What are you going to do with a voice like that?

Creative life

Years ago, I tried out for a choir year at Chabot Junior College in Hayward, California. I gave the choir director the sheet music–I don’t remember which aria it was–and she accompanied me on piano while I sang.

When the piece was finished, she turned around on the piano bench, enraptured. “Well,” she said, “what are you going to do with a voice like that?”

I was not surprised.

This was the kind of reaction I got ever since I started, quite by chance, to study classical singing. For opera, my voice is “big,” as they say, and has a beautiful tone, but that’s not the real reason why my teachers became so enthusiastic.

What got anyone in the know about opera and classical singing excited about my voice was that its type is incredibly rare.

But let’s back up here for a second, dear Phantom Reader. If you’re like most people, chances are you don’t know the next thing about opera except maybe Carmen, that Queen of the Night song and Figaro, Figaro, Figaro.

So here’s a little mini lesson on opera voice types, starting with the most ubiquitous of all female voice types, the lyric soprano.

My former teacher, Blanche Thebom, said someone she knew back at the Met used to say, “If you throw a nickel off any building in New York at any hour of the day I can guarantee it will land on the head of a lyric soprano.” If you’re a woman and reading this, chances are you’re one of them.

Common though they may be, these singers have some of the most glamorous roles to play in opera, the suffering noblewomen, like the Countess in “The Marriage of Figaro,” the consumptive courtesan, like Violetta in “La Traviata,” a demanding role that has both made and broken many a lyric soprano, or the virginal do-gooder Michaëla in Carmen.

The voice type can also be extremely beautiful, with a silky, ethereal texture that can break your heart, as Dame Kiri Te Kanawa does above as the Countess.

However, if you are a lyric soprano, no matter how big and beautiful your voice is, it’s going to be a hard road for you career-wise because the competition will be stiff, with far more talented singers out there than paying gigs. Opera is a tough business in general, but the need for good connections and lucky breaks is even stronger if this happens to be the voice type you were born with.

The next soprano type on our list is the coloratura soprano. Here is one of the best opera singers of all time, Dame Joan Sutherland, singing the coloratura section from La Traviata, i.e. that role that can ruin lyric sopranos whose voices don’t have the flexibility and speed to take on these runs.

Coloratura singers are the tweety birds of the opera world, their higher range (“upper extension”) generally lighter and capable of moving quickly. However, there are some coloratura pieces that call for a coloratura singer who has a more dramatic tone, i.e. the famous Queen of the Night aria, sung here by Diana Damrau.

Btw, if you want to annoy a singer, ask them if they can sing this piece for you. It’s super hard and, unless they are a coloratura with a very solid technique and a darker upper rang the answer will most definitely be, "Uh, no. Let’s hear you try.”

A famous example of a lighter coloratura voice is Kathleen Battle.

The next voice type isn’t technically a type at all: the Spinto. Spinto means “pushed” in Italian, and that is exactly what a spinto can do. These types of singers are lyric sopranos with a heavier tone, which means they can push their voice to take on roles more suited for dramatic sopranos. One of the most famous Spinto examples is the Italian singer, Renata Tebaldi.

Then there’s the real-deal dramatic soprano, a voice type that is dark and has dramatic weight, like the incomparable Leontyne Price, singing “O patria mia” from Aida in this video.

Each of these voice types often has several sub-types, like the soubrette, a light, soprano voice with a high register but without the flexibility of a true coloratura, or the high dramatic soprano, who can sing stuff like the Brünnhilde, another well-known opera trope. Kirsten Flagstad had that voice type. Here she is singing a battle cry that could seriously peel paint off the wall. Not exactly one of my favs, although it is funny to see such a young Bob Hope in the video.

Now it’s time to move onto the lower register female voices, mezzo soprano and contralto. These singers get the “witches, bitches and britches roles,” the latter because a lot of them are gender-bending “pants” roles, where women play men, which I personally think is way more fun than the simpering princess, but of course I’m biased. Cherubino from The Marriage of Figaro, a famous lyric mezzo soprano pants role. In Voi Che Sapete, he/she sings about how much he loves the ladies, for the countess who he has a raging crush on.

Coloratura mezzos have light, flexible voices like one of my absolute favorite singers, the Spanish mezzo Teresa Berganza (btw, the man with little ponytail is the famous Figaro, played in this production by the wonderful Hermann Prey).

Now we move on to my voice type, the dramatic mezzo. Like dramatic sopranos, dramatic mezzos have heavier, darker voices, but with less of a higher range.

