Just the Fachs, Ma’am

By Eric Skelly

The original version of this article appeared in a 2000 issue of Opera Cues.

Imagine an aural version of the “blind” taste tests that Madison Avenue is so fond of…but instead of coffees or sodas, the point of comparison is singers. Suppose that someone with no operatic experience   is asked to listen to Houston Grand Opera’s recent performances of Götterdämmerung and The Elixir of Love; compare the powerful, declamatory Brünnhilde of Christine Goerke to the floating, pearly tones of Nicole Heaston; then identify the basic vocal category of each singer. What are the chances that they would identify both singers as sopranos?

They ARE both sopranos, albeit sopranos of very different fachs. Fach is a very useful little word in opera. Its most common literal meaning in German is “compartment,” or “pigeonhole.” In opera, a singer’s fach refers both to his or her voice type and the repertoire to which that type is best suited.

A fachis an area of specialization within the larger general voice types of soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone, bass-baritone, and bass. A singer’s general voice type is determined mostly by range (the low and high thresholds of the voice), and by where the voice is centered within that range.  Someone like Joyce DiDonato may boast the same range as her soprano colleagues, but because the center of her voice lies at a lower pitch she’s considered a mezzo-soprano, even though she may occasionally sing soprano roles.

Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung;Photo by Lynn Lane

A singer’s fach is also determined by vocal weight and color. Wagner’s huge orchestras require singers of the very heaviest voice types tobe heard through the dense orchestrations of works like Tristan and Isolde, Parsifal, and the Ring cycle.  Similarly, the relatively small orchestras of the Italian bel canto operas call for light, flexible voices to negotiate the florid vocal gymnastics and transparent orchestral textures of operas like The Elixir of Love. Casting according to fach is a relatively modern concept, brought on by the advent of the modern orchestra and by composers writing for larger ensembles in the orchestra pit. Larger and less acoustically generous opera houses also contributed to this 20th-century development.

On one end of the scale there are the heaviest voices; in opera jargon called “dramatic.” A Wagnerian soprano who specializes in the heaviest roles of the Wagner and Strauss repertoire is called a high dramatic soprano. This singer makes a career of such monumental roles as Wagner’s Isolde, Brünnhilde in the Ring cycle, and Richard Strauss’s Elektra. Among these artists, the benchmark singers are generally considered to be Kirsten Flagstad and Birgit Nilsson, while Christine Goerke stands out today.

High dramatic sopranos also tend to make good Turandots, and often successfully cross over into the Italian dramatic repertoire. Italianate dramatic sopranos may make a steady diet of the leading soprano role in Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. 

Liudmyla Monastyrska as Aida 2013; Photo by Lynn Lane

Abigaille in Verdi’s Nabucco is also a dramatic role for sopranos, but with a twist: Verdi calls upon Abigaille to possess the power to ride over the largest of ensembles, yet still have the vocal flexibility to handle florid, or coloratura, passages. This role, along with Bellini’s Norma, Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, and Verdi’s Lady Macbeth, calls upon an exceedingly rare bird known as a dramatic coloratura. Casting directors in opera usually go for a dramatic soprano in these roles and leave her to cope with the coloratura as best she can. Only a handful of singers on the international level (today, Liudmyla Monastyrska is staking her claim to these roles) have been able to meet all of the demands of these roles, with two standing above the rest: Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland.

The lyric soprano, by contrast, is not asked to face down overwhelming orchestra and choral ensembles, although she may be asked to handle some florid passages.  Her stock-in-trade is melting lyricism and beauty of tone with enough weight to give her forte (loud) passages some punch.  Her bread-and-butter roles likely include Mimì in Puccini’s La bohème, Liù in Puccini’s Turandot, and Antonia in Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. Today’s reigning lyric soprano, Renée Fleming, possesses an astonishing technique and pursues a wide-ranging repertoire encompassing roles from several fachs.

Enjoying the best of two worlds is the lirico spinto (pushed lyric) or spinto for short. This soprano can encompass the lyricism of Puccini’s Mimì as well as the many roles Verdi wrote with this fach in mind during his Middle Period: Aida, the Leonoras of Il trovatore and La forza del destino, the Amelias of Un ballo in maschera and Simon Boccanegra, and Elisabetta in Don Carlo. The historic exemplars of this fach include Zinka Milanov, Renata Tebaldi, and Leontyne Price. Today, they include Sondra Radvanovsky.  

The spinto’s Germanic counterpart, the jugendlich soprano, typically sings Elsa in Lohengrin and Sieglinde in the Ring cycle. This was the province of Lotte Lehmann and Leonie Rysanek. This season, Tamara Wilson, having enjoyed tremendous success with Verdi’s spinto roles, moves into jugendlich territory with Chrysothemis in Elektra

Albina Shagimuratova as Violetta in La traviata; Photo by Lynn Lane

Finally, there’s the other end of the scale: the lirico leggiero (light lyric). This fach encompasses the soubrette or “-ina” roles (Adina in The Elixir of Love, Despina in Così fan tutte, Norina in Don Pasquale, etc.) as well as such light, high-flying, virtuoso coloratura roles as Zerbinetta in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos and Olympia in The Tales of Hoffmann. Heidi Stober and Nicole Heaston are currently distinguishing themselves in the soubrette repertoire, while any list of important coloraturas would have to include Beverly Sills, Natalie Dessay, Diana Damrau, and newly ascendant Albina Shagimuratova.

There are roles like the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier and Donna Anna in Don Giovanni that are cast with singers of virtually every fach.  Others, like Kundry in Parsifal and Verdi’s Lady Macbeth, can be sung by singers of different vocal categories altogether; these are known as zwichenfach (between fach) roles.

Things really get tricky when you try to pigeonhole a singer into a particular fach. If you enjoy a lively debate, just find a group of opera lovers and express an opinion on the fach of Renata Scotto. Then sit back and watch the fur fly.