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A contralto (Italian pronunciation: [konˈtralto]) is a type of classical female singing voice whose vocal range is the lowest female voice type. [1]

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) [2] or the second B above middle C (B5). [1] 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". [3] 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. [4] However, there exists some French choral writing (including that of Ravel and Poulenc) with a part labelled "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. [5]

Vocal range

Contralto vocal range (F3–F5) notated on the treble staff (left) and on piano keyboard in green with dot marking middle C (C4).
{ \new Staff \with { \remove "Time_signature_engraver" } f4 f''4 }

The contralto has the lowest vocal range of the female voice types, with the lowest tessitura; [3] [6] it is between tenor and mezzo-soprano.

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 female singers who specialized in the tenor and baritone registers include film actress Zarah Leander, [7] [8] the Persian āvāz singer Hayedeh, [9] the child prodigy Ruby Helder (1890–1938), [10] and Bavarian novelty singer Bally Prell. [11] [12]

Subtypes and roles in opera

Ada Florence singing I'm called Little Buttercup from H.M.S. Pinafore

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, a deep, dark, and bold contralto voice.

The coloratura contralto was a favorite voice type of Rossini's. Many of his roles listed below were written with this type of voice in mind. Lyric contraltos are heavily utilized in both the French and English operatic repertoire. Many of the Gilbert and Sullivan contralto roles are best suited with a lyric contralto voice. Ma Moss in The Tender Land is a notable lyric contralto role. The dramatic contralto voice is heard in much of the German operatic repertoire. Erda in Der Ring des Nibelungen and Gaea in Daphne are both good examples of the dramatic contralto.

True operatic contraltos are rare, and the operatic literature contains few roles written specifically for them with most of those roles singing notes outside of their defined range. Contraltos sometimes are assigned feminine roles like Teodata in Flavio, Angelina in La Cenerentola, Rosina in The Barber of Seville, 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." [13]

Examples of contralto roles in the standard operatic repertoire include the following: [13]

* indicates a role that may also be sung by a mezzo-soprano.

See also


  1. ^ a b McKinney, James (1994). The Diagnosis and Correction of Vocal Faults. Genovex Music Group. ISBN  978-1-56593-940-0.
  2. ^ Jones, David L. (2007). "Training the Contralto Voice". The Voice Teacher. Retrieved 24 July 2018.
  3. ^ a b Appelman, D. Ralph (1986). The Science of Vocal Pedagogy: Theory and Application. Indiana University Press. ISBN  978-0-253-20378-6.
  4. ^ Stark, James (2003). Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy. University of Toronto Press. ISBN  978-0-8020-8614-3.
  5. ^ The part of Clorinde is notated in the soprano clef (original score: Tancrede, Tragedie [...]. Paris: Ballard. 1702. p. 71 ff.), but, although it never descends below d′, tradition has it that it was the first major bas-dessus (contralto) role in the French opera history (Sadie, Julie Anne (1997). "Maupin". In Sadie, Stanley (ed.). The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Vol. 3. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 274. ISBN  978-0-19-522186-2.
  6. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Contralto" . Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  7. ^ Peucker, Brigitte. The Material Image: Art and the Real in Film. Stanford University Press 2007. p. 120 ISBN  9780804754316 Archived 2017-09-05 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ "A Taste of the Music of Zarah Leander". YouTube: Flower Bomb. 29 June 2022.
  9. ^ "HĀYEDA – Encyclopaedia Iranica". Retrieved 30 June 2019.
  10. ^ Elliot, David J. (2005). Praxial Music Education: Reflections and Dialogues. Oxford University Press. p. 302. ISBN  9780199725113. Archived from the original on 26 March 2017.
  11. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: "Contralto Female Voice…". YouTube: DHO Gwen. 8 January 2017.
  12. ^ "Bally Prell". Historical Tenors. Retrieved 12 July 2021.
  13. ^ a b Boldrey, Richard (1994). Guide to Operatic Roles and Arias. Caldwell Publishing Company. ISBN  978-1-877761-64-5.

Further reading

External links

  • Media related to Contraltos at Wikimedia Commons
  • The dictionary definition of Contralto at Wiktionary