Sydney Opera House

Operatic Voices

Classical and Popular Styles

Singing in the Western world is now generally divided into classical and popular styles. The main differences at present concern volume. Essentially all singers in all 'pop' fields depend upon the microphone. This enables them to deliver their message in a conversational or whispered style of great intimacy as well as a louder or more dramatic style. Operatic singers on the other hand, mostly still depend on their own unamplified voice, which they must be able to project to the back row in a large auditorium. In order to make the large sound needed to fill an opera house without using any amplification, the singer must use all the natural resonance of the sinus cavities in the face and head. These natural spaces are, in effect, like little amplifying 'echo' chambers.

The singer must focus the tone so that the sound travels forward from the mouth, and they must breathe correctly. Proper breathing requires using the full capacity of the lungs. As the lungs are fully filled, they displace the diaphragm, a membrane which stretches across the base of the chest cavity; then, using the strength of this membrane, the air is expelled in a controlled fashion. 'Diaphragm breathing' which gives the voice maximum projection is also a major source of the vibrato, the slight waver in the voice which characterises the opera singer's sound.

Categories of Voices

Operatic voices are categorised according to range as follows:






High Soprano (often called coloratura soprano)


Click for an example

Click for an example


Baritone (Bass-baritone)
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Click for an example


Bass (Basso profundo)

Contralto (Alto)

Use of Voices in Opera

In opera, the romantic leads are usually played by sopranos and tenors. Older characters are usually portrayed by the lower voices. Villains are frequently dramatic basses, comic or buffo parts are light basses. Maid-servants are usually soprano or light mezzo-sopranos. Also, teenage boys are sometimes played by mezzo-sopranos, because real adolescent male voices lack the necessary power and endurance. These male roles for mezzos are called trouser roles.

In recent years there has been reconsideration given to casting of many operas of particularly the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Roles originally written for high 'castrati' males were usually given to mezzo-sopranos (in the absence of such 'castrati'), but these are increasingly becoming the province of the high-toned counter-tenors, as in the title role of Handel's Julius Caesar.

It must be remembered that the quality, or 'timbre', of the voice as well as its range must be considered in making a choice of voice classification.