So You Want to Sing Like an Opera Singer…

Singing on the opera stage takes a lot of hard work and preparation. Singers, like athletes, constantly train to perfect their voices. They ask their voices and bodies to do things that most of us without training can not do. Specifically, to sing incredibly intricate and difficult music and project that voice over a sixty piece (or more) orchestra and still be heard.

Singing begins with the human voice. The voice is a very versatile instrument. It can produce sounds that present a wide range of frequencies that we call pitches. Pitches can be high or low. Women can sing in the highest pitches and men in the lowest ones. Our voices are also able to change in volume. Sometimes we speak softly other times we can yell.

Voices are powered by the air that is exhaled out of the lungs. As the exhaled air flow changes so does the sound that our voices make. The diaphragm, a strong muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdomen, is used to control that flow of air. It's always important to breathe from the diaphragm.

Inhaling deeply causes the diaphragm to lower while the ribs and stomach expand. The diaphragm forces the air out when it contracts, this causes the vocal chords to vibrate. The vocal chords are folds of fibrous bands that are stretched along the two sides of the larynx, the body's sound instrument. When we hum, talk, or sing, air passes through the larynx and it vibrates the vocal chords. As the air vibrates it creates a sound that is then shaped by the other parts of our bodies - the mouth, tongue, teeth and lastly the lips. Babies experiment with singing, laughing, screaming, and babbling. This is done to exercise the vocal chords and learn how to control them. The pitch of the voice (how high or how low we speak) is also created by the vocal chords.

Singers must learn to masterfully control the flow of air through the vocal chords in the larynx. Each sung note is determined by how the vocal chords are controlled. Singers practice vocal exercises so that they can quickly adjust to the demands of the music without thinking about it.

Singers must also learn how to shape their mouths to control the sound that comes out of it. Specific sounds are controlled by the size and shape of the mouth. Think of the mouth and entire head as being a megaphone. Singers use all open spaces in their mouths, sinuses, and skull like a megaphone to help project their voices. Singers raise the soft palate, located on the roof of your mouth towards the back, to help create the megaphone effect. An indicator that enough space has been created is that your uvula, or the little fleshy piece that hangs down in the back, is raised and it doesn't dangle.

In addition to mastering notes and musical challenges, opera singers sing in many languages. Languages coaches are often used to help singers effectively communicate, and pronounce their lines. Each language demands various ways of expressing text and has its own unique way of being enunciated.

Once a singer knows the science of singing, the singer must be careful to understand the music and the text of the song. Certain emotions can also demand certain ways of enunciating the text. In this way, the singer combines vocal techniques with the emotional context of the music to enhance the words. This process creates the passionate music we know as opera.

Voice Types in Opera

by Barbara D. Mills

Did you ever wonder what the difference is between a soprano and a mezzo-soprano or what voice type can sing the lowest notes? Most opera singers fall into a voice type that reflects the singer's ability as well as the dramatic requirements of a particular role.

So how does one categorize a soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone, or bass, the five most common types of voices? It all depends upon one's vocal range, or the span from the lowest note to the highest note that a particular singer can produce. One's range one can sing is related to the size of the vocal chords and the speed at which they vibrate. Also taken into consideration when determining a singer's voice type are: the consistency of timbre (sound quality or color of the voice) and the ability to project the voice over a full orchestra -- remember, there are no microphones in opera, and there are small, medium/large and extra large voices.

Some terms used to refer to vocal range in order of lightest to heaviest are:

  • Coloratura: typically a voice with a very high range with the ability to sing complicated passages with great agility.
  • Dramatic: a heavy, powerful voice with a steely timbre.
  • Lyric: an average size voice, but capable of singing long beautiful phrases.
  • Lyrico spinto: a somewhat more powerful voice than that of a true lyric.
  • Helden: a German term referring to a powerful voice capable of singing very demanding roles.
  • Falsetto: the upper part of a voice, more often used in reference to male voices.

Let's define a few of the voice types that audiences generally hear in opera:

For females, the highest voice type is the soprano. In operatic drama, the soprano is almost always the heroine because she projects innocence and youth. Within this category, there are other sub-divisions such as, coloratura soprano, lyric soprano, and dramatic soprano. Some of the roles sung by these voice types include: Mimi in La bohème (lyric) and Ariadne in Ariadne auf Naxos (dramatic).

The mezzo-soprano has a lower range than the soprano. Many mezzo-sopranos sing the so-called "trouser" roles, portraying young boys or men. They can also be the villainesses or motherly types. This category is also sub-divided into coloratura mezzo, dramatic mezzo, and lyric mezzo. One of the most well known roles for a dramatic mezzo is the fiery gypsy Carmen in the opera of the same name.

The contralto or alto is the lowest female voice and the darkest in timbre. This voice type is usually reserved for specialty roles like the earth goddess Erda in Richard Wagner's Nordic fantasy-epic The Ring of the Nibelung. Since this is such a rare voice type, dramatic mezzos often sing roles in this range. Marian Anderson, a Philadelphia native, was one of the world's most famous contraltos ever.

For males, the tenor is generally considered to be the highest male voice in an opera, and is most often the hero or the love interest of the story. There are many different types of tenor voices. Two of the more common ones are lyric tenors, whose voices have high, bright tones, and dramatic tenors whose voices have a darker sound with a ringing quality in the upper range. Some of the more famous roles for tenors include Rodolfo in La bohème (lyric) and Radames in Aida (dramatic).

A countertenor is able to sing even higher than a tenor. This voice actually falls within a female's voice range. Through the use of a man's falsetto voice, the voice produces a sound that is sometimes described as otherworldly.

A baritone is the most common type of male voice whose range lies midway between the high tenor voice and the low bass voice. In comedic operas, he is often the leader of the funny business, but he can also be the hero, who sacrifices himself for the tenor or soprano, or the villain. This voice has a dramatic quality capable of producing rich, dark tones. The hunchback court jester in the title role in Rigoletto (dramatic) and the popular Toréador Escamillo in Carmen are favorite roles for baritones.

In general, a bass is the lowest and darkest of the male voices and is ideal for several types of roles. The word bass comes from the Italian word basso, which means low. Some singers in this category are referred to as bass-baritones because they have voices that range between the bass and the baritone voice. A basso serio or basso profondo portrays characters who convey wisdom or nobility such as Sarastro in The Magic Flute. In contrast, a basso buffo sings comedic roles such as Dr. Bartolo in The Barber of Seville.

So, no matter what the size, quality or range, a singer's voice has the ability to thrill an audience with its sheer beauty and musicality.