So y’all know I’m an opera singer. I’m a lyric mezzo-soprano and I love it.
What’s a lyric mezzo-soprano, you ask?
(Joyce DiDonato as Octavian in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier)
So there are, roughly, three voice types for a woman: soprano, mezzo-soprano, and contralto. Within those categories there are several more, primarily coloratura, lyric, and dramatic. (I could go into much greater detail, but I will spare you).
Sopranos are the singers that are the most comfort in the higher registers. Mezzo-soprano, in the Italian, means ‘middle-soprano.’ Our voices are a little lower with the comfort level (tessitura) further down the scale. Contraltos are characterized by their rich, developed voices that are usually in the range of a countertenor. (Good examples of each: Kiri Te Kanawa — soprano, Joyce DiDonato — mezzo, and Marie-Nicole Lemieux — contralto.)
(Typical ranges for most types of voice)
Roles are often stereotyped. The sopranos get the best, biggest female roles — it’s been that way for centuries. The Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute, Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore, Susanna and the Countess in the Marriage of Figaro…. There’s a lot. The soprano has that soaring voice capable of the most profound emotion and even the most piercing evil. It’s no wonder everyone loves them.
(Diana Damrau as the Queen of the Night. The woman is legend already)
And I love a good soprano (my best friend is one. It’s one of my favorite things to brag about), but often they overshadow the other voice types. We’ll get to mezzos in a minute, but first let’s introduce the contralto. As rare as a true soprano is, a true contralto is even less common. Subsequently, they get the least amount of roles. (Polinesso in Handel’s Ariodante is absolutely awesome, however. Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s performance gives me chills of creepiness). Luckily, I’ve heard that often they can do the roles usually written for mezzos. Ah, imagine Rosina performed by a contralto? Man, that would be gorgeous!
All right. The mezzos. There’s a saying that I will not repeat due to the inclusion of a word I’m not comfortable repeating, but the basic gist of it is that mezzos get only the witches, guys, and bad girls (or the maid that has all of two scenes). Mezzos are rather underutilized, which is a real pity, but at the same time, the few central roles written for us are usually stellar. Let me name off a few:
Azucena in Verdi’s Il Trovatore: Azucena is the mother of the ‘troubadour,’ an old woman whose last wish is to avenge her mother’s death. She’s a sort of mad sorceress, a pinnacle of power within her ragtag group that gives her a kind of wary respect. She’s only ever on her own side, and I’m inclined to believe that she lost her mind long before the start of the opera.
Romeo in Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi: This opera is a retelling of the story of Romeo and Juliet. Romeo is a determined youth whose heart is set on peace (and Giulietta), but who isn’t afraid of getting his hands bloody … unfortunately. He’s a swashbuckling hero, brave but reckless, and willing to do whatever it takes to achieve the happy ending he envisions.
Carmen in Bizet’s opera of the same name: Who doesn’t know Carmen? She’s basically the original ‘bad girl.’ A gypsy who uses her sensuality and cleverness to get what she wants, one doesn’t mess with her. Her motto is, “Si tou ne m’aimes pas, je t’aime. Si je t’aime, prends garde à toi!” Basically, that means, “If you don’t love me, I’ll love you, and if I love you, watch out, bub.”
That’s not to say that all the mezzo-soprano roles are stuck in these three stereotypes. There are many alterations of these roles, and we also get the occasional ‘princess’ one, as well. Rosina in Rossini’s Barber of Seville is one of the best roles a girl could ever hope for, and it’s usually performed by a mezzo. (Kathleen Battle just didn’t cut it, sorry). She’s kind of a spunky Cinderella — the count (it took me a moment to remember the word in English) falls in love with her and he, the barber, and Rosina begin a hilarious plot to free her from the clutches of her mean, overbearing guardian who wishes to wed her for her fortune. It’s probably my favorite operatic comedy.
(Joyce as Cherubino)
As much as I love sopranos and contraltos and despite the slightly-lacking repertoire for mezzos, I wouldn’t change my voice type for the world. There’s a certain pride that comes with the voice (mezzo power), and the whole world is ripe for the picking. Nicklaus, Cherubino, and Sesto are my friends. Their stories have become mine. As I strive to make my voice worthy of the music that belongs solely to them, I feel like the luckiest girl in the world.