The changing prominence of the contralto.
While female contralto pop and jazz singers can be heard on just about every i-device and radio station in the United States and Europe, their classical counterparts are increasingly rare in today's opera, concert, and radio programming.The true female contralto
typically has a vocal range from the F below middle C to the second G above middle C
. The points at which the contralto voice transitions between registers also distinguish the voice from a mezzo or a soprano. Like sopranos, classical contralto singers are further grouped
, lyric, and dramatic types.
The classical repertoire for this voice part is rich and varied and once led to international stardom for singers like the beloved British Kathleen Ferrier
, whose centenary is being celebrated this year
, and the groundbreaking American Marian Anderson
. However, live performances and radio broadcasts of the works that highlight the contralto voice are hard to find these days: the voice part and roles it can assume are typically stereotyped, sometime by contraltos themselves, as “schoolmarmy” or “bitchy,” when in fact a frequent role for the classical contralto was a gender-bending take on parts written for male voices
and male characters inspired by Romantic poetry
. While some contraltos have been able to establish successful careers over the last 20 years
, household name recognition for female classical singers is today mostly the province of sopranos (Fleming, Battle, Norman, Callas) and mezzo-sopranos (Von Stade, Bartoli, Horne). For some obscure reason, the classical contralto singer does not attract the love and attention she once did. The relative rarity of bona fide female contraltos does not help matters.
As classical contralto performances have become harder to find, the voice part dominates most forms of jazz and popular music, and many if not most of the best
-loved female popular singers
since the 1940s have been contraltos
. Adele's massive popularity has apparently led to renewed interest in the uniqueness of the contralto voice itself
. Just as the classical contralto is now rare, true sopranos typically don't rise to pop music prominence, or they do not get opportunities to use their upper range. However, soprano outliers do exist, and mezzos abound in both classical and pop worlds.
Some modern-day classical contraltos:
Some of the best known classical repertoire that has been written specifically for or performed by contraltos:
- Das Lied Von Der Erde (Mahler, sixth movement, sung by Kathleen Ferrier)
- Rhapsody for Contralto, Male Chorus & Orchestra (linked above, sung by Marian Anderson)
- But Who May Abide (Handel's Messiah) (linked above, sung by Sara Mingardo)
- Domine Deus, Agnus Dei (Vivaldi's Gloria, sung by Sabine DeGroote)
- Sapphische Ode (Brahms, sung by Ottilie Metzger-Lattermann)
- Orfeo, Orfeo ed Euridice (Gluck) (linked above, sung by Kathleen Ferrier)
- Olga, Eugene Onegin (Tchaikovsky, sung by Margarita Mamsarova)
- La Principessa, Suor Angelica (Puccini, sung by Jocelyne Taillon)
- Auntie, Peter Grimes (Britten, sung by Liliana Nikiteanu)
- Maria, Porgy and Bess (Gershwin, sung by Marietta Simpson)
- Algunas Bestias (from Theodorakis' Canto General, sung by Maria Farantouri)