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There are six basic vocal categories:
Soprano: The highest female voice, similar to a flute in range and tone color. Usually plays the heroine in the opera since a high, bright sound can easily suggest youth and innocence.
Mezzo-Soprano: The middle-range female voice, similar to an oboe in range and tone color.
Called an alto in choral arrangements, can play a wide variety of characters including gypsies, mothers and even the part of a young man (trouser role).
Contralto: The lowest female voice, similar to an English horn in range and tone color.
Usually plays unique roles including fortune-tellers, witches and older women. Not very common.
Tenor: The highest male voice, similar to a trumpet in range, tone color and acoustical “ring.” Usually plays the hero or the romantic lead in the opera.
Baritone: The middle-range male voice, similar to a French horn in tone color. Often plays the leader of mischief in comic opera or the villain in tragic opera, sometimes even the hero.
Bass: The lowest male voice, similar to a trombone or bassoon in tone color. Usually portrays old, wise men, or foolish, comic men.
The vocal parts overlap each other. The notes that are high for baritone to sing are low for a tenor. The notes that are low for a baritone to sing are high for a bass. For this reason you may see a high range mezzo-soprano singing a soprano’s role or a low range baritone singing a bass’ role.
The following terms can be used to describe special characteristics in a vocal range:
Coloratura: a light, bright voice that has the ability to sing many notes quickly, usually with an extended upper range.
Lyric: A light to medium weight voice, often singing beautiful sweeping melodies.
Dramatic: Dark, heavy and powerful voice, capable of sustained and forceful singing.
Compiled from Opera Columbus Study Guide