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Blog Post: Oct. 11, 2021

What the Fach? A Short Guide to Understanding the Difference Between Operatic Voice Types

By Jaime Sharp, Marketing & Media Intern

We live in a world full of labels; race, sexuality, political affiliation…the list goes on. How we choose to publicly identify can have great effect on the life we lead. Opera is no exception. In addition to the broadest categories of voice type (soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone/bass-baritone/bass), singers’ voices also fit into even more limiting description comes into play. We have the Germans to thank for that, who began to classify voices based on a fach system.

Fach [fah-k] translates to “compartment” or “pocket,” and was created in the mid-19th century to aid in the casting process for opera houses. Most German, Austrian, and Swiss houses follow the fest system, meaning singers are contracted to work in the same ensemble for 1-2 years. It is the goal of the company to have at least the more common fächer represented. During that time, the singers are responsible for performing several roles throughout the season. Rather than encouraging uniqueness and individuality of one’s instrument, companies found it easiest to assign characters based on a grouping of abilities. Hires are required to sing all the parts in their fach, whether or not they feel it is an appropriate fit.

By this point, you might be wondering just how many fachs there are. Unfortunately, the list is too extensive to accurately explain them all (and there are far too many opinions to generate a universally agreed-upon list). But at a high level, fachsare determined primarily by vocal range, timbre, and weight. Timbre refers to the color of the sound: bright and pinging versus dark and brassy. Heavier voices are loud and powerful, whereas lighter voices generally allow for more agility. There are approximately 23 total fachs, but even within fachs, there can often be subdivisions. For example, one such fach is that of the comic tenor, who can also be defined as lyric comic tenors or dramatic comic tenors.

Here is one possible breakdown of fachs:

Sopranos:
Soubrette – Light voice, with a range generally up to high C. Roles: Susanna in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro
Lyric Coloratura – Light voice, with a higher extension than a soubrette (usually up to E6 or F6) Roles: Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto
Lyric Soprano – Stronger voice than soubrette, but not heavy. Roles:Mimi in Puccini’sLa bohème
Dramatic Coloratura – Similar quality to a lyric, but with the upper extension. Roles: Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute
Spinto – Heavier than a lyric, but not as heavy as a dramatic. Roles: Madame Butterfly in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.
Dramatic/ Wagnerian Soprano – Powerful voice able to cut through an orchestra, even in the lower range. Roles: Aida in Verdi’s Aida

Mezzo-sopranos:
Lyric – Light voice, range generally A3-B6. Roles: Cherubino in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro
Coloratura – Lyric range with ability to move through coloratura passages. Roles: Rosina in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.
Dramatic – Similar range as lyric with a fuller sound in the lower tessitura (bottom part of the range) Roles: Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlo
Contralto – Dark voice, generally sung by heavier mezzos with good low notes. Roles: Olga in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin

Countertenor:
Countertenor – Male-identifying voice singing in falsetto register (sounding to the listener like a soprano or mezzo-soprano) Roles: A lot of Early/Baroque music, Xerxes in Handel’s Xerxes

Tenor:
Comic – (can be subdivided into Lyric and Dramatic) Plays the funny/side-kick characters, range generally up to a high C. Roles: Monostatos in Mozart’s Magic Flute
Leggiero – Light voice with a very high range. Roles: Count Almaviva in Rossini’sThe Barber of Seville
Lyric – Strong, but not heavy voice, range generally up to a high C. Roles: Rudolfo in Puccini’s La bohème
Spinto – Heavier than a lyric voice, but lighter than dramatic. Roles: Don José from Bizet’s Carmen Dramatic/Heldentenor – Range generally up to B5, Able to sing over large orchestras. Roles: Othello in Verdi’s Othello

Baritone/Bass:
Lyric – Lighter voice, range generally G4-A5. Roles: Conte Almaviva in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro Verdi/Dramatic – Lower tessitura (clearer/better low notes) and stronger voice than lyric. Roles: Rigoletto in Verdi’s Rigoletto
Dramatic Bass-Baritone – Lower range than a baritone (generally E3-F5) Roles: Wotan in Wagner’s Ring Cycle
Buffo/Comic Bass – (can be divided into lyric and dramatic), Playing the funny/side-kick characters. Roles: Falstaff in Verdi’s Falstaff
Heavy Bass – (Can be split into Lyric and Dramatic) Range two octaves below middle C. Roles: Sarastro in Mozart’s The Magic Flute

While German-speaking countries continue to use the fach system, it was never fully adopted in North America (or outside of Europe). Rarely in America are singers contracted to one company for an entire season, so they have time to recover and prepare between different roles. Opera houses in this country can often range from 2,500 to 4,000 seats, as compared to Europe where they usually hold 900 audience members. The increased demand placed on the voice in larger spaces requires a limited number of performances to maintain vocal health.

Regardless, the fach system is still a great resource for singers to discover repertoire and roles to help guide them on their career journey. Keyword: guide. These are all merely suggestions that should be considered as singers work with teachers and other industry professionals. At the end of the day, sing what you love!