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Voice Types

Soubrette — A very light voice, this type of soprano usually plays very young women, sometimes naïve, but almost always energetic. A warm, gentle voice, this type of soprano usually plays young, innocent women. These roles are sometimes casually referred to as "ina/etta roles" due to many character names ending in these suffixes (Zerlina, Gianetta, Serpina, Nannetta). They often portray maids, servants and peasant girls.

Example: Kathleen Battle singing "Sul fil d'un soffio etesio" from Verdi's Falstaff
Lyric — The most common type of soprano, these singers portray a wide range of characters, from maids and countesses to middle-class women and young women in love. The vocal quality is heavier than a soubrette, but still fairly light. Sometimes, a distinction between "light lyric" (roles such as Gilda, Lucia and Juliette) and "full lyric" (roles such as Tatyana, Michaëla and Mimì) is made.

Example: Kiri Te Kanawa singing "Dove sono" from Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro
Spinto — This subset is typically refers to roles in the operas of Puccini, Verdi and other late 19th-century Italian composers. The sound is rather full and large, and it possesses a great amount of dramatic color. The characters are often grand and larger-than-life.

Example: Galina Vishnevskaya singing "Un bel di verdremo" from Puccini's Madama Butterfly
Dramatic — The largest of the soprano voices, dramatic sopranos are usually associated with the operas of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, although many sing the works of Verdi and other composers, as well. These voices must be heard over very large orchestras and take the longest to develop.

Example: Birgit Nilsson singing the "Liebestod" from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde

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Lyric — Lyric mezzos have light, high voices, and sometimes sing soprano roles (like Zerlina in Don Giovanni). Often, they play young men or boys in what are known as pants or trouser roles. Their voices are very flexible, and they have a wide range and color palette.

Cecilia Bartoli singing "Diserratevi o porte d'Averno" from Handel's La Resurrezione
Dramatic — Dramatic mezzos typically have large voices with a color similar to a dramatic soprano. They often portray villainesses, mature women or seductresses. While these singers are rarely used in Baroque and Classical opera, their voices are found in works of the 19th , 20th and 21st centuries.

Giulietta Simionato singing "L'aborrita rivale a me sfuggia," "Ohimè! … morir me sento!" and "Empia razza!" from Verdi's Aida

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The lowest of the female voice types, the contralto is most often found in mature female roles, ranging from the wild and temperamental (Klytämnestra in Strauss’ Elektra, the Sorceress in Dido and Aeneas) to the dignified and noble (Erda in Wagner's Ring cycle, Cornelia in Handel's Giulio Cesare). A "true" contralto voice is considered rare, and as such, many contralto roles are frequently sung by mezzo-sopranos.

Kerstin Thorborg singing "Weiche, Wotan, weiche!" from Wagner’s Das Rheingold

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The highest of the mature male voice types, a countertenor is a natural tenor or baritone who has trained extensively in his upper register, developing a sound and range similar to a female mezzo-soprano. They primarily sing music of the Renaissance and Baroque periods in roles written originally for castrati or boy altos. In more modern times, composers such a Benjamin Britten and John Adams have written music for countertenors.

Christophe Dumaux singing "L’empio, sleale, indegno" from Handel's Giulio Cesare

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Leggiero — Found in the operas of Handel, Rossini and other composers of the 18th and 19th centuries, these tenors posses very agile and high voices. They tend to play young men and are often the hero of the opera.

Juan Diego Flórez singing "Ah mes amis" from Donizetti's La Fille du régiment
Lyric — These tenors typically have light, clear voices of medium size. Like leggiero tenors, they often play the romantic lead. Mozart tenor roles, as well as many French leading tenor roles, fit this voice type perfectly.

Roberto Alagna singing "Vainement, ma bien aimée" from Massenet's Le Roi d'Ys
Spinto/Dramatic — Like spinto and dramatic soprano, tenors in this category have large voices well-suited to late 19th-century Italian opera. They often play impulsive characters and tragic heroes. Roles sung by more lyric tenors today (like the Duke in Rigoletto and Romeo) were often sung by spinto tenors in past generations.

Jonas Kaufmann singing "Pourquoi me réveiller" from Werther
Heldentenor — Although many dramatic tenors fall into this subset, the specific term is reserved for tenor roles in Wagner operas. Literally meaning "heroic tenor," these singers play grand heroes of epic proportions. Many also sing roles like Verdi’s Otello and Calaf in Turandot.

Lauriz Melchior singing "Winterstürme" from Wagner's Die Walküre
Character/Comprimario — Specializing in small comic roles, character tenors must be fantastic actors and have the ability to create different voices for different characters.

Jeffrey Francis as Count Ory in the duet “Ah, quel respect, Madame” with Laura Claycomb Le Comte Ory

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Baryton-Martin — This light, high baritone is found primarily in French music, and the roles are sometimes sung by a tenor with a solid lower register. The most notable role in this category is the role of Pelléas in Pelléas et Mélisande by Debussy. Because of the limited operatic repertoire, many sing a great deal of song repertoire.

Pierre Bernac singing Poulenc's Banalités
Lyric — Lyric baritones typically have light and gentle voices, and are often associated with the operas of Mozart. They sometimes play comic characters (Papageno, Rossini's Figaro) but also more serious ones (Count Almaviva, Don Giovanni).

Thomas Hampson singing "Hai gia vinta la causa" from Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro
Verdi Baritone — Named for the type of vocal writing in the operas of Giuseppe Verdi, these baritones have large and powerful instruments, sometimes with a steely edge, that can cut through a large orchestra. Verdi baritones usually play the villain, causing trouble for the other characters.

Ettore Bastianini singing "Cortigiani vil razza dannata" from Verdi's Rigoletto

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As the name implies, these singers have characteristics of both the bass and baritone voices. While the name applies more to particular singers than specific roles, one of the best examples of a bass-baritone role is Puccini's Scarpia (Tosca), which is sung by basses and baritones. Some sing more bass roles than baritone roles, and others are more on the baritone side, all depending on the individual singer.

Ruggero Raimondi singing "Te Deum" from Puccini's Tosca

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Lyric — The most common bass type, these singers are suited to a more Italianate style. The voices are higher, and many of the roles can be sung by bass-baritones. These basses often play older men, fathers, kings, priests, and figures of great wisdom and authority.

Ferruccio Furlanetto singing "Ella giammai m'amo" from Verdi's Don Carlo
Basso buffo — A basso buffo is more of a character type than a voice type and is mostly found in Italian comic operas. These characters are often oblivious to what is happening around them, and they are frequently on the wrong end of jokes and pranks.

John Del Carlo singing "A un dottor della mia sorte" from Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia
Basso Profondo — While these singers are not necessarily known for the beauty of their voices, they do have great vocal power. They play many types of characters, including the semi-comic (like Mozart’s Osmin) and the dramatic (Wagner’s Fafner).

Examples: Kurt Moll singing "O wie will ich triumphieren" from Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail

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