Hi, I’m a High-low, Lyric-dramatic, Schwarze-spinto, Helden-leggero, something-or-other….and today I will be singing……whatever you want me to.

It is an interesting thing to hear young singers talking about their own voices. Probably no people are more prone to categorizing than the not-yet-employed young singer. Somewhere between the predictions of the teacher and the musical preferences of the aspiring singer, words begin to be thrown around, like dramatic, coloratura, helden-, spinto, soubrette, etc….. But I have found that the Fach System for categorizing voices is often only as practically applicable in the real world as the standard SATB choral method of voice designation. Voices are actually far too varied to neatly fit into either so broad a category as Soprano/Alto/Tenor/Bass or into the very specific categories defined by the Fach System.

History is full of examples of these neatly defined lines being blurred. Categorically speaking (according to the system), a voice as large as Joan Sutherland wouldn’t be expected to be quite so coloratura-friendly, and yet she made Bellini, Donizetti, and the more bel canto Verdi her bread and butter, only occasionally venturing into the Turandot and Wagner sort of thing which had been expected of her early on. Lighter tenors such as Tito Schipa and John McCormack wouldn’t ever be classified as Lyrico-spinto in any circumstance, and yet both turned in admired performances of Cavaradossi in Tosca, a role typically labeled as such. And the idea that Tito Schipa and Franco Corelli shared roles? According to the Fach system, it seems ridiculous. And then there are those voices which have a quality or “color” (more on this questionable notion later) that one would associate with a quieter voice, only to hear them live and be shocked at the volume output. The same goes in reverse. A rich voice one expects to be loud, judging by recording, turns out to be lovely, but mellow and an essentially lighter instrument upon hearing the singer live. And this is not counting the many judicious decisions made by scrupulous singers about roles they will sing based on the size of the venue. Other musicians, too, can be a factor. The famous Jean de Reszke, having resigned himself to never being able to sing Tristan, once suddenly decided he could do it after attending a performance with a particular conductor at the podium. He went on to be one of the most lauded Tristan’s of his day. James Levine’s sensitivity to singers made him a favorite conductor and collaborator of many lighter voices such as Kathleen Battle and Cecilia Bartoli. There are many examples of such apparent fach crossover, and for many sorts of reasons.

Returning to the student who has never really sung a professional gig, and yet has already decided that they have a pretty good idea what their Fach is. You very well may be right in your assessment of some of the music you are guessing at. But there is a major factor that is usually forgotten: Someone has to hire you.

So, at the end of the day, other things will come into play when it comes to roles that you sing. Factors like- putting food on the table. Paying your electric bill. If you think you are a Countess in Nozze, you may have to sing your share of Barbarinas. If you think you are a born Lucia, ready to run your melismas through the Scottish highlands…. you are just as (or more) likely to need to learn Despina too. As Classical American Musical Theater continues to grow in its presence in operatic venues, you may very well have to stray quite a bit from what you think is your Fach. And this is to say nothing of newly composed works for which one might be hired.

This is not to suggest that some voices aren’t better suited to meet the demands of certain writing. That is absolutely, demonstrably true. Of course. But there is a fair amount of skill involved in delivering some of those demands (eg. coloratura) that has little to do with with a particular size or timbre of voice. And there are far more factors at play than the average student is aware. I once heard a tenor refer to himself as a “romantic lead” type, more lyric, aiming at Puccini and lighter Verdi…. and yet his rep gradually moved away from his top ten faves, and into the character-tenor things that people were actually interested in hearing him sing. This is the reality. You can decide all you want in school. Be prepared… the world just might tell you something different.

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