Contralto - The mother...
The Contralto is the lowest of the female voices. It is also quite rare. While you can train a voice to reach high notes by exercising and learning correct breathing, you cannot really do very much to lower your range. If you hold something with a straight arm, you can pull it towards you but you can’t push it without moving your feet. If you’re not born with a low voice, you’re not a Contralto, full stop.
In the chorus, the contralto corresponds to Alto 2 in English-speaking countries.
The word “alto” means high, so why is the lowest voice labeled high? Well, we have to go all the way back to the madrigal singers in the 15th century, and earlier. Music was very different back then and the way the chorus was organized was as follows:
The Tenor sings the melody. (Tenor means to maintain or keep. This voice keeps the melody intact.) Another voice sings notes that are harmonically consonant either underneath, lower (contratenor bassus), or above, higher (contratenor altus). With time, these names became Bass and Contralto. Sometimes a top voice was created over all these three, and it got the name discantus or superius, meaning over. With time, superius became Soprano. And there you have it… Bass, Tenor, Contralto, and Soprano.
One last thing, the madrigal singers were all men. No woman was allowed to sing in church. And anyone who has tried to sing very old choral music might notice a particular difficulty. Apart from the bass line, the other voices were not written for modern choir singers, that’s just the way it is.
For all you young singers out there, there are two warnings I have to issue:
- 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.
- 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 Contralto.
The voice should be dark and deep and with a certain warmth to it. The very round timbre often leads to a somewhat less agile voice. The particular class of Contraltos called Coloratura Contralto is more about a lighter color than actually being able to sing many tones in a short time, although there are those who have really fast voices.
The dark voice can be obtained by singing in chest voice. Below a certain point, when the voice struggles to maintain the volume, a female singer can use the chest voice. That way she has power even in the low register. Chest voice will lack much of the roundness though, and it is mostly regarded as incorrect if used exageratly.
But the use of chest voice is by itself in no way damaging or dangerous. In fact, a correct mix between head voice and chest voice for a female singer should at least be a mix… It should contain some chest voice. A little bonding to the speaking voice is only positive. It gives authority and fullness to the color. Still, if you have to struggle on the low notes, you’re probably not a Contralto.
The range of a Contralto.
Talking about range is very different for female voices compared to the male ones. While the range of the male voice, because of the way a man uses his vocal cords, is more absolute, the female voice is more flexible.
Traditionally, the range of a Contralto is from F3 to F5.
Back in the 1600s, the Contralto range was even lower than today. And we suppose the use of chest voice was more common. That made the Contralto a somewhat grotesque character especially appreciated in comic operas. The low and masculine voice was suited for elderly women like the nurse often thirsty for love and willing to give unscrupulous advice to the soprano mistress.
The comical nature of the Contralto roles from that period influenced the use of the voice. The singing was focused on the low notes. There was little agility and not much use for vocal beauty. That changed in the late 1700s.
The end of the terrible practice of Castrates.
At the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century, a phenomenon of epochal significance occurred in the history of opera singing: The abandonment of castration of male singers was finally initiated. The ruthless practice of cutting off the scrotum of young boys was always prohibited but it was still widely tolerated in many parts of Europe. On the stage, the castrato was often the male hero, the main character who either died or won the heart of the girl. And with no castratos, composers had to substitute them with other voices, mezzo-sopranos, contraltos, and, of course, tenors. That meant, a whole new market for the female lowest voice.
But playing the hero was different from playing the old hag. So the melodies became beautiful and legato, the affection suddenly became important, and the tessitura (average pitch) went upwards. By the mid-1800s we had more or less arrived at the range and style we see today.
Just like with the Mezzo-soprano, with the Contralto, there is always the danger of lowering the larynx too much to obtain the dark timbre. That is not acceptable. The larynx should be in a low and relaxed position because that’s simply the correct way to sing… If you have to force it down to obtain the sound you want, you’re probably not a Contralto.
The roles for the Contralto.
I put The Mother in the title because one stereotype puts this dark voice in that category… The wet-nurse, the aunt or the grandma, the witch, or, of course, the mother. A supporting actor of age, sometimes grotesque or funny. But the variation of roles is huge. Agnolishing that there is a wide spread of voices within this category, some as low as the male voices, a Contralto can, in fact, portray almost anything.
As said before, back in the old days, she was often an odd and quaint character. But the opera for the church, the so-called oratories was, and is full of great, melodic, and lyric parts for the lowest female voice.
Then we come into the Rossini period. The golden age for Contraltos. In the 1800s operas, there are loads of juicy roles both supporting and main characters. Some are labeled soprano or even tenor, but a Contralto can take them on just the same.
In the late 19th and the 20th century, the Contralto continued to be one of the most versatile of all the operatic voices. All the great composers have written important parts for her.
The different types of Contraltos.
The voice of Contralto, much like other voices, is generally divided into three subcategories. These are Lyric, Dramatic, and Coloratura/Light. So, let’s do that.
The lyric is the most common of the Contralto voice types. It should have a dark, smooth, and rich quality. The heights should be powerful and round.
The dramatic contralto is the deepest, darkest, and most powerful. It should penetrate the orchestra with ease even when singing in the lower register.
Coloratura means singing a lot of notes very fast. When it comes to dark voices, they generally have so much weight that agility becomes difficult. Like I have said many times before, in the old days, the voices were trained to perform high-speed scales and vocal runs. And not only high voices like sopranos knew this. Lower voices were taught this too.
Today, theaters usually demand modern vocality and modern qualities. Singing fast is typically reserved for just a few. So, a true Coloratura Contralto is that kind of a specialist. The voice should be agile, and flexible, without losing the warmth and dark timbre… But as both flexibility, and agility on one hand, and warmth on the other is very difficult to combine with modern technique, often Coloratura Contralto just means a lighter color than that of a Lyric Contralto.
Example of roles for Contralto.
- Arsace, Semiramide (Rossini)
- Bradamante, Alcina (Handel)
- La Cieca, La Gioconda (Ponchielli)
- Cornelia, Giulio Cesare (Handel)
- Dryade, Ariadne auf Naxos (Strauss)
- Erda, Das Rheingold, Siegfried (Wagner)
- Felicia, Il crociato in Egitto (Meyerbeer)
- Florence Pike, Albert Herring (Britten)
- Griselda, Griselda (Vivaldi)
- Hippolyta, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Britten)
- Lucretia, The Rape of Lucretia (Britten)
- Mamma Lucia, Cavalleria rusticana (Mascagni)
- Margret, Wozzeck (Berg)
- Maria, Porgy and Bess (Gershwin)
- The Marquise of Berkenfield, La fille du régiment (Donizetti)
- Marthe, Faust (Gounoud)
- Mary, Der fliegende Holländer (Wagner)
- Mother Goose, The Rake’s Progress (Stravinsky)
- Mrs. Noye, Noye’s Fludde (Britten)
- Mistress Quickly, Falstaff (Verdi)
- Orlando, Orlando Furioso (Vivaldi)
- Orsini, Lucrezia Borgia (Donizetti)
- Polina, The Queen of Spades (Tchaikovsky)
- Schwertleite, Die Walküre (Wagner)
- Tancredi, Tancredi (Rossini)
- Ulrica, Un ballo in maschera (Verdi)
Example of famous Contraltos.
I apologize for not mentioning many great artists who undoubtedly deserve to be on my, or anybody’s list.
- Clara Butt
- Kerstin Thorborg
- Marie-Nicole Lemieux
- Marian Anderson
- Maureen Forrester
- Ewa Podleś
- Sara Mingardo
- Kathleen Ferrier
- Fedora Barbieri
- Bernadette Manca di Nissa