Normally, the Dramatic Contralto would tend to have both a heavier and lower voice but, like the Lyric and Dramatic Bass voices, the lighter voiced Lyric Contralto may have a longer chest register extension, and thus a lower range, without having such a dark and powerful sound. An example of a Lyric Contralto is Jeanne Gerville-Réache, while a Dramatic Contralto would be Dame Clara Butt. The Coloratura Contralto can be split into two sub-fach categories, one with a lighter voice, and one with a heavier one: for example Sonia Prina is a Lyric Coloratura Contralto, while Ewa Podles is a Dramatic Coloratura Contralto.
Also, just as the Bass can extend far beyond the D2 mark, like the famous Russian Basses or Oktavists, so many a Contralto can sing comfortably below D3. Polish Contralto Ewa Podleś, for instance, has performed an A#2 in concert. Many women sing in the Tenor range, as my own mother can, and some can even sing down to C2, like the Lady-Bass Margaret Jackson-Roberts from Vivaldi's women. Unfortunately, Contraltos are not encouraged to explore this dark, rich lower register, and consequently have to make do singing in the higher reaches of the voice. They are also allocated voice categories which have to be prefaced by the word "Female": Female-Tenor and Female-Bass. I propose that, instead, we use less male-specific words: Contralto Profondo for Female Tenor, and Oktavistka for the Female bass.
So, the Contralto Profondo (Female Tenor) and the Oktavistka (Female Bass) would be the female equivalents of the Basso Profondo (think Kurt Moll) and the Oktavist (think Vladimir Miller). Here, there would be a very large chest register extension, droping down to Bb2 for the Contralto Profondo (Female Tenor), and between A2-C2 for the Oktavistka (Female Bass). An example of the Contralto Profondo would be Ruby Helder or Bally Prell, and an example of the Oktavistka would be Margaret Jackson-Roberts. I will be writing a fuller post about the Contralto Profondo (Female Tenor) and the Oktavistka (Female Bass) at a later date, but I think it important to introduce the concepts here.
Usually, the Lyric, Dramatic and Coloratura Contraltos should be able to sing, when given an average level of training, the two octaves from E3 to E5. Most Contraltos do not need to sing lower than this, as the prevalent custom is to extend the voice upward, allowing the very lowest notes to atrophy. See the Telegraph article "Where have all the Contralto's gone?" for more about this trend. Many Contraltos could probably easily sing down to D3 or C3 if given proper training in this area of the voice.
- A true Contralto experiences similar register changes to a Bass.
- They will have a long chest register extension in the low range.
- There is a need for a larger expansion of the pharyngeal space in the middle register in order to phonate fully.
- A unique dark smoky color in the middle and chest registers.
- The Contralto uses the chest register higher in pitch than many other voice types.
- The middle register is much shorter than the other voices.
He also mentions the fact that the ability to crescendo in the middle register is a quality of the true contralto voice.
Negatively, they may have:
- An overly bright upper register or disconnected head voice, and
- Tongue tension in the middle and chest registers, accompanied by a thicker function of the vocal folds.
Jones also lists the ranges of the various registers for the Contralto voice:
- Chest Register: D3 to F4
- Middle Register: F4 to Ab4
- Head Register: A4 to D5
- Upper Range: Eb5 to Bb5
Many of the arias performed by the Contralto, such as those written by Bach and Handel, were actually written for another voice type: Bach's music, with its average range of B3 to E5, was almost certainly written for falsettists, and his Cantata for lower Alto, "Widerstehe doch der Sünde" was most likely composed for a High Tenor, or Haute-Contre. Many of the "Alto-ranged" Handel and Vivaldi arias were in fact written for the Castrati.
Thus many of the "Alto-ranged" arias were not actually written with the Contralto voice in mind. This is not to say that Handel, Vivaldi and other Baroque composers did not write for the Contralto voice, as they most certainly did, but that perhaps many of the "Alto" ranged arias did not take advantage of the full potential of the Contralto voice. Many Contraltos have taken roles normally associated with Mezzos, such as Carmen, Dalila and Amneris, and sing them to great effect, but here the Contralto is left singing "out of fach". This trend is also lees likely to occur now, as opera houses are less willing to transpose arias down, or to omit troublesome high-notes.
I find it strange that the Contralto voice is so painfully underused, under-admired and under-engaged, given that in the world of popular music, much is made of the lower end of the Contralto spectrum. Singers such as Mariah Carey, Tionne Watkins, Toni Braxton, Beyonce and Alicia Keys all use the lowest area of the Contralto voice, C3 and below, in their music. The roles these women portray in their videos and through their music are varied, ranging from strong to tender, innocent to... well, not so innocent! They are not restricted to the rather limited "witches, bitches and britches" stereotype that operatic contraltos are relegated to.
Perhaps it is time for the new generation of composers to wake up to the potential of this great and beautiful voice.