A contralto, or sometimes alto, is a type of classical female singing voice whose vocal range is the lowest female voice type, with the lowest tessitura. The contralto's vocal range falls between tenor and mezzo-soprano; typically between the F below middle C (F3 in scientific pitch notation) to the second F above middle C (F5), although at the extremes some voices can reach the E below middle C (E3) or the second B♭ above middle C (B♭5).
"Contralto" is meaningful only in reference to classical and operatic singing, as other genres lack a system of vocal categorization comparable to that generally accepted in the classical context. Even within current operatic practice, contraltos are often classed as mezzo-sopranos, because singers in each range can cover for those in the other. When appearing separately, the term "contralto" applies only to female singers; men whose voices fall in the same range or higher are known as "countertenors." The Italian terms "contralto" and "alto" are not synonymous, the latter technically denoting a specific vocal range in choral singing without regard to factors like tessitura, vocal timbre, vocal facility, and vocal weight.
Within the category of contraltos are three generally recognized subcategories—coloratura contralto, lyric contralto, and dramatic contralto—that usefully describe the voice type in general terms. Note, however, that they do not always apply with precision to individual singers; some exceptional dramatic contraltos, such as Ernestine Schumann-Heink and Sigrid Onégin, were technically equipped to perform not only heavy, dramatic music by the likes of Wagner but also florid compositions by Donizetti.
Coloratura contraltos—who have light, agile voices ranging very high for the classification and atypically extensive coloratura and high sustaining notes—specialize in florid passages and leaps. Given its deviations from the classification's norms, this voice type is quite rare.
A lyric contralto voice is lighter than a dramatic contralto but not capable of the ornamentation and leaps of a coloratura contralto. This class of contralto, lighter in timbre than the others, is the most common today and usually ranges from the E below middle C (E3) to the second G above middle C (G5).
The dramatic contralto is the deepest, darkest, and heaviest contralto voice, usually having a heavier tone and more power than the others. Singers in this class, like the coloratura contraltos, are rare. They typically sing in a range from the E below middle C (E3) to the second E above middle C (E5).
Contralto roles in opera
True operatic contraltos are rare, and the operatic literature contains few roles written specifically for them. Contraltos sometimes are assigned feminine roles like Angelina in La Cenerentola, Rosina in The Barber of Seville, Isabella in L'italiana in Algeri, and Olga in Eugene Onegin, but more frequently they play female villains or assume trouser roles originally written for castrati. A common saying among contraltos is that they may play only "witches, bitches, or britches."
Examples of contralto roles in the standard operatic repertoire include the following:.
- Angelina*, La Cenerentola (Rossini)
- Art Banker, Facing Goya (Nyman)
- Auntie*, landlady of The Boar, Peter Grimes (Britten)
- Azucena*, Il trovatore (Verdi)
- The Baroness, Vanessa (Barber)
- La Cieca, La Gioconda (Ponchielli)
- Cornelia Giulio Cesare (Handel)
- The Countess*, The Queen of Spades (Tchaikovsky)
- Didone, Egisto (Cavalli)
- Erda, Das Rheingold, Siegfried (Wagner)
- Madame Flora, The Medium (Menotti)
- Fides, Le prophète (Meyerbeer)
- Florence, Albert Herring (Britten)
- Isabella*, L'italiana in Algeri (Rossini)
- Katisha, The Mikado (Gilbert and Sullivan)
- Klytemnestra*, Elektra (Richard Strauss)
- Lel, The Snow Maiden (Rimsky-Korsakov)
- Little Buttercup, H.M.S. Pinafore (Gilbert and Sullivan)
- Lucretia, The Rape of Lucretia (Britten)
- Maddalena*, Rigoletto (Verdi)
- Magdelone, Maskarade (Nielsen)
- Mama Lucia, Cavalleria rusticana (Mascagni)
- Malcolm*, La donna del lago (Rossini)
- Margret, Wozzeck (Berg)
- Maria, Porgy and Bess (Gershwin)
- The Marquise of Birkenfeld, La fille du régiment (Donizetti)
- Marthe, Faust (Gounoud)
- Mary, Der fliegende Holländer (Wagner)
- Mother, The Consul (Menotti)
- Mother Goose, The Rake's Progress (Stravinsky)
- Mrs Quickly, Falstaff (Verdi)
- Norn (I), Götterdämmerung (Wagner)
- Olga*, Eugene Onegin (Tchaikovsky)
- Orfeo, Orfeo ed Euridice (Gluck)
- Orsini, Lucrezia Borgia (Donizetti)
- Pauline, The Queen of Spades (Tchaikovsky)
- La Principessa, Suor Angelica (Puccini)
- Ratmir, Ruslan and Lyudmila (Glinka)
- Rosina*, The Barber of Seville (Rossini)
- Rosmira/Eurimene*, Partenope (Handel)
- Ruth, The Pirates of Penzance (Gilbert and Sullivan)
- Smeaton, Anna Bolena (Donizetti)
- Sosostris, The Midsummer Marriage (Tippett)
- Stella, What Next? (Carter)
- Tancredi, Tancredi (Rossini)
- Ulrica, Un ballo in maschera (Verdi)
- Widow Begbick*, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Weill)
- 3rd Woodsprite, Rusalka (Dvořák)
* indicates a role that may also be sung by a mezzo-soprano.
- ^ a b McKinney, James (1994). The Diagnosis and Correction of Vocal Faults. Genovex Music Group. ISBN 978-1-56593-940-0.
- ^ a b Appelman, D. Ralph (1986). The Science of Vocal Pedagogy: Theory and Application. Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0-253-20378-6.
- ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Contralto". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- ^ Stark, James (2003). Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-0-8020-8614-3.
- ^ The New York Times guide to essential knowledge
- ^ a b Boldrey, Richard (1994). Guide to Operatic Roles and Arias. Caldwell Publishing Company. ISBN 978-1-877761-64-5.
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