Versatility At War with Categorization: An Analysis of Singers Known for Singing in Multiple Fächer
Versatility At War with Categorization:
An Analysis of Singers Known for Singing in Multiple Fächer
Throughout human history categorization has been an incessant endeavor in such diverse disciplines as taxonomy, literature, and art. It has led to great advances, such as the mapping of the human genome, and to atrocities, such as the horrors committed in the name of race or religion. Inevitably tension underlays the process of categorization, as marginal data threatens to undermine the entire schematic. Categorization of singers’ voices, whether in the German system of Fächer or by less formal systems borne out of other nations, is essential to the vocal world. Repertory opera houses use the system to contract singers, singers themselves rely on guidelines for their own Fach in the selection of repertoire, and opera enthusiasts employ the categorizations to assess the attractiveness of performances and to review them. Nevertheless, some singers, many among the most famous in the recorded era, seem to defy easy categorization by voice type, switching between Fächer either at will or over the course of a career. This tension between categorization and versatility appears to manifest on a scale. Sopranos and mezzo-sopranos seem most disposed toward versatility, switching both between the prime voice types and also between Fächer, tenors have great versatility but only within their voice type switching between Fächer, and baritones and basses have less versatility available to them. Within each of these three categories, it seems that heavier voices roughly in the lirico-spinto range are most disposed to singing an unusually broad range of repertoire.
Sopranos and mezzo-sopranos sing successfully in the widest range of repertoire, succeeding both in singing across Fächer, especially as careers progress and age adds size and strength to a voice, and also singing across primary voice types. This differentiates them from tenors, who also master multiple Fächer but rarely venture into baritone repertoire, for instance. As with each category, it is the soprano voices on the borderline between heavier and lighter production that prove most versatile.
Grace Bumbry and Shirley Verrett serve as perhaps the purest examples of the extreme border between soprano and mezzo-soprano roles, switching between them but not so greatly between internal Fächer, sticking to dramatic roles in both. Bumbry’s performance as Amneris in Verdi’s Aïda, for instance, may have been in line with her beginning as a mezzo-soprano or may have stemmed from an uncanny ability to make extensive use of chest voice. While this kind of singing did seem to strain her a bit, it was the mainstay of her career. In the title role of R. Strauss’ Salome, however, Bumbry was quite impressive, perhaps struggling a bit with the uppermost reaches but bringing a gripping robustness and vigor to the role. Similarly, Shirley Verrett exhibited capability with a variety of mezzo-soprano roles excerpted on a recital disc, from Baroque to Bel Canto to late Romantic. Nevertheless, across the board and even in her full performance as Azucena in Verdi’s Il trovatore, the voice possessed an unexpected lightness. In the title role of Puccini’s Tosca the opposite was apparent; while retaining squillo, Verrett’s voice gained a dark, throbbing vibrancy. Verrett continued to sing both dramatic soprano roles and also mezzo-soprano roles throughout her career. While varying opinions exist about Verrett and Bumbry, these suggest both were heavier sopranos with extraordinary capabilities in both dramatic soprano and dramatic mezzo-soprano repertoire.
Christa Ludwig offers a similar perspective on these dramatic switches between primary voice types, but definitively as a mezzo-soprano with both a broader repertoire and the capability to sing soprano roles. She excelled at lyric, spinto, and dramatic repertoire and specialized, unusually, in both the heaviest mezzo-soprano roles of Verdi and Wagner and also in trouser roles. For instance, she was a favorite as Octavian in R. Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, though her inability to personally accept the character undermined her portrayals. She also stretched her repertoire into the dramatic soprano realm, undertaking the Marschallin and offering a unique, mature-sounding perspective on the role given her mezzo-soprano voice. Nevertheless, she recognized the limits of her versatility. Though tempted by the heavy Wagnerian soprano heroines and even urged to undertake them by Herbert von Karajan, she eschewed them due to the strain they inflicted on her instrument. Even among these unusual singers, this wisdom was valuable as it avoided risks such as those undertaken by José Carreras, to be discussed in the tenor section.
