The contralto's vocal range is fairly rare; similar to the mezzo-soprano, and almost identical to that of a countertenor, 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 D below middle C (D3) or the second B♭ above middle C (B♭5). The contralto voice type is generally divided into the coloratura, lyric, and dramatic contralto.
"Contralto" is primarily meaningful only in reference to classical and operatic singing, as other traditions lack a comparable system of vocal categorization. The term "contralto" is only applied to female singers; men singing in a similar range are called "countertenors". The Italian terms "contralto" and "alto" are not synonymous, "alto" technically denoting a specific vocal range in choral singing without regard to factors like tessitura, vocal timbre, vocal facility, and vocal weight. However, there exists some French choral writing (including that of Ravel and Poulenc) with a part labeled "contralto", despite the tessitura and function being that of a classical alto part. The Saracen princess Clorinde in André Campra's 1702 opera Tancrède was written for Julie d'Aubigny and is considered the earliest major role for bas-dessus or contralto voice.
Although tenors, baritones, and basses are male singers, some women can sing as low (albeit with a slightly different timbre and texture) as their male counterparts. Some of the rare singers who specialized in the tenor and baritone registers include film actress Zarah Leander, the Persian āvāz singer Hayedeh, the child prodigy Ruby Helder (1890–1938), and Bavarian novelty singer Bally Prell.
Subtypes and roles in opera
Within the contralto voice type category are three generally recognized subcategories: coloratura contralto, an agile voice specializing in florid passages; lyric contralto, a voice lighter in timbre; and dramatic contralto, the deepest, darkest, and most powerful contralto voice. These subtypes do not always apply with precision to individual singers.
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, Teodata in Flavio, Isabella in L'italiana in Algeri, and Olga in Eugene Onegin, but more frequently they play female villains or trouser roles. Contraltos may also be cast in 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)
- Arsace, Semiramide (Rossini)
- Art Banker, Facing Goya (Nyman)
- Azucena*, Il trovatore (Verdi)
- Auntie*, landlady of The Boar, Peter Grimes (Britten)
- The Baroness, Vanessa (Barber)
- Bradamante, Alcina (Handel)
- 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)
- Ma Moss, The Tender Land (Copland)
- Malcolm*, La donna del lago (Rossini)
- 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, 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)
- Orlando, Orlando Furioso (Vivaldi)
- 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)
- Schwertleite, Die Walküre (Wagner)
- 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.
- Category of contraltos
- List of operatic contraltos
- Fach, the German system for classifying voices
- Voice classification in non-classical music
- List of contraltos in non-classical music
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