Here’s the famous German mezzo soprano singing the quartet Mir its so wunderbar from Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio. Fidelio is actually a dramatic soprano role and killer to sing. The limits of the human voice pissed Beethoven off, which is probably why he only composed one opera, which is one of my very favorites. The other female singer here is a light soprano who often sang coloratura roles.

My teacher Blanche Thebom was also a dramatic mezzo. Here she is singing the Wagner aria that I sang the day she kicked me out of her studio (more on that later).

Blanche always told me I was a dramatic mezzo soprano close to being a dramatic contralto, which in her words, was as “rare as hen’s teeth.” This is the singer (a dramatic contralto) she often said she thought I sounded the most like, singing the same aria that was my downfall.

More lyrical contralto voices include those of Kathleen Ferrier and Natalie Stutzmann, two of my favorite singers. There are few roles for these singers in opera other than those composed for castrati, i.e. talented male singers who got their balls cut off before puberty to preserve the quality of their voice (many still didn’t become professional singers in the end, which must have made them feel really bitter considering the price they paid). This is baroque-era stuff from composers like Handel, Bach and co., and includes many concert pieces, like St. Matthew’s Passion below. Since this voice type is so rare in woman, many of these roles are now sung by countertenor, i.e. male singers who have trained their voice to sing in falsetto.

I adore Nathalie Stutzmann. I saw a production of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater she conducted a Berlin several years ago. The contralto role was supposed to be sung by the countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, but he was sick and couldn’t perform last minute. Instead of canceling the concert, she conducted and then turned around the sing the contralto parts, truly one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.

The two gay guys sitting next to us were pissed though. Clearly they were only there to see Jaroussky, although I can understand why. He sings like an angel and is adorable.

So that’s it for my crash course in female operatic voice types. If you’re a woman, whether or not you have been trained classically or have a beautiful (or big) singing voice, you still have one of these voice types and it cannot be changed anymore than you can change your eye color.

Sure, some voices may be more flexible than others, like mezzos who can still sing some soprano roles. Women’s voices get deeper and darker with age, so some lighter, lyrical voices may be able to take on more dramatic roles when they get older. Still, overall, you get the voice you get and there’s not much (or really) anything you can do to change it. Wishing for brown eyes won’t make blue eyes darken anymore than a coloratura soprano can wish their voice would take on a deeper, more dramatic tone.

Any, since a deep, dramatic voice is what I have and, like I said, it’s a rare voice type, I got a lot of attention, which was something I wasn’t used to, especially not at home.

In many ways, my parents were both orphans on the run; not literal orphans, since they’re parents were both alive, but orphans in spirit. My mother was running from bleak Calvinism, oppressive German Russian survival guilt and endless corn fields of Western Nebraska, while my father was running (less successfully) from the ultra conservative, rampant alcoholism, soul-crushing and over-sexed control of his nouveau riche mother.

Yikes.

So much of my adolescence and early adulthood was spent listening to my parents tell their “story,” which was a compelling, spooky one indeed. Ours was a family where no topic was taboo, one prone to high drama antics and an absolute lack of boundaries.

Opera indeed!

In my family, I took on the role of the observer, listener and messenger, never the main character. I was a constant underachiever who kept my head down and accepted my role in the family without making any waves or asking for too much attention, and that was good enough. I was free to do as I chose, with no pressure or parental expectations.

Freedom and being left alone, this has it’s own kind of value, but it can slip easily into indifference. If no one expects anything from you either way, then what’s the use?

But when my voice was discovered, completely by chance (I never sought out voice lessons myself, but was encouraged to by my piano teacher) I suddenly stood in the spotlight. I was showered with praise and pushed to develop my “gift,” and this was something I was hungry for.

This praise and push to succeed reached its pinnacle when I started studying with Blanche Thebom.

A star at the Met in the 40s and 50s, Blanche fiercely believed in my voice, although she also made it clear that she didn’t think too much of me as a person.

She told me once when I walked up the stairs into her studio the first time, she could see I was a person who was suffering from every inferiority complex a person can suffer from, but when she heard my voice–my voice!–it changed everything.

If I didn’t give it my all and become an opera singer I would want to kill myself in 15 years, she told me. “You owe it to God to sing.”

With my voice, she was convinced I would go far. “If you do this and don’t become a success, then I know nothing about the business,” she said.

The only problem was I didn’t really want to become a professional opera singer, although I wouldn’t have said so at the time.

It wasn’t that I didn’t love the music or love singing–I did and still do–but the lifestyle sounded terrifying to me: Living out of hotel rooms, having little time for family life or any life outside of opera, the constant pressure. Sure, you can be a singer and have a “smaller” career with an opera house where you sing in the chorus and take on occasional small roles, but Blanche’s eyes this was completely unacceptable. It was go for the gold or nothing at all.