Some women exhibited extensive versatility switching between both Fächer and also between voice types more broadly. Rose Ponselle serves as a classic example. She had a wide range of capabilities as a soprano, singing excerpts ranging from “Casta diva” from Bellini’s Norma to “Un bel dí vedremo” from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and all the way to “Ritorna vincitor” from Verdi’s Aïda. She also tackled Mozart and Wagner. Though she clearly could sing a variety of soprano repertoire, the size of her voice, an unusual presence and warmth in the deeper range, and a strong sense of character gave her stunning capabilities in the title role of Bizet’s Carmen, leading many to wonder if she should have been a mezzo-soprano all along. Poor recording quality makes firm determinations about Ponselle’s voice difficult. Nevertheless, she serves as a touchstone for the wide versatility of the female voices.
Victoria de los Angeles also embodied this capability. She sang some of the lighter soprano repertoire, notably the title role in Massenet’s Manon, and in the repertoire of Spanish opera and zarzuela, Rossini, Schubert, Handel, Ravel, and even Lully and Pergolesi. Her foundation, however, was Puccini leads such as Madame Butterfly or Mimí in Puccini’s La bohéme. Despite, late in her career she began to dabble in even heavier repertoire. She tried her hand as Elisabeth in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, for instance, taking on German style. Regardless of the soprano repertoire she chose to sing, however, de los Angeles maintained the same incredible attention to detail and capability to infuse her beautiful tone with stylistic details appropriate to the music she sang. She too tackled the title role of Carmen, bringing to it perhaps intuitive stylistic understanding due to her Spanish heritage. The voice clearly did not offer typical mezzo-soprano sultriness, but made up for it with a teasing lightness. Hence, Ponselle and de los Angeles offer even greater evidence of female versatility, tackling everything from high, light soprano repertoire to at least the tip of the lyric mezzo-soprano repertoire.
Maria Callas, La Divina, sums up the section as probably the most diverse artist on the list. Her repertoire reached from dramatic Wagnerian heroines to Bel Canto belles, with Puccini and Verdi thrown in between. She also performed Carmen, venturing into the mezzo-soprano realm and raising the question of whether that was where she always belonged. Ultimately Callas seemed to possess a heavier, dramatic voice with great staying power and exceptional range. Her success in Bel Canto may have been due to an uncanny ability to produce a (sometimes) pleasant tone while singing almost off the voice. This would have made the agility and lighter refinement of this sort of repertoire easier even with a voice that was built for roles like Tosca or even Wagnerian soprano heroines. Concurrently, Callas’ success as Carmen makes sense, as a heavier soprano voice would be much closer to the mezzo-soprano role than a coloratura soprano voice.
Ultimately, though the most extreme example, Maria Callas serves as a lens for the role of female voice types in a comprehensive theory about versatile singers. These women always possessed the capability to sing dramatic repertoire of some type, whether soprano or mezzo-soprano. Some were more adept at switching between those two primary voice types while others turned more toward lighter repertoire, in both cases through mastery of unusual instruments. Regardless, this combination of factors marks the female voices as possessing the greatest potential for versatility.
There are tenors who succeeded in switching between primary voice types, just as women switched between soprano and mezzo-soprano. Mario del Monaco, Franco Corelli, and Plácido Domingo, for instance, all made transitions between baritone and tenor. These transitions, however, were in all cases due to inaccurate early training and in the latter case also a transition to accommodate age. More typical for tenor voices is extensive switching between Fächer within the tenor voice type. Certainly many singers, such as Luciano Pavarotti, Jussi Björling, or Fritz Wunderlich, exemplify this capability, singing Bel Canto, Verismo, and Verdi repertoire, as well as extensive art song. Tenors, while quite versatile, especially with lirico-spinto roots, lack the versatility of switching between primary voice types that makes women the most versatile group.
