When talking about the opera and the different voice types, there are a number of classifications. For men, there are bass, baritone, tenor, and countertenor singers. The basses cover the lowest range and countertenors the highest. For women, from lowest to highest there are contralto, mezzo-soprano, and soprano.
Of course, each singing voice will not fit perfectly within the ranges but each performer will try to ensure that their range adheres to the voice range required by each role. That said, there is the odd composer who will try and ensure that the singer is challenged and forced to perform notes that are on the extremes of the range of their voice type.
Additionally, there are also subdivisions within each of these groups depending on the vocal quality of each musician.
“Some opera singers are more mezzo than soprano.” Gaëtan Faucer
To avoid a few surprises and scathing criticisms when you make your first public appearance, we’ve decided to put this blog post together on the mezzo-soprano vocal range.
We hope our tips, tricks, and advice will help you to make yourself stand out as a mezzo-soprano rather than being just average (mezzo) like the Belgian author was getting at with his bilingual wordplay.
The main thing that sets apart the mezzo-sopranos in a number of works is their versatility. They are a female equivalent to baritones and some special tenors. There’s an out-of-the-ordinary femininity associated with the diva who is able to sing some of the best romantic operatic tunes, far from the stereotype of the Viking woman popularised by Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
Let’s have a look at what a mezzo-soprano is and how you can sing like one. Have you warmed up your larynx?
There’s nothing to see here for the men. The mezzo-soprano (an expression straight from the Italian language) is a strictly female range. Even if a male (such as castrati or falsetti) sings in such ranges, it’s unlikely that their voice would have the same qualities and warmth that a mezzo-soprano can achieve.
For soloists, the mezzo-soprano is the central female voice par excellence. It holds the centre stage between the sopranos for the high notes and the altos for the low notes.
Both human voices and musical instruments have a natural range. (Source: pixabay.com)
This is why the mezzo-sopranos are so popular. It’s a versatile female range as they can flirt with some of the high notes and some of the low notes. This categorisation is often used for classical music and would be difficult to use as a classification for contemporary music such as jazz.
While opéra-bouffe in the 19th century barely made any distinction between mezzo-soprano and soprano, the distinction became very popular during the last century. Generally speaking, a mezzo-soprano has a range between A below middle C to the A two octaves above. However, there are always exceptions.
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Like most of the main tessituras, it’s hardly surprising to learn that mezzo-soprano can be divided into several subcategories.
Musicologists generally classify three main types of mezzo-sopranos:
Light mezzo-sopranos are often referred to using the terms Dugazon and Galli-Marié. They often have a clear agile voice and their range is close to sopranos (and some of them go just as high).
Lyric mezzo-soprano, the central range of the tessitura. A rich and warm voice with a lower range than the aforementioned classification.
The dramatic mezzo-sopranos have a similar range to the contralto.
Before starting your career as a mezzo-soprano, whether as a professional or an amateur, you need to be able to sing in key first. This mean that you’ll need to go back over the basics of music theory in order to be able to sing the right notes.
If you have perfect pitch or at least a good musical ear, this will greatly help, especially if you regularly listen to famous operas. It will also help if you can play another musical instrument. Practice makes perfect, after all.
Whether in the shower or as part of a choral group, you’ll need to sing as often as you can and also regularly record yourself singing so you can see where you’re going wrong.
A mezzo-soprano is famed for their versatility and the different roles they can play. (Source: pixabay.com)
You should also consider getting a private vocal coach to give you regular singing lessons to help you on your way.
Whether this takes place in a music school or at home with a private tutor, you’ll be able to find your vocal range, improve your technical abilities (such as learning vibrato) and broaden your range firstly with your head voice and then with your chest voice.
It’s no secret that some of us are born with innate musical ability and a beautiful voice. However, hard work and perseverance can make all the difference.
It would take absolutely ages to list all the pieces that use a mezzo-soprano as a soloist performing a coloratura or as part of a choir. The history of classical music spans several centuries and is as rich and diverse as all the pieces that were written during that time. Sadly, a number of these fantastic pieces have fallen out of favour over the course of the years. However, that doesn’t mean that the repertoire for mezzo-sopranos is in any way limited.
Let’s start with Schubert’s Ave Maria, for example. With a beautiful piano accompaniment and talented singer, this is an outstandingly beautiful piece.
The good thing about being a mezzo-soprano is that there’s no lack of roles for them, regardless of their age. The role of Chérubin is an important part in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s timeless piece The Marriage of Figaro. In the same vein, we could also mention roles like Dorabella in Così fan tutte, another favourite amongst connoisseurs of the genre.
The French are particularly fond of the mezzo-soprano, especially thanks to Carmen by Georges Bizet. It’s the most famous opera on the planet and the lead protagonist charms our ears with their candour. L’amour est enfant de bohème is arguably the most famous pieces of music in the world.
We should also mention the role of Siébel in Charles Gounod’s Faust as well as Mignon by Ambroise Thomas, a 1866 opéra comique created by the National Opera of Paris.
These beautiful works have everything that a mezzo-soprano could hope for and should serve as incredible inspiration for them.
In addition to the famous singers we mentioned earlier, there are a few more that you should consider checking out.
Anne Sofie von Otter is possibly one of the most famous singers at the moment. This Swedish singer is famous for appearing in classic roles as well as in lighter roles like Offenbach.
We should draw your attention to Cecilia Bartoli, Lucia Valentini-Terrani, Janet Baker, Taylor Momsen, Christa Ludwig, Teresa Berganza, Frederica von Strade.
Of course, there’s also Maria Callas, whose real tessitura has been subject of innumerable debates. Her range is so broad that she could also be considered a mezzo-soprano in certain cases.
You should use these names as inspiration for your singing rather than copying them directly. After all, trying to directly copy a singer that’s already established will do nothing to set you apart as a singer.
What you need to do is work with your own personal qualities and your temperament: you have to remain yourself, after all.
The first thing you need to know about the human voice is that a large part of it is innate. Not everyone is born with a beautiful opera voice with the right timbre and qualities to be pleasing to the ear. Sadly, when it comes to singing, not all men (or women) are created equal.
If you happen to have a really nasal voice, it might be worth following a completely different career to becoming an opera singer as it’s probably going to end up being a massive waste of time.
Of course, physiology also plays a huge role over the course of time. A singer aged 20 won’t be able to play the same roles as they will once they reach 45. In fact, over time, our voices tend to get deeper and our ranges tend to shift towards the lower notes and towards a lower classification of singer.
Carmen is one of the most popular operas of all time. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
These changes that take place over the course of a career are part and parcel of being a singer. However, it does come with a few problems. Singers have to change the roles they can take on and roles they once loved playing are completely out of their reach. C’est la vie, after all.
The main thing for mezzo-sopranos is that they don’t have to change how they practise too much. They still need to work on their breathing, which will be at the heart of their everyday singing routine.
Knowing how to breathe correctly is key to being a mezzo-soprano, which often comes with a voice much warmer than that of the male counterparts covering the same range. This is a domain where the female singers regularly show their superiority over the men.
Similarly, you can’t overlook acting ability and stage presence, which can make the difference between two singers with very similar vocal abilities.