A contralto (Italian pronunciation: [konˈtralto]) is a type of
classical female singing voice whose vocal range is the lowest female
voice type. The contralto's vocal range is fairly rare; similar to,
but different from the alto, and almost identical to that of a
countertenor, typically between the F below middle C (F3 in scientific
pitch notation) to the second F above middle C (F5), although, at the
extremes, some voices can reach the E below middle C (E3) or the
second B♭ above middle C (B♭5). The contralto voice type is
generally divided into the coloratura, lyric, and dramatic contralto.
2 Voice type
3 Subtypes and roles in opera
4 See also
6 Further reading
7 External links
"Contralto" is primarily meaningful only in reference to classical and
operatic singing, as other traditions lack a comparable system of
vocal categorization. The term "contralto" is only applied to female
singers; men singing in a similar range are called "countertenors".
The Italian terms "contralto" and "alto" are not synonymous, the
latter technically denoting a specific vocal range in choral singing
without regard to factors like tessitura, vocal timbre, vocal
facility, and vocal weight.
Contralto voice range (F3–F5) notated on the treble staff (left) and
on piano keyboard in green with dot marking middle C (C4).
The contralto has the lowest vocal range of the female voice types,
with the lowest tessitura.
The contralto voice range is between tenor and mezzo-soprano. Although
tenors and baritones are usually male singers, some women can sing as
low and are called "female tenors" or "female baritones." With the
exception of very rare female singers, such terms are usually informal
(slang). More formal terminology would be contralto profundo
(tenor) and contralto basso or oktavistka (baritone) but these are not
traditionally named among the fach system.
Some of the rare contraltos that can sing the female equivalent of
tenor and baritone include Zarah Leander, Ruby Helder, and
Subtypes and roles in opera
The earliest cited role for the contralto is traditionally accepted to
be that of the Saracen princess Clorinde in André Campra's 1702 opera
Tancréde, and most famously performed by (and was originally written
for) Julie d'Aubigny. Within the contralto voice type category are
three generally recognized subcategories: coloratura contralto, lyric
contralto, and dramatic contralto. These subtypes do not always apply
with precision to individual singers; some exceptional dramatic
contraltos, such as
Ernestine Schumann-Heink and Sigrid Onégin, were
technically equipped to perform not only heavy, dramatic music by the
likes of Wagner but also florid compositions by Donizetti.
The coloratura contralto has a light, agile voice ranging very high
for the classification and atypically maintains extensive coloratura
and high sustaining notes, specializing in florid passages and leaps.
Given its deviations from the classification's norms, this voice type
is quite rare.
The lyric contralto voice is lighter than a dramatic contralto but not
capable of the ornamentation and leaps of a coloratura contralto. This
class of contralto, lighter in timbre than the others, is the most
common today and usually ranges from the E below middle C (E3) to the
second G above middle C (G5).
The dramatic contralto is the deepest, darkest, and heaviest contralto
voice, usually having a heavier tone and more power than the others.
Singers in this class are rare.
True operatic contraltos are rare, and the operatic literature
contains few roles written specifically for them. Contraltos sometimes
are assigned feminine roles like Angelina in La Cenerentola, Rosina in
The Barber of Seville, Teodata in "Flavio", Isabella in L'italiana in
Algeri, and Olga in Eugene Onegin, but more frequently they play
female villains or trouser roles. Contraltos may also be cast in roles
originally written for castrati. A common saying among contraltos is
that they may play only "witches, bitches, or britches."
Examples of contralto roles in the standard operatic repertoire
include the following:.