Georges Thill was a great proponent of French music of all periods, singing repertoire ranging from Gluck and Charpentier to Berlioz and Massenet. His style ranged somewhere between a typical Italianate production and something distinctly French, depending on the repertoire. He was noted as being successful in both lyric and spinto repertoire. His lighter selections, particularly in French music, were remarkable because they exhibited more controlled vibrato, extensive use of timbre shading for effect, masterful control of dynamics with superb crescendi and diminuendi, and a solid sense of style. Even the heavier pieces in both the French and Italian repertoire did not entirely lose this sense of smooth French style, but Thill did allow the vibrato and thrust of the tone to run more freely in these excerpts. Despite this measured approach, Thill’s voice also exhibited many of the typical traits of a more dramatic tenor voice. As he transitioned through the passaggio the voice became more metallic, not losing depth, but turning that depth into something colder and steelier. High notes, though secure at least in these recordings (critics claimed they were not always so), definitely had a very hooked-in, robust production. Thill seems to fit in the middle ground of lyrico-spinto, not unlike Jussi Björling, who possessed a vaguely similar voice, or Luciano Pavarotti. This, combined with the success of those singers in singing the same versatile range of repertoire adds credibility to the theory that that sort of voice spawns versatile singers.
José Carreras offers an example of the potential costs of versatility. Unlike Christa Ludwig, when Herbert von Karajan approached him about undertaking heavier spinto and even dramatic tenor roles, Carreras charged wholeheartedly into the repertoire. In one of his lightest roles, Leicester in Rossini’s Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra, abnormalities in Carreras’s production were immediately apparent. It had the smoothness of a lyric voice but the upper range was attacked in an almost shouted, if still covered, fashion, with just enough depth to give a classical sound. Also, Carreras’ tone paradoxically, even in the higher tessitura, seemed to be extremely dark in timbre. While not unacceptable, the conflux of these factors undermined Carreras’ success in this repertoire. In La traviata as Alfredo, however, these traits seemed to fit the role naturally. Though the timbre remained unusually dark for a typical lyric tenor and the high notes were approached similarly, the role felt more secure and fully in Carreras’ power. The timbre was thrilling and exciting rather than a hindrance to singing through the role. The high notes felt more balanced, as well, although they still employed the hooked-in, simultaneously overweighty-yet-shouty production. In all, however, Carreras’ was definitely a comfortable and thrilling Alfredo. Finally, looking at Carreras in perhaps his most popular dramatic role, the title character of Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, it became apparent the damage Carreras’ choices may have had on his career. The voice seemed to have inverted, becoming harsh and metallic instead of rich and dark. Nevertheless, it still had a sense of pressurized weight to it, though one that no longer manifested in a pleasant richness but instead in very wide vibrato and raggedness. Essentially, it seems critics who suggest José Carreras’ voice to be fundamentally lyric might be correct. The effect of his illness is hard to judge, but the recordings described all preceded that illness. Instead, the technical flaws of Carreras’ lyric voice limited his capabilities in the Bel Canto repertoire and its dark, rich timbre made the temptation of spinto and dramatic repertoire seem dangerously appropriate. This analysis does not reflect positively on Carreras, but he did sound divine as Alfredo, and at a meta-artistic level the idea that the force, raggedness, and degradation of Carreras’ voice represented many of the characters he played is intriguing.
Analyzing Thill and Carreras against a baseline of such singers as Björling, Pavarotti, or Wunderlich suggests that those tenors with greatest versatility sit on the lirico-spinto borderline. While not a direct analogy, the borderline of lirico-spinto is reminiscent of the most versatile female singers, who, on a larger scale, were also on the heavier side of the spectrum, allowing them to tackle both lyric and dramatic soprano and even mezzo-soprano roles. This larger scale for female singers, however, encompassing switches not only between intra-voice type Fächer but also between primary voice types as well, compared with tenors switching Fächer only within their own voice type, outlines a trend of decreasing versatility proportional with the range of the voice.
