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Let’s Get Loud, Soft, and Sublime: an Opera Primer – Part II: Women’s Voices

Let’s Get Loud, Soft, And Sublime: An Opera Primer – Part II: Women’s Voices

“In a way, being an opera singer is like being a very romantic sixteen-year-old who falls in love with great passion and conviction every month.” (Renée Fleming)

Our exploration of opera continues with discovering more about Voice types. Let’s begin with the ladies!


Diva, primadonna, star of the show! Generally, the lead female role in an opera is sung by a Soprano. Operatic history abounds with stories of divas’ temperamental behavior but also with their ability to sell out performances and instill a sense of worship in their fans. In today’s world of pragmatism, high speed, and an abundance of singers, the diva antics don’t quite cut it anymore. There are still a few operatic superstars—in the sense that they are known beyond the world of opera and have a huge following—such as Anna Netrebko and Renée Fleming. These are the soprano voices:


Light voice with a sweet, bright vocal timbre (“timbre” refers to the quality of tone that gives colors and personality to the voice). Example: Adele from Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus – watch Patrice Munsel sing Adele’s “laughing song” in English from the Voice of Firestone archives

Lyric coloratura soprano 

(“coloratura” refers to the ornamentationof a melody and requires an agile voice)

Warm, bright, fuller voice than the soubrette. Usually plays the ingénue character. Example: the title role in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lamermoor – watch Anna Moffo as Lucia sing of a ghost apparition and love in a film version of the opera

Lyric soprano 

Full, strong but not heavy voice. Generally embodies self-sacrificing, noble, suffering characters. Example: Mimi in Puccini’s La bohème – watch Angela Gheorghiu sing Mimi’s introduction aria 

Dramatic coloratura soprano

Similar quality to a lyric soprano, but more agile with an ability for sustained coloratura. Able to be dramatically intense as well as flexible. Example: the title character of Bellini’s Norma – watch Renée Fleming sing “Casta diva,” Norma’s prayer to the moon goddess for peace

Spinto soprano 

Strong voice with more weight and power than the lyric soprano, capable of darker colors. “Spinto” means “pushed” in Italian, referring to this soprano’s ability to “push” her lyric sound to more dramatic climaxes. Example: the title character of Puccini’s Tosca, a true diva role – watch Maria Callas sing Tosca’s aria “Vissi d’arte” in a historic video from 1958 

Dramatic soprano

Rich, heavy, and powerful voice with a strong lower range and darker timbre than the other soprano voices. Example: Leonora from Verdi’s La forza del destino – watch Leontyne Price in Leonora’s prayer for peace “Pace, mio dio”  (Certain dramatic sopranos have an even ampler voice, particularly suited to sing Wagner roles, and they are referred to as Wagnerian sopranos, but there are other roles of that caliber, like Puccini’s Turandot, for instance). 


No female voice conveys seduction and witchcraft quite like the mezzo-soprano voice! While the mezzo-soprano usually plays second fiddle to the soprano and often ends up getting the bad angle of a love triangle between herself, the soprano, and the tenor, she also gets to embody the most seductive leading ladies in operas like Carmen and Samson and Delilah. She can play with gender perceptions in “trouser roles”—portraying young men like Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro. Mezzos also sing the roles of mothers, witches, wise women, companions, nurses, and sometimes even venture into dramatic soprano territory. Two modern superstar mezzo-sopranos are Elina Garanca and Anita Rachvelishvili. These are the mezzo-soprano voices: 

Coloratura mezzo-soprano

Very agile voice with the ability to leap from low to high and sing ornamented, rapid passages. Example: Rosina in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville – watch Isabel Leonard sing “Una voce poco fa,” Rosina’s entrance aria

Lyric mezzo-soprano 

Warm, smooth voice often suitable for “trouser roles.” Example: Niklausse from Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann – watch Kate Lindsey as Hoffmann’s male companion Niklausse sing of love and music. This voice can also embody the famous seductress Carmen from Bizet’s opera – watch Elina Garanca as Carmen sing the Habanera 

Dramatic mezzo-soprano

A more powerful and broader voice than the lyric mezzo with a fuller sound and a strong lower range. She has the force to hold her own in the many intense confrontations with the dramatic soprano. Example: Amneris in Verdi’s Aida – watch Fiorenza Cossotto in the Judgment Scene from Aida in a historic performance from 1966


Dark and deep, the true contralto voice is a rarity, which is why dramatic mezzos with strong low notes often sing contralto roles. Example: the Princess in Puccini’s Suor Angelica – watch Ewa Podles, a true contralto, sing the tough, unforgiving Princess in duet with soprano Patricia Racette as her niece, Sister Angelica 

Stay tuned for the gentlemen and their voices – in Part III. 

Top photo: Bigstock

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Let’s Get Loud, Soft, and Sublime: an Opera Primer – Part II: Women’s Voices


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