmonic, and ample sound throughout the register. And that includes the notes at least until G2, preferably down to E2 as well. 

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut elit tellus, luctus nec ullamcorper mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo.

The roles for the Bass.

All this should be seen as a totally objectionable generalization. Please feel free to object and express disagreement. 

Nicolai Ghiaurov. A fabulous Bulgarian Bass

The parts offered to a good Bass are somewhat more interesting than within the other male voice types. The lowest voice often gets to do dark and sinister characters. He is the adversary, the enemy, the authoritative figure that blocks our hero’s way to freedom, or simply the sinister criminal… The assassin. These roles give ample space for interpretation and creativity.

Sometimes the absolute range of the performer’s voice determines what is doable. I have already mentioned Osmin in Mowart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail. If you don’t have a good D2, you just can’t do the part… It is impossible. But there are other such roles, The Grand Inquisitor in Verdi’s Don Carlos requires a good E2, Sarastro in The Magic Flute needs a good F2, and so does Sparafucile in Rigoletto

And, finally, much like tenors like to throw in a high note where it’s not actually written, basses are known to do the same with their low notes. You definitely can score extra points, if you have the meat in your lowest register. 

Still, apart from a few opera characters that include very low notes, most of the repertoire is achievable with a good G2. And as long as you have the volume, you can tackle most of what’s in this fach. No need to be too picky when it comes to timbre or voice character. A good Bass can sing anything. 

The different types of Basses.

Warning! This is not an absolute classification, and I probably do not agree with some of you. How the voice is supposed to be handled, and what singer should sing this or that repertoire is a constant argument among experts. These are my thoughts, and I acknowledge any contradicting opinion. Still, at the end of the day, a singer can cross over any boundary as he/she finds suitable.

I also apologize for not mentioning many great artists who undoubtedly deserve to be on my, or anybody’s list.

Somehow, the higher you go on the voice pitch scale, the more diversity you may find. While tenors are differentiated in a variety of types and colors, the basses are generally not… Or more precisely, the distinctions of the type of bass exist but the vocal difference between one and the other is not as pronounced as with higher voices. A tenor is more restricted in his choice of roles, while a well-trained bass generally can sing repertoire within most of the voice types presented here. 

Lyric Bass/Basso cantante.

This is the standard voice type. It should have a dark color, a good punch in the lower notes, and a well-developed legato in the higher range. Basso cantante means singing bass. That’s a very good definition. The character is maybe more often not as evil as his more dramatic and darker colleagues in the bass fach.

Example of roles for Lyric Bass.

Example of famous Lyric Basses.

  • Ferruccio Furlanetto
  • Enzo Pinza
  • Cesare Siepi
  • Alexander Kipnis
  • Boris Christoff
  • Feodor Chaliapin
  • Jerome Hines
  • Nicolai Ghiaurov
  • Bonaldo Giaiotti
  • Feodor Chaliapin

Dramatic Bass.

This voice should be at least as dark as the lyric, and at least as powerful in the lower register. Added to that, much like the dramatic label in the other voice types, the dramatic Bass needs steel in the timbre. The voice should be shining and with a good vocal ring. He is more often than his lyric friend, a real jerk. This is the typical voice for many of the hero’s adversaries in the operas of Wagner.

Example of roles for Dramatic Bass.

  • Commendatore, Don Giovanni (W.A. Mozart)
  • HagenGötterdämmerung (Richard Wagner)
  • HeinrichLohengrin (Richard Wagner)
  • GurnemanzParsifal (Richard Wagner)
  • FafnerDas Rheingold, Siegfried (Richard Wagner)
  • MarkeTristan und Isolde (Richard Wagner)
  • HundingDie Walküre (Richard Wagner)
  • The Grand InquisitorDon Carlo (Giuseppe Verdi)

Example of famous Dramatic Basses.

  • Matti Salminen
  • Martti Talvela
  • Gottlob Frick
  • John Tomlinson
  • Rene Pape

Basso Buffo – Funny Bass

This voice type isn’t as much a recognizable color, range, or timbre, as it is about the presence on stage. With that said, the singing style for a Bass can vary a lot without changing the range or the average pitch. It is very different to sing, let’s say Wotan in the Ring of Niebelungen, from, let’s say Sarastro in the Magic Flute. 

The Buffo roles include many of the Mozart Basses, as well as roles in the Italian Opera Buffa tradition. 

Examples of roles for Basso Buffo.

Basso Profundo – Deep Bass

This too isn’t really a voice-fach with its own roles. It’s more of a definition of range. Really deep basses can sing most bass repertoire, but they definitely have an edge on whatever they sing. Dropping a low C2 or a D2 can make a huge difference in how the audience receives you. 

Of course, as stated before, some roles require low notes, but they are very few. 

Basso profondo
Mikhail Zlatopolsky

Example of famous Bassi Profondi

  • Glenn Miller
  • Kurt Moll

And the incredible Mikhail Zlatopolsky, who holds some sort of world record for the lowest documented note ever sung by a human voice… C1