Men with deeper voices and sufficient versatility are somewhat elusive. That elusiveness further supports the argument that versatility declines proportionally with the depth of the voice. Indeed, the trend continues within the low voices, as baritones seem more disposed to versatility than basses. Even among these less versatile low voices, however, it remains true that it is the heavier, somewhat dramatic voices that are capable of the most versatile careers.
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is often considered by many to be (at least one of) the best baritone(s) in the recorded era. It was surprising, therefore, that his performance of the title role of Verdi’s Rigoletto, a cornerstone of the heavier baritone repertoire, was not particularly appealing. Fischer-Dieskau lacked the almost tenoral ring typical of so-called Verdi baritones. At some of the tenderest moments his innate sense of legato carried him through, but on the whole the voice felt belabored and forced, leading to an almost frayed sound. As the Count in the film version of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, Fischer-Dieskau brought the only reasonable acting to a production drenched in poor, almost slapstick comedy. He sang the role almost as he might have sung art song. The sense of belabored production fell away, and the recitatives were uncharacteristically interesting while the arias were full of verve. Finally, as might be expected based on reputation, Fischer-Dieskau’s performance of Schubert’s Winterreise with Alfred Brendel was comparatively the most impressive. Fischer-Dieskau’s velvety tone was beautiful, caressing and piano or insistent and forte, utilizing all the stylistic differentiation imaginable to portray the different sentiments wrapped up in the masterpiece song cycle. The versatility of Fischer-Dieskau’s career is unquestionable. He was successful in a wide variety of repertoire. Nonetheless, because Fischer-Dieskau’s voice was fundamentally lyric, it may not have fallen in the versatility-prone lirico-spinto region, limiting him in roles such as Rigoletto but benefiting his work in lighter repertoire.
While versatility was still present in the work of Fischer-Dieskau, a baritone, it became yet more elusive looking at still deeper voices. George London, generally considered to be in the nebulous category of “bass-baritone,” however, does fit. Possessing a fairly large, dramatic voice, he also fit in the range to succeed at both lighter, more baritonal roles and also heavier, bass-baritonal roles. In the title role of Mozart’s Don Giovanni George London brought a warm, creamy, explosive production that definitely emphasized the galvanized dangerousness of the character, though it undersold the more vibrantly electric sexual virility Don Giovanni also possesses. The voice’s undeniable intensity seemed best suited to heavier roles. In the title roles of both Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer this sound was perfectly appropriate, granting a commanding, almost otherworldly boom to roles removed from the everyday life of the common person: a mad emperor and a supernatural ship’s captain. John T. Gates, Visiting Assistant Professor of Voice at Lawrence University, remarks that bass voices do not work like most other voice types and that bigger, heavier voices are almost always preferred. George London, however, demonstrates that heavy voices with the capability to tackle lighter repertoire still seem to be the ones that succeed in versatility, though perhaps because of the unusual situation for bass voices London’s performance of Don Giovanni was somewhat hindered.
The voice of Giorgio Tozzi, who sang a vast variety of opera roles, as well as music outside of opera, also supports a similar conclusion. Tozzi, though defined as leaning more toward the bass side of bass-baritone, was at least as versatile as London. Opposite London in the same performance of Der fliegende Holländer in the character role of Daland (though he sang the Dutchman in his career, as well), also in the title role of Boris Godunov, and as the bass soloist in Handel’s Messiah, Tozzi consistently possessed a large, rich voice. If anything, however, Tozzi’s voice sounded lighter in timbre, cooler, and more metallic than London’s voice. Tozzi succeeded throughout this diverse repertoire by changing his style of singing from expressively conversational in character roles to smooth, legato, and nobly refined in fully-sung roles such as the Dutchman or Boris, and finally light and free in the coloratura of Handel’s Messiah. Tozzi was highly regarded as reliable and constant in his production, a true artist capable in a vast variety of repertoire. Here, he serves as a perfect conclusion to the theory. Though Tozzi suffered from the same deep-voice issue as London, limiting his overall versatility compared to higher voices, his lighter timbre and more supple voice compared to London’s supposedly more baritonal bass-baritone actually allowed him greater versatility, in line with the theory that dramatic voices that sit on the margin are those most capable of sustaining heavier repertoire while also cherry-picking lighter repertoire.
