Professional Opera Singers and the Fach System: Sopranos and Mezzo-Sopranos

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  2. January 18, 2012 9:45 pm

By Margaret Cooke

Probably most professional opera singers, and indeed some who are still in music college or music conservatory, have heard of the fach system. People will ask: what fach are you?

So, what does fach mean and how does it work? Firstly, fach is German and literally means “compartment”. Most people like to “categorise” to make selection easier and having a fach system works much the same way for the classically trained opera singer. Depending on what fach you are, certain operatic roles are associated with that fach.

Each voice type has several sub-types, i.e. under the umbrella of a soprano comes: soubrette, lyric, dramatic and coloratura to name a few. So, going through these different types of sopranos, let us have a look at some parts that come under each type.

A certain role that a soubrette would sing is Despina in Cosi fan tutte by Mozart. Adele in Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss is a character that is typical for a coloratura soprano to sing, but sometimes a soubrette sings it too. A very famous female operatic role is Mimi in Puccini’s La Boheme and she would be sung by a lyric soprano. Perhaps one of the most well-known operatic characters is The Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute. That role belongs to a dramatic soprano, however, they are so scarce that often it is sung by a coloratura soprano. There are many more types of sopranos and roles that are associated with them.

For professional mezzo-sopranos, here are some of the voice types: lyric mezzo, dramatic mezzo and alto. Some types of roles characterised by a lyric mezzo-soprano would be Cherubino in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, Octavian in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier and Dido in Dido and Aeneas by Purcell. Sometimes, some lyric mezzo-soprano parts are sung by sopranos, and occasionally a lyric mezzo might transition to being a soprano. For the dramatic mezzo-soprano, some of the parts they might sing include Dalila in Samson et Dalila by Saint-Saens, Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlo and Ortrud in Lohengrin by Wagner. An alto, sometimes also referred to as a contralto, usually has a darker richer sound than a dramatic mezzo-soprano and here are examples of some parts they sing: Erda in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungens (part of the famous Ring Cycle), Genevieve in Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande and Olga in Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky.

Just like with sopranos, even for mezzos, proper dramatic mezzos and altos are not easy to find, and therefore some of the roles mentioned aren’t always sung by the right voice.

Being a dramatic singer, has nothing to do with a singer’s abilities to act or be dramatic, but has everything to do with the colour and power of the voice. The other important fact is that a dramatic opera singer’s natural strength lies a bit lower down in the vocal register and can easily project there and be heard over the orchestra.

Why is it so important to know what fach you are? There are several reasons why a professional opera singer or a budding professional still at music college should know.

How you are classified as a singer is based on several factors: where your voice rings best, how heavy it is and the timbre or colour of it. A singer’s vocal range is obviously very important but is not the only deciding factor.

A singer can seriously damage their voice if singing the wrong type of repertoire within their vocal range, particularly if this is done repeatedly. Granted, there are times, when a professional opera singer might sing something that is slightly outside of their vocal fach (for example if they sing in an opera gala or singing waiter performance where more versatility is required), however these situations tend to be “one-offs” and if the singer has a solid vocal technique and has the notes, it shouldn’t be harmful. However, it would be wise for a singer not to sing outside of their fach on a regular basis.

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