Rare songbirds of the world.
June 23, 2012 1:53 PM   Subscribe

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 into coloratura, 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:
posted by Currer Belfry (12 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
I just designed a new opera with a contralto lead. During rehearsal she joked that the only roles she could play were "britches, witches, and bitches".
posted by Thin Lizzy at 2:15 PM on June 23, 2012 [8 favorites]

Great post, thanks (especially for your first time out)!
posted by Gator at 2:20 PM on June 23, 2012

Megami, thank you SO much for posting that, I listened to some of the other links and they were nice, but none of them seemed to love and be brought alive by their music quite so much as Ms Stutzmann. Truly a joy to behold!
posted by fearnothing at 3:49 PM on June 23, 2012

(But Who May Abide was written for the castrato Guadagni)
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:39 PM on June 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I didn't know that contraltos got this crap! When I was a teenager, my family was always commenting on how low my speaking voice was, and dad labeled my singing range as contralto. I thought that was really cool. Then as I got older, I found out I was more of a mezzo-soprano, and was so let down. Because, clearly, contraltos are the best. As my grandmother told me when I was 14, "It's good that you have such a voice. Low voices are sexy."
posted by Coatlicue at 5:40 PM on June 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

I didn't know I was contralto but looking at your list of pop contraltos, that's exactly the range I sing in (along with a lot of top-range male singers). Great post, looking forward to exploring all your links.
posted by immlass at 9:22 PM on June 23, 2012

Thank you for the post. One of my first and most moving experiences was listening to LPs of Kathleen Ferrier singing Mahler's Kindertotenlieder ("Songs on the Death of Children"; aside from this 1949 recording, there is also a live one from 1951 under Klemperer) and especially, of Brahms' Vier Ernste Gesänge ("Four Serious Songs").
A couple more singers worth mentioning are the Canadian Maureen Forrester, who sang a lot of Bach and Händel, but also Mahler. Here is the song, Urlicht from the cycle, Des Knaben Wunderhorn ("The Youth's Magic Horn"; more here - and I consider this a first rate recording of the cycle, with Heinz Rehfuss under Felix Prohaska). Live recordings of the Kindertotenlieder and Des Knaben Wunderhorn can be found here.
Also, I wanted to mention, as a contrast to Ferrier, the Dutch Contralto Aafye Heynis, here singing the Vier Ernste Gesänge, with much more in the playlist.
I would also like to add that it is as much the timbre of the voice as the range that distinguishes the contralto voice from others.
posted by melamakarona at 1:45 AM on June 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had never heard of Kathleen Ferrier before Friday; I found her version of Brahms' Rhapsody for Contralto at my local used record store and bought it on a whim. After I listened to it, a MeFi post was born! I've always favored contraltos and I was blown away by both the performance and the fact that I'd never heard anyone mention (or play) Ferrier before. I'm looking forward to exploring the links in the comments, too.
posted by Currer Belfry at 6:18 AM on June 24, 2012

I envy your being able to explore these recordings for the first time. There are other (and ever fewer) contraltos but Ferrier is unique.
posted by melamakarona at 7:21 AM on June 24, 2012

I am by no means a single of professional - or even good amateur - quality, but I've always had the lower range of the contralto, at least in my chest voice. (It is the G below middle C as chest voice - or head voice?).

I had noticed mezzo-sopranos (and counter tenors) being cast in alto roles (like in Messiah), but I had no idea that it was because people didn't like the contralto. The mezzo was a great singer (best expression, characterisation of any that day), but she growled too much on the low notes. The baritone they cast in the bass part had the same problem. Why not cast altos and basses?
posted by jb at 8:45 AM on June 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Great post, thanks!
posted by Azara at 11:44 AM on June 24, 2012

Ferrier was amazing and her early death was a sad loss to the world of music. Britten wrote the opera role of Lucretia and his cantata Phaedra for her.

Other badass contraltos of the past include:

Clara Butt, for whom Elgar composed his song cycle Sea Pictures. Here she is singing insane Victorian contralto showpiece The Enchantress (insane lyrics here).

Ernestine Schumann-Heink, a Czech-born lady who made her career at the Met, Covent Garden and Bayreuth. Here's her Death and the Maiden by Schubert; she goes for the low note at the end, which almost no one ever does. She sang the big Wagner contralto roles (here's her Erda), but it didn't rob her of her coloratura agility: check out Arditi's Leggiero, invisibile.

I am geeking out a bit here, but this is my repertoire. I bill myself as a low mezzo rather than a contralto, but my favourite range is pretty much that specified in the FPP: within or below the stave. (I can fly up to a held B flat or a short C above, but I wouldn't want to live there.) A favourite role of mine is Arnalta in L'Incoronazione di Poppea (here lovingly rendered by Bernarda Fink).
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:50 PM on June 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

« Older Every Hollywood Movie Is A Children's Film   |   Sleeping for health and profit. Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments