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Talk Like An Opera Geek: Managing Mezzos, Altos And Contraltos

Don't mix up your mezzos and contraltos.
Don't mix up your mezzos and contraltos.

(Talk Like An Opera Geek attempts to decode the intriguing and intimidating lexicon of the opera house.)

Last week we scaled the heights of the highest vocal range, the soprano. Today, let's take one step down the vocal ladder. In the opera house, we tend to call them mezzo-sopranos, but there are many ways, it turns out, to refer to singers in the second-highest range, along with a broad array of classifications between various mezzos, altos and contraltos.

In terms of range, think of the mezzo-soprano as in the middle (mezzo, in Italian) of the soprano and the contralto — roughly singing from the A below middle C and up at least two octaves. Although the distinction between the two began in the mid-1700s, it wasn't until the 19th century that composers began thinking of the mezzo in terms of specific types of roles. Mezzos, because of their naturally lower, often darker-hued voices, were often cast as older characters: maids and confidants (Amelia in Verdi's Otello), nurses (Filippevna in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin), rivals (Amneris in Verdi's Aida), or sometimes even young men (so-called "pants roles" like Cherubino in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro).

The terms alto and contralto are sometimes used interchangeably but it's not that simple. Alto, strictly speaking, refers to the vocal range one rung higher than a tenor. The term goes back to the 16th century, when alto parts in church music were sung only by men — either high tenors, falsetto singers (counter-tenors), boys, or castrati (those men who were surgically "altered" such that their voices never dropped at puberty). We also think of altos as the lower-voiced women in the church choir.

Alto was the more common term until contralto (meaning "against," or contra alto) gave it some competition. Contraltos, range-wise, fall between the mezzo and the tenor. They are the lowest of the female voices — but not always female, as the word could also refer to a male castrato back in the early 18th century. They can sing usually down to the F below middle C up to at least the second E above middle C.

As with all the main registers — soprano, alto, tenor, bass — mezzos can be subdivided further, generally depending on the size and timbre of the voice. The Germans, and their comprehensive fach system, divide the low female voices up in at least five ways, as you can see and hear below.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.
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