Voice “Boxes”

Most people might recognize the generic terms of Bass, Tenor, Alto, and Soprano, otherwise known as voice parts. These terms classify individual singing voices into a broader, more generic category suitable for ensemble singing and for generally helping an individual find repertoire that fits into their vocal range. A more knowledgeable individual might even know the more specific terms that classify opera singers not only by range, but by character. This is known as the fach system, defined by Wikipedia as “a method of classifying singers, primarily opera singers, according to the range, weight, and color of their voices.” Oh fach. A fun German word that singers like to poke fun at when creating recital programs with catchy titles like “What the fach!” or my personal favorite, “All fached up!” The fach system created more complex classifications of voice types where sopranos are not merely sopranos, but rather dramatic coloratura sopranos or lyric coloratura sopranos. So if I’m a soprano and I discover that I can sing high and fast, well shoot, maybe I’m a lyric coloratura. Now knowing that, I can even determine the types of roles that I can sing. Fun. I can sing great roles like Norina in Don Pasquale, and Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor. The fach system has cleared it all up for me… or has it?

As a singer, there is something comforting about knowing exactly what repertoire I’m supposed to learn. In fact, they’ve made anthologies of music compiled for each specific voice type, which are great resources for students…sometimes. Here’s the problem with boxes.  If you don’t fit in one, it can feel pretty uncomfortable, and no one knows quite what to do with you. This may be blasphemy in the opera community, but I think opera in the U.S. has a problem. Of course there are always exceptions, but overwhelmingly companies across the country have created nice, neat little vocal boxes for the singers that they cast. I’m not even talking about physical types, which would take an entire blog post to itself to really delve into. I’m just talking about voice types. If you don’t have that very specific (and I mean very specific) sound that artistic directors believe a lyric coloratura soprano should have, then you don’t make the cut. But wait a minute. That’s what I always thought was so great about singers! No two voices are the same! Sure, there are similarities between the way two singers sing the same piece, but technically speaking every voice is unique to the individual. While unique voices may have more traction in Europe, opera in the US seems to  be going the way of pop music. You know, the “hits” on the radio that all seem to have the same overproduced sound with the same melodies? The ones tween girls bop along to on their air pods? Is that what is happening to opera singers?

Don’t get me wrong. Opera singers need to have all the technical proficiency that the craft demands, but can we get some different timbres and colors, please? In fact, why are we still using the fach system at all? If someone can sing the role beautifully and authentically portray the character, why shouldn’t they? We live in a society in which we are realizing that things such as gender and sexuality don’t always fit into neat categories, and that it is wrong to limit someone to the confines of an uncomfortable identity. The human voice, just like gender or sexuality, also exists on a spectrum. So why are we still trying to limit our singers to archetypes that just don’t work? If you can sing it and kill it, then do it. I hope to see more directors and composers who allow for more diversity in their casting. Just think of the possibilities!

Until then… just keep singing,


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