La Cenerentola (Rossini)
Facing Goya (Nyman)
Auntie*, landlady of The Boar,
Peter Grimes (Britten)
Il trovatore (Verdi)
The Baroness, Vanessa (Barber)
La Cieca, La Gioconda (Ponchielli)
Giulio Cesare (Handel)
The Countess*, The Queen of Spades (Tchaikovsky)
Didone, Egisto (Cavalli)
Erda, Das Rheingold, Siegfried (Wagner)
The Medium (Menotti)
Le prophète (Meyerbeer)
Albert Herring (Britten)
L'italiana in Algeri
L'italiana in Algeri (Rossini)
The Mikado (Gilbert and Sullivan)
Klytemnestra*, Elektra (Richard Strauss)
The Snow Maiden
The Snow Maiden (Rimsky-Korsakov)
H.M.S. Pinafore (Gilbert and Sullivan)
The Rape of Lucretia
The Rape of Lucretia (Britten)
Cavalleria rusticana (Mascagni)
The Tender Land (Copland)
La donna del lago
La donna del lago (Rossini)
Porgy and Bess
Porgy and Bess (Gershwin)
The Marquise of Berkenfield,
La fille du régiment
La fille du régiment (Donizetti)
Marthe, Faust (Gounoud)
Mary, Der fliegende Holländer (Wagner)
The Consul (Menotti)
The Rake's Progress
The Rake's Progress (Stravinsky)
Mrs Quickly, Falstaff (Verdi)
Olga*, Eugene Onegin (Tchaikovsky)
Orfeo ed Euridice
Orfeo ed Euridice (Gluck)
Orsini, Lucrezia Borgia (Donizetti)
Pauline, The Queen of Spades (Tchaikovsky)
Suor Angelica (Puccini)
Ratmir, Ruslan and Lyudmila (Glinka)
The Barber of Seville
The Barber of Seville (Rossini)
The Pirates of Penzance
The Pirates of Penzance (Gilbert and Sullivan)
Die Walküre (Wagner)
Anna Bolena (Donizetti)
The Midsummer Marriage (Tippett)
Stella, What Next? (Carter)
Un ballo in maschera
Un ballo in maschera (Verdi)
Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny
Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Weill)
3rd Woodsprite, Rusalka (Dvořák)
* indicates a role that may also be sung by a mezzo-soprano.
Category of contraltos
List of operatic contraltos
Fach, the German system for classifying voices
Voice classification in non-classical music
List of contraltos in non-classical music
^ a b McKinney, James (1994). The Diagnosis and Correction of Vocal
Faults. Genovex Music Group. ISBN 978-1-56593-940-0.
^ a b Appelman, D. Ralph (1986). The Science of Vocal Pedagogy: Theory
and Application. Indiana University Press.
^ Stark, James (2003). Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy.
University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-0-8020-8614-3.
^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Contralto". Encyclopædia
Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
^ "Female Tenor...or...Profundo and Oktavistka?"
Contralto Corner. 4
August 2013. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on
2016-09-20. Retrieved 2016-11-13.
^ Peucker, Brigitte. "The Material Image: Art and The Real in Film".
2007. p. 120 Archived 2017-09-05 at the Wayback Machine.
^ Rosa Sala Rose. "
Zarah Leander and the Leibstandarte SS". Archived
2016-06-02 at the Wayback Machine. 15 December 2012.
Contralto Update: English
Contralto Profondo Ruby Helder". Archived
2016-06-03 at the Wayback Machine.
Contralto Corner. 20 September
^ Elliot, David J. (2005). Praxial Music Education: Reflections and
Dialogues. Oxford University Press. p. 302.
ISBN 9780199725113. Archived from the original on
Bally Prell Added To The
Archived 2016-06-03 at the Wayback Machine.,
Contralto Corner. 14 July
Contralto Female Voice (Fach)". YouTube: DHO Gwen. 8 January 2017.
"Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2017-09-05. Retrieved
^ The part of Clorinde is notated in the soprano clef (original score,
p. 71), but, although it never descends below d′, tradition has it
that it was the first major bas-dessus (contralto) role in the French
opera history (Sadie, Julie Anne, Maupin, in Sadie, Stanley (ed), op.
cit., III, p. 274).
^ a b Boldrey, Richard (1994). Guide to Operatic Roles and Arias.
Caldwell Publishing Company. ISBN 978-1-877761-64-5.
Coffin, Berton (1960). Coloratura, Lyric and Dramatic Soprano, Vol. 1.
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Peckham, Anne (2005). Vocal Workouts for the Contemporary Singer.
Berklee Press Publications. ISBN 978-0-87639-047-4.
Smith, Brenda (2005). Choral Pedagogy. Plural Publishing, Inc.
Media related to
Contralto vocalists at Wikimedia Commons
The dictionary definition of
Contralto at Wiktionary<