Mezzo Soprano … an identity crisis?

How often have I heard the question after a performance or during a recording session “Are you sure you’re not a soprano?“, causing me to question my singing voice, even my singing identity.

Were my low notes not good, was my vocal timbre too light, had my high notes the wrong sound or were they too good to be a genuine mezzo-soprano? And so I would start to self examine my professional identity; am I a mezzo-soprano or am I maybe a soprano. Oh dear, crisis time!

But, was this really my identity crisis, or was it the listener’s problem, the one who had asked the question?

In singing literature one reads that the mezzo-soprano voice has a similar range to that of a heavier vocal weighted soprano, the general consensus being a vocal range from G3-C6 (C4 being middle C.) Yes! C6, there it is, the magical so called High C, the crowning glory of most soprano voices. Christa Ludwig soared to C6 holding her own as Adalgisa against Maria Callas as Norma, singing exactly the same musical phrases, yes the exact same soprano phrases as Callas, but as a mezzo-soprano! In fact it’s all in the name, a mezzo-soprano is a type of soprano.

So was the listener who had asked me the question so wrong?

In a way no. I am a type of soprano, a Mezzo-soprano. So, could I get out of my momentarily vocal identity crisis? Many of “my“ operatic roles can just as well be sung by a soprano. The Composer in “Ariadne auf Naxos“, Adriano in “Rienzi“, Romeo in “I Capuletti e i Montecchi“, Venus in “Tannhäuser“ and even Cherubino in “Le nozze di Figaro“.

So WHAT is it that makes a mezzo a mezzo?

The terminology "Mezzo-soprano" is a new one only starting to appear in literature round the end of the 1800's. Surely, it is not just the vocal timbre. According to standard vocal literature, the mezzo-soprano voice is described as being darker and warmer in timbre than that of a soprano. But this characteristic alone is a debatable one, and can easily be confusing. There were always rather “mezzo sounding” soprano’s like Jessye Norman, Leontyne Price or even Helen Donath in a lighter Fach. Today we have Nina Stemme and an increasingly dark toned Anna Netrebko; conversely there are some rather “soprano sounding” mezzo’s like Anne Sofie von Otter, Frederica von Stade or Joyce Didonato. Not all mezzo-sopranos are as clearly classifiable as Marilyn Horne or Ebe Stignani or Brigitte Fassbaender were in their day.

If the vocal range is similar, why is there then a difference in vocal classification?

Many mezzos have sung soprano roles; for example Christa Ludwig sang the “Fidelio“ Leonore and the Marschallin, Shirley Verrett sang Lady Macbeth and Luisa Miller. By venturing into the soprano part of their mezzo-soprano voices they discovered that it is possible to be a soprano for a time at least. Usually after such vocal excursions they returned happily to their mezzo-soprano roles. Why? did they not like the lime light of the leading roles instead of the usual supporting roles of that of the mezzo-soprano? Surely yes, but it entailed being out there facing all those high notes! It is very different psychologically being the soprano with no mercy shown by a public if those notes do not shine.

Most of them, even Violetta Urmana, come back to finding their mezzo-soprano identity. It was not that they could not sing the high notes of a soprano role; it was because the deciding factor is that of the TESSITURA and at which the voice feels most comfortable. As Violetta Urmana once told me “I count how many high G5's there are in a role then I know if I can sing it or if the tessitura is too high for too long.” Being a mezzo-soprano is not about being able to sing high notes but depends on for how long and for how often the vocal range stays in the zona above the mezzo-soprano passaggio, this passaggio being between C5 and F5.

So, a mezzo-soprano does not have to have an identity crisis. Yes we can sing high notes, yes we can sing some soprano roles, as long as we can sustain the required tessitura. For those mezzo-sopranos who want to try out their “soprano identity“ it takes some psychological and physiological courage and vocal training to maintain the higher soprano tessitura, in part by not taking up too much vocal weight through the passaggio and above it, and by keeping a “Schlank” well supported head voice and good vowel modification. A venture into the soprano Fach remains a very individual decision, dependant on how the individuals’ voice copes; the sole guiding and deciding factor.

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