As male voices get deeper, total versatility compared to other voice types diminishes. Like those other voice types, however, it is the somewhat heavier voices that sit between lyric and spinto that seem most successful in a broad range of roles. Fischer-Dieskau was not entirely successful in heavier baritone roles due to his fundamentally lyric voice and expressive style of production, but nevertheless was close enough to succeed and did so in a fairly broad range of repertoire. Deeper still, George London and Giorgio Tozzi, demonstrated that, though hampered by the need for bass-like voices to be large and robust, through unique vocal characteristics and exceptional skill, they could use their place on the margin to succeed in a range of roles in the baritonal, bass-baritonal, and bass ranges, illustrating, along with Fischer-Dieskau, both declining versatility proportional with their ranges and also the capability to access versatility through their somewhat heavier voices within their voice types.
Categorizing voice types and subdividing them using the Fächer and other systems serves important purposes such as allowing houses to select singers, singers to judge appropriate repertoire for their careers, and enthusiasts to know what kind of singer they might like in a performance of given repertoire. Voices definitely do break down into rough categories. Still, the human voice is to a large extent a sliding scale of capabilities, and strict definition into these groupings cannot be reduced to hard limits based on tessitura, range extremes, vocal size, or timbre. A general conclusion, however, seems to be that moderately heavy lirico-spinto type voices among female voice types, tenors, and deeper male voice types tend to lend themselves most successfully to versatility even as that versatility decreases proportionally with the depth of those groups overall.
Most sopranos and mezzo-sopranos who succeeded in switching between Fächer or even between the two broader voice types generally were capable of singing the heavy soprano or mezzo-soprano repertoire but possessed unique abilities to master lighter repertoire, as well. By comparison, lirico-spinto tenors similarly seem the most capable of switching between tenor Fächer but tenors, unlike the women, are much less likely to successfully switch into another voice type entirely, especially in the middle of a career. Baritones, bass-baritones, and basses suffer under acoustic requirements for deeper voices to possess great size in order to carry and be thrilling in roles often portraying figures such as fathers, gods, and supernatural beings. Nevertheless, even within these voice types singers with sufficient thrust to bear out those roles while also tackling lighter repertoire still managed to sing versatile careers, unifying the theory.
Exactly what trait offers any given singer the ability to pursue repertoire from multiple Fächer or even primary voice types is perhaps impossible to say. These examples of singers known for their versatility, however, offer some insights as to how specific traits help or hinder careers spanning a broad range of repertoire. Those conclusions lead to a theory, albeit necessarily rough, of the prerequisites for versatility. Versatility seems inversely proportional to the range of voices, with deeper voices less versatile than light ones, but within the categories of women, tenors, and darker male voices it is the roughly lirico-spinto voices that are most predisposed toward versatile capabilities. It may be impossible to reconcile the natural rigidity of a vocal categorization system that accurately describes so many singers with unusual vocalists capable of successfully performing a broader range or repertoire. Perhaps the most useful finding of this study is to reinforce this fact, demonstrating both the benefits and limitations of that very classification system.
Hines, Jerome. Great Singers on Great Singing. New York: Doubleday & Company. 1982.
Jacobson, Robert M. Opera People. New York: The Vendome Press. 1982.
Thank you also to the voice faculty of Lawrence University for their recommendations of singers who fit the parameters of this project and to Bonnie Koestner for her support in this endeavor and her wealth of knowledge on the topic.
 This essay acts as a conclusion to this study’s reports on versatile singers and assumes some familiarity with the observations of individual singers. Descriptions of singers’ voices and references to specific repertoire are therefore not comprehensive and are raised only where they support the broader conclusions of the study as a whole. All singers’ careers are addressed in the past tense as no singer is currently singing the kind of repertoire for which they were known.