The words “mezzo-soprano” consists of two Italian words that mean “half soprano.” It refers to a classical female voice type who has a vocal range between that of soprano and contralto. The vocal range of mezzo-soprano usually extends from the A just below the middle C up to A that is two octaves above. Some mezzo-soprano, however, may extend down to F below the middle C and up to the high C. This female vocal range is typically categorized into three different subcategories or subtypes, namely: the coloratura, lyric, and the dramatic mezzo-soprano.
As the middle female voice, the mezzo-soprano belongs to the most common female voices. It also tends to dominate mostly in non-classical music. The term “mezzo-soprano” had been developed relative to operatic and classical voices. Voices in these two types (classical and theatrical music) are not only based on vocal range and vocal weight but also based on the vocal timbre and the tessitura. Contemporary singers, on the other hand, are primarily defined according to the gender and genre of music that they sing, and not primarily on their vocal range.
Vocal Range of Mezzo-Soprano
The mezzo-soprano refers to the middle vocal range of female singers. This is comparable to men’s baritone range. Mezzo means “middle” or “medium” in Italian. The mezzo-soprano, therefore, carries the characteristics of both the soprano and the alto singers. Moreover, mezzo-sopranos can reach high notes up to 2 octaves just above that of the middle C. At the same time, they retain that richer vocal timbre like those of the altos of a deeper range.
Mezzo-soprano’s vocal range lies between the contralto and soprano voice types. They have typically a darker and heavier tone than those of the sopranos. Mezzo-sopranos also generally resonate within a higher range than those of the contraltos. In the contemporary operatic practice, female singers who have very low tessituras, are usually included in the mezzo-soprano. Besides, true operatic contraltos are indeed very rare.
What Are the Roles of Mezzo-Sopranos?
In operas, the mezzo-sopranos usually sing secondary roles. Of course, there are obvious exceptions like those of Cinderella’s Angelina and Bizet’s Carmen. Rossini’s Barber of Seville’s Rosina is also an exception. In the 19th-century French-language operas, likewise, the mezzos are given leading female roles. Examples of this include the La Damnation de Faust, Don Quichotte, Béatrice et Bénédict, Charles VI, Samson et Delila, Mignon, and many others.
Most mezzo-sopranos, in opera, however, often take supporting roles as well as trouser roles (male roles that female singers sing). Of course, again, there are some exceptions like those of Rosina in the opera “The Barber of Seville,” whose prima donna is played by a mezzo-soprano.
In baroque music, baroque opera, and early music, however, the mezzo-sopranos also take many roles. Mezzo-sopranos usually take roles that are usually designated to lighter soubrette sopranos, and they usually provide a more dramatic and fuller quality to these roles.
Different Types of Mezzo-Soprano
The mezzo-sopranos, like many main tessituras, are divided into different subcategories. Experts also generally categorize mezzo-sopranos into three main types:
1) Coloratura Mezzo-Sopranos
The coloratura mezzo-soprano is usually characterized by a lower register with a warmer tone as well as a high register with agile characteristics. The roles of the coloratura may demand a leaping, at times, into the higher tessitura from the lower register. Their range is from the G just below middle C to the B that is two octaves just above the middle C.
Some mezzo-sopranos can also sing up to that of the high C or high D. But this is indeed very rare. But what distinguishes the coloratura mezzo-soprano from that of sopranos is their ability to extend into the lower register as well as, the warmer vocal quality. The coloratura mezzo-soprano, however, is very comfortable in singing within the middle range rather than within the top range.
Many hero roles, specifically in Handel and Monteverdi, originally played by male castrati, are now played by coloratura mezzo-sopranos. Rosinni also requires the same qualities for the comic heroines of his opera. Vivaldi, moreover, wrote roles for coloratura mezzo-sopranos. Some coloratura mezzo-sopranos also frequently sing soubrette roles or lyric-mezzo-soprano roles.
