The contralto is the deepest of the female voice types, fitting in pitch between the mezzo soprano and the tenor. It is a well known fact that a true tenor is one of the rarer voice types, and good tenors even rarer. However, it is not so well known that the contralto is equally difficult to find.
Contralto and Alto
In the singing world, both of these terms are used to indicate the lowest female voice. However, it is important to note that the latter term, alto, relates to a vocal range in choral singing, rather than to a descriptive tone that is indicative of the type of voice. Contralto refers to the range, the timbre or colour, and is specific to the classically trained low female voice found in opera.
The comparative rarity of true contraltos means that the roles are often played by dramatic mezzo sopranos, whose voices have the necessary weight to carry the melodic line above the orchestra. Contraltos can be divided into different types, although there is not generally the focus on these divisions of type as is found with the soprano, given that they are fewer in number.
True coloratura contraltos are very rare – the lightness of the voice that enables the singer to sustain highly ornamented lines and an atypically higher tessitura is at odds with the more traditional understanding of the weight of the contralto voice.
The lyric contralto is the voice that most people today would associate with the voice type. Lighter than the dramatic contralto but still not as light as the coloratura, and lacking the agility of the latter, this is the most commonly heard voice within the classification.
This is the lowest, darkest and most richly sounding voice of the contralto type. It is as rare as the coloratura voice. The range is probably the smallest of the group, but has great weight and power.
Roles for Contraltos
The small number of roles written specifically for contraltos is reflective of the rarity of the type. Richard Wagner wrote the role of Erda in Das Rheingold, the first in Der Ring Das Niebelungen, for a contralto. There is also Mary, in The Flying Dutchman. However, the choruses of many Wagner operas require true contraltos, one being the offstage chorus towards the end of Parsifal that has a vocal line that hovers around the E below Middle C – almost impossible for any singer other than a contralto to project.
Other roles include Madam Flora, The Medium and the Mother, The Consul, both by Menotti; Ulrica, The Masked Ball, by Verdi; La Principessa, Suor Angelica, Puccini; Cornelia, Giulio Cesare, Handel.
Roles written for contralto and often performed by mezzo sopranos include Azucena, Il Tovatore and Maddalena, Rigoletto, Verdi; Klymenestra, Elektra, Richard Strauss; Olga, Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky.
Contraltos in Operetta
Interestingly, Gilbert and Sullivan favoured the contralto voice for a number of important character roles. Katisha, The Mikado, Little Buttercup, H.M.S. Pinafore and Ruth, Pirates of Penzance, are all written for contralto. While they can be, and are, sung by mezzo sopranos, there I no doubt that the colour gained from the use of a contralto in the role was their intention. Also, the tessitura of all three roles is very low, presenting a challenge for any but a dramatic mezzo soprano.
This rich and rare voice is one of the hidden gems of the operatic vocal types. The opportunity to hear a true contralto in a role is not to be missed as even the lowest mezzo cannot compete for colour and weight in the register.