I was told my voice was a miraculous gift, but most of the time it felt much more like a cage.

Still, as deeply as she hurt me, studying with Blanche was also inspiring. Most of the operatic technique you hear these days comes from the German school, where you ride the voice and push it from below. Although this can create a booming, full sound, it also sometimes sounds like the singer is yelling. It’s also incredibly hard on the voice, especially dramatic voices.

But Blanche, she had been trained in the old school bel canto technique, one she swore could only be taught by someone who had completely mastered it themselves. Other than the breath, which is what makes singing possible in the first place, the bel canto classical singing technique is an entirely mental process. You place the voice “on the flow,” moving forward at all times. “There is no down and no back,” Blanche told me. “Superman 100%.”

In her studio in her house on Potrero Hill, she had floor to ceiling windows. “Project you voice at least to the Bank of America building,” she told me, which was in the middle of the city, miles away.

That was the minimum. There was no maximum. The mental projection of my voice could take me all the way to Mars and beyond.

When I did this, when I managed to be Superman, I always treated myself to an oatcake and latte at Farley’s Coffee down the hill. I practically skipped to the counter with a grin on my face, still glowing from her praise.

If I failed and let her down–and that’s more what it was about than singing–I walked past Farley’s with my head down and chest caved in, driving back to the East Bay in a daze.

You’re lazy and self-indulgent, Blanche told me. You’re too fat, too timid, too unfocused. I’m still not sure if she said these kinds of things to motivate me to work harder or if she was just mean.

On the days of the lessons that did not go well, I tried to drive off my fear that I was fated to always disappoint her, and the thought crushed me.

Blanche was like a mother I idolized but could never fully please because I wasn’t who she wanted me to be–and this took a toll on my back-then already fragile self-esteem.

And then came that day in late July, when I sang Erda’s aria Weiche Wotan, Weiche from Das Rheingold and my count was off because I had been lazy over the summer break, spending much more time with my boyfriend (who didn’t give two hoots about opera) than I had in the practice room.

Blanche closed her eyes and let out a long sigh, then quietly asked the pianist Les to go downstairs. She walked up to me, this five-foot, white-haired woman with a force and strength of steel and asked me what the hell was wrong with me.

I told her the truth–that I was beginning to feel like what I really wanted to do with my life was write. Through gritted teeth she yelled, “You’re just making things up again.”

She sat me down and told me she could not understand me, that she did not respect me. She forbid me to ever use her name. While she continued to rip me a new one, she did add that she would take me back if I could ever get it together, which stung because I knew I never would.

I’m not sure how I managed to drive across the Bay Bridge that day, but when I got home, I didn’t get out of bed for two days.

I started this post the day after I got the depressing news that I had been turned down for a writing fellowship I had high hopes for. I had applied three times before, and each time the editors were very encouraging and told me to contact them personally if I chose to apply again the next year so that they could pull my piece out of the slush pile.

The editor sent another kind note with the rejection that made it clear that she read the story and liked parts of it. She wrote that they always wish every year they could give more fellowships than just the three. But she didn’t ask me to contact her personally again if I choose to apply next year.

The three people they chose for the fellowship are all a good 15 years younger than me.

I’ve never regretted that I didn’t become a professional opera singer, despite Blanche’s dire warnings. I’m used to constantly being rejected, which is the writer’s bane. Case in point: on Duotrope, my acceptance rate for the stories I send out is 1.6%, and under this graph is says “Congratulations! Your acceptance ratio is higher than average for members who have submitted to the same markets.”

But the fourth rejection for this fellowship, which would have included working on a story for publication in my favorite literary magazine as well as introductions to agents, editors and other writers, it really brought on a case of the blues.

I traded in a creative pursuit where everyone wanted me for one where no one seems to want me at all, which makes me the biggest fool.

I could almost hear Blanche scoffing in her grave.

When it comes to writing, maybe I’m just a lyric soprano with a bucket full of talent that’s not nearly enough to fill the olympic swimming-pool-size of my hopes and dreams.

But, dear Phantom Reader, never fear!

I have since moved on from wallowing in the woe is me-s. For better or worse, I’m a writer no matter what level of success I may or may not have.

And who knows? That success may someday go up because, hey, it can’t really go down, plus I’m not dead yet. Not that the latter matters too much. Still, if this elusive “success” does ever come, I’d prefer it not be posthumous…

I’ve finished a draft of one novel and am about three quarters through the draft of another, so finding an agent is the next thing (to fail at?) on my list. Wish me luck!