Where the Fach Did They Go?

A fellow voice major here at Lawrence caused me to recall an interesting trend in vocal classification among singers over the past century.  Theoretically, beyond Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, (the rare) Alto, Baritone, and Bass, voice types are governed by fächer a term hailing from Germany that describes a group of different fach(s) that further divide these voice types. Note that there are other terms that are used in countries that don't speak German, but by far fach is the most common word used to describe the idea. Rather than list fächer here, as that isn't the point of this article, I will direct you to look them up here on Wikipedia (note this list is not entirely accurate, as there are some omissions (such as absence of the leggiero tenor) and the terms are not clearly defined even among experts).


All the great singers that opera lovers enjoy thinking about and listening to should technically be able to be classified by these fächer. However, save for a few exceptions (which I will discuss toward the end of the article) there has been a large tendency for singers to try to pluralize the repertoire they sing beyond their fach and sometimes beyond their voice type. This presents a number of problems for pretty much everyone in the opera world. It's hard for developing singers to understand what their future looks like, what roles to consider learning, and how to market themselves going forward (though, to be fair, most teachers tell these aspiring students not to worry about their fach). Opera directors and others looking to hire singers are likewise left at a loss for what singer might be best suited to their production. Finally, it's hard for opera fans to understand the fach of their favorite singer(s) and in what productions they should look for them!

So, who are these great singers breaking out of their fächer? There are lots of them. All over the place! We'll start with tenors since... I'm biased... Perhaps the most striking example is pavarotti, whose roles ranged throughout his career from his showstopping, career-starting light 9 high Cs in "Pour mon ame" in Donizetti's La fille du regiment to his Manrico belting out the end of "Di quella pira" in Verdi's Il trovatore. Similar in vein would be Jussi Björling, Enrico Caruso, Plácido Domingo, Carlo Bergonzi, as well as many of the younger stars of today. The reasons for this among the tenors seem to be several. Often, when the tenors begin their careers, as in the example of Pavarotti above, they start out strictly in their fach. However, dramatic roles are lucrative, and therefore the tenors who possess voices that, though perhaps at their forte when light, are capable of filling out Verdi, Puccini, and other Romantic Era roles tend to do so. This helps to bolster a career and expand possibilities. Indeed, many of these tenors tend to be the most famous of their time, and there's a correlation between these facts. Pavarotti was recognized as a force because of his Donizetti, he became a legend because of his Puccini.

The tenor exceptions: The extremes. When you look at the very extremes of fach you find that the tenors tend to stick more or less where they belong. Men like Jon Vickers, Lauritz Melchior, Mario Del Monaco, and Franco Corelli tended to stick strongly to heavy roles (although Corelli's last role in his life was one of the lightest in his repertoire, La boheme). Similarly Alfredo Kraus and more recently Juan Diego Florez have clung strongly to Bel Canto and earlier in terms of their repertoire, though Kraus moved on later in his career.

How about sopranos? Are they doing the same weird stuff?

Quite simply, the answer is yes. A great example to begin with is the divisive Maria Callas. Callas began her career as a mezzo-soprano possessing a timbre so dark she described it as "black." However, as time went on, she became known for her soprano roles and her upper register. It is thus difficult to select a fach for Callas. Was she at one point a mezzo-soprano whose voice developed later or did training allow her to reach the potential of a soprano voice that was not originally being fully utilized? Some suggestion has been made that she was a soprano sfolgato, characterized by dark timbre and limitless soprano range. Whatever, the case, we are blessed to possess recordings of her ranging from Dalila (Samson et Dalila) to the bel canto fireworks of Donizetti, Bellini, and Rossini.

Joan Sutherland may not have begun her career as a mezzo (and thus, is perhaps a more "true" example of fach blurring since she consistently varied her repertoire throughout her career) but she also serves as an excellent example of this trend in sopranos. In some of the tenor cases a clear transition can be seen throughout a career from one sort of repertoire to another. Frequently this is due to development in the voice and thus some of those cases are subject to question. However, Sutherland's roles ranged from the heaviest of the heavy, Wagner, to the lightest bel canto and even Handel (which sparked her career). Sutherland initially struggled with her upper range, but eventually became renowned for it. Due to these factors, Sutherland may perhaps be one of the best examples we have of this scenario.

At this point, I will move a bit more quickly through the remaining voice types. There are two reasons for this. One is that there are less prominent examples in these types due, in my opinion, to the fact that the range of fächer for these groups is smaller, and two, more simply, that I am running behind on posts.

Contraltos we will skip as they are such a rare voice type to begin with and typically become known from original classification as a mezzo or even soprano anyway. Thus, we move to mezzos. Mezzos seem characterized less by a shift in fach within their voice type and more by a desire to delve into soprano roles.

Both Cecilia Bartoli, a singer of modern acclaim, and a mezzo soprano from ages passed, Maria Malabran, have frequently investigated soprano roles that do not require prohibitively stratospheric upper extension. Another prime example of a singer who transitioned back and forth over this blurred line is Shirley Verrett. Indeed, many lower ranged roles are often questioned regarding whether a mezzo or a full soprano can or should be placed in them.

Baritones and basses become a bit more difficult to classify. This phenomenon seems a bit less common among these voice types, but they possess some interesting characteristics that set them in a similar league. The first I would point out is the phenomenon of the "bass-baritone." It seems that more and more often this classification is being used for singers who are in between the lines. This might apply to a singer who lacks the range of a bass but has the timbre, or whose range extends quite deep but has a lighter timbre than a deep, true bass might. It should be noted that a range of four true fächer do indeed cover this classification. Thus it is legitimate within the system, but interesting for the consideration of voice types. Another situation that can be seen with baritones is the possibility for them to command incredible upper range (sometimes leading to the transition to tenor roles, as earlier discussed). Sherril Milnes could easily sing a high B. I can recall hearing a story of famed tenors and baritones trading roles for fun in rehearsal. Thus, there is some overlap here as well.

With that said, I will wrap up this discussion in hopes that I can return to a regular posting schedule. I would look forward to hearing what people think about fächer. Is it an outdated system? Are we at risk for ignoring it? What do you think?

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