Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Women's History Month: The Sopranos

Leontyne Price
The soprano range is the highest vocal range.  It is the range of children's voices and women with the highest voice range.  In operas, the most important vocal part is often the soprano role.  She is usually the heroine of the story, often coming to a tragic but well-sung demise.  Famous sopranos of the opera stage have been known as the prima donna (first lady, or most important woman) or "diva," the Italian word for goddess.

Famous Sopranos of the 20th Century
  • Birgit Nilsson  (1918 - 2005) was a Swedish dramatic soprano best known for her performances in Wagnerian operas and roles requiring similar vocal power, such as Richard Strauss's Elektra
  • Maria Callas (1923 - 1977) American-born Greek soprano whose unique tone and wide range enabled her to sing a wide variety of roles.  She was the most influential singer of the middle of the century.  Her Carmen is classic.
  • Dame Joan Sutherland (1926 -2010)  Her most famous role is Lucia, in Lucia di Lammermoor, especially the final "Mad" scene that pairs Lucia with the orchestra's flutes in imitation of bird songs.
  • Renata Tebaldi (1922 - 2004) was known as much for her powerful lower range as for her splendid high notes. She performed Puccin's Tosca 162 times, 45 of them at the Metropolitan Opera.
  • Leontyne Price (1927 - ) was one of the first African-American performers at the Metropolitan Opera.  She has been a champion of American music, and she sang at Lyndon B. Johnson's state funeral.  Her best-known roles are Verdi's Aida and Il Trovatore
  • Beverly Sills (1929 - 2007) nicknamed "Bubbles," was an American diva who went into management after her retirement from singing.  Her voice encompassed a very wide range yet remained nimble in even the highest register.  She frequently appeared on television, including live opera broadcasts and talk shows.    Many consider her interpretation of Donizetti's Roberto Devereux to be her finest performance but she reached her widest audience when she sang "Pigoletto" on the Muppet Show in 1979.
  • Montserrat Caballé (1933-  is a Spanish-born soprano, whose best-known role is the title character in Bellini's Norma.  She is also known as the soprano whose Barcelona concert with Queen's lead singer Freddie Mercury was one of his final performances.
  • Mirella Freni (b. 1935) debuted as Carmen at the age of 19 and continued singing on stage until age 70.  In the 1970s she starred in filmed versions of operas.
  • Jessye Norman (b. 1945) is an American dramatic soprano.  She made her operatic debut performing in Richard Wagner's Tannhauser but her other operatic roles have ranged from Handel to Stravinsky and Schoenberg.  She has also sung lieder for voice and orchestra, having the nuance of a lieder singer but the power of an opera diva. 

Famous Sopranos of the Current Generation
  • Kathleen Battle (b. 1948), born in Portsmouth, Ohio, is a light-lyric coloratura who performed in both lyric and coloratura roles before giving up the opera stage for the concert stage.  Her repertoire ranges from Baroque to jazz, and includes African-American spirituals.
  • Renée Fleming (b. 1959), born in the town of Indiana, Pennsylvania.  Conductor George Solti likened her vocal quality to that of Renata Tebaldi. Able to sing both coloratura and lyric roles, she has performed a wide variety of repertoire including operatic animated movie characters.  She has released several CDs of opera arias and is one of the few performers to take on the Czech language, in Dvorak's Rusalka.  She is often in the public eye, performing for President Obama's inauguration at the Lincoln Memorial and at the World Trade Center site.  She won a Grammy Award in 2013 for her all-French album, Poèmes
  • Deborah Voigt (b. 1960) is an American singer famous as much for having gastric bypass surgery after being fired by Covent Garden for not fitting into her costume.  Her diaphragm survived the operation and subsequent weight loss and she continues to sing demanding roles by Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, Bellini, and others.
  • Natalie Dessay (b. 1969), born in France, began her career singing Mozart and now is in demand for the famous roles by Puccini, Verdi, and Richard Strauss, including Ariadne auf Naxos
  • Diana Damrau (b. 1971), born in Bavaria, has an agile, light voice that is perfect for the famous "Queen of the Night" aria from Mozart's Magic Flute and other Mozart roles.  She has branched out to other roles and also performs song and aria albums.
  • Anna Netrebko (b. 1971), born in Russia, is one of the most sought-after sopranos of our time.  She has performed all the major soprano roles of the standard repertoire and also has sung in her native Russian under the baton of her mentor, conductor Valery Gergiev.  Her first recording on DVD was Ruslan and Lyudmila by Glinka.  She has appeared many times in the Metropolitan Opera live broadcasts including Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.
Soprano Voice Types
Soprano voices are categorized by their tone coloring, from richer, deeper tones to light and pure tones.  There are also differences in the range, though all sing in the soprano range.  The system of classification is called the Fach system.

Coloratura sopranos have a very high range and nimble voices capable of quick turns and runs.  An example is Diana Damrau, whose "Queen of the Night" aria from Mozart's Magic Flute is a classic performance.  Another famous performance is Joan Sutherland's "mad scene" in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.

Dramatic sopranos have a heavier voice, as required by composers such as Richard Wagner.  The dramatic soprano can be heard over heavy orchestration.

Lyric sopranos also have powerful voices but do not have the depth of dramatic sopranos.  They can often perform a wider range of roles than other singers.  Renée Fleming, Anna Netrebko, and  Mirella Freni are examples.

Light lyric-coloratura, for example Kathleen Battle, is a soprano who has a youthful sound despite ample power and control.

Lirico-spinto is halfway between dramatic and lyric voice types.  They can perform perhaps the widest range of operatic roles.  Examples are Leontyne Price and Renata Tebaldi.

For more about the Fach system, read The Opera Singer's Career Guide: Understanding the European Fach System.  ML3795 .M354 2010

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