2) Lyric Mezzo-Soprano
The lyric mezzo-soprano is its tessitura’s central range. It is a warm and rich voice that is characterized by a lower range than that of the coloratura mezzo-soprano. The lyric mezzo-soprano is not characterized by the vocal agility of the previously discussed coloratura or the size of the dramatic type. It is best for trouser roles in which the female actors are dressed like male actors.
The lyric mezzo-soprano carries the range from the G just below the middle C to that of A that is two octaves above middle C. This voice is characterized by sensitivity and smoothness and at times, by its lachrymose quality. The lyric mezzo-soprano doesn’t carry the coloratura’s vocal agility or has the dramatic mezzo-soprano’s size. And the lyric mezzo-soprano is very apt for many trouser roles.
3) Dramatic Mezzo-Soprano
The dramatic mezzo-soprano carries a similar range as that of the contralto. It has a solid medium register with a warmer high register. Furthermore, they have more powerful and broader traits than the coloratura and lyric mezzo-sopranos. However, the dramatic mezzo-soprano has a lesser vocal facility as compared to that of the coloratura mezzo-soprano.
Characterized by a strong medium register, the dramatic mezzo-soprano carries a warm and high register and a broader and more powerful voice than that of the coloratura and lyric mezzo-sopranos. Its range is from the F just below middle F to that of the G that is 2 octaves above middle C. The dramatic mezzo-sopranos can surely sing right above an orchestra and chorus with facility and ease.
In the 19th century opera, the dramatic mezzo-sopranos portrayed the roles of witches, mothers, and evil characters. Verdi, for example, wrote many roles for this vocal range in the Italian repertoire. In French literature, likewise, there are some good roles for the dramatic mezzo-sopranos. Richard Strauss and Wagner of the German Repertoire, however, made the majority of roles for the dramatic mezzo-sopranos. The dramatic mezzo-soprano, like the coloratura, is also cast frequently in many lyric mezzo-soprano roles.
Differences Between The Mezzo-Soprano and the Soprano
In the 18th century, there is a need to distinguish between the mezzo-soprano and the soprano as many musical compositions moved away from mostly using male voices. The mezzo-soprano was once used for filling secondary roles, including those of the coquettish characters referred to as “soubrettes.” The ideal mezzo-soprano is generally possessed of a range that is at least 3 octaves. It also has a darker and richer voice than those of many sopranos.
Mezzo-sopranos typically have a darker and heavier tone than those of the sopranos. Their voice resonates above or on a higher range than those of the contraltos. Men who are singing within this female range are usually called countertenors since they bring in a lighter and more breathy quality difference of tone.
Based on its relative range of voices and richness, the mezzo-soprano is further subdivided into 3 groups. The coloratura, for example, comes as the strongest being near the top registers, and they are capable of singing as high as those of the sopranos. Lyrical mezzo-sopranos, on the other hand, are the most common among the three different types. They are also very comfortable when singing in the middle of this range. Dramatic mezzo-sopranos, however, are almost identical to the altos. They have vibrant and deep singing voices that can also reach up to the upper registers.
The sopranos, on the other hand, have different categories likewise. It is also broken down into 5 different types, namely: coloratura, soubrette, lyric, spinto, and dramatic sopranos. These different categories vary in their kind of registers, style, technique, and range that each primarily utilizes.
The mezzo-soprano types, however, manifest overlapping tendencies with the other soprano types. The coloratura, for example, is noted for higher registers, but it also works much of the time with the lower area of the range. Performers in the mezzo-soprano range, in choirs, are usually referred to as second sopranos, and they are utilized to a varying degree.
In more advanced choirs, some pieces with 6- or 8-part harmony would usually include some mezzo-sopranos. Otherwise, the mezzo-sopranos are usually distributed between alto and soprano parts. In this way, they will be able to deliver a broader range to that of the lower register and a darker timbre to those of the higher registers if ever needed.