Baritone, from the Greek barytonos meaning ‘deep sounding’, isn’t actually the deepest voice, rather it lies between bass and tenor, sharing some characteristics of both. It is the most common type of male voice.
The baritone’s vocal range is usually between the second G, or G2, below middle C (designated as C4 because it is the fourth C key from the left on a standard 88-key piano keyboard) and the G above C4, or G4. However, it can be extended in either direction.
This voice type has an interesting history. The term baritonans first emerged in the late 15th century, but at this time it referred to all low voices, including bass. It wasn’t until the 19th century that baritone came to be seen as a separate voice category from its deeper cousin.
This doesn’t mean, however, that roles for baritones weren’t being written before the 19th century. On the contrary, many 18th-century operas contained roles described as bass that today would be sung by a baritone. Mozart composed some of the greatest 18th-century baritone parts, including Count Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro (1786), Guglielmo in Così fan tutte (Women are Like That, 1790), Papageno in The Magic Flute (1791) and the title role in Don Giovanni (1787).
But it was with the rise of the bel-canto style of singing, which arose in early 19th century Italy, that the baritone really came into its own. Bel canto – ‘beautiful singing’ in Italian – was a vocal style that emphasised beauty and evenness of tone, smooth (or legato) phrasing and skill in executing highly florid passages, known as coloratura. It required a more nuanced approach to voice types and baritone came to be separated from bass.
Traditionally, lower voices were used to sing the roles of authority figures – the part of the hero was taken by the tenor. But the advent of the more versatile baritone expanded the scope of roles available to lower voice types to trusted companions and even romantic leads. Marcello in Puccini’s La bohème (The Bohemians, 1896) is a great example of the former. Best friend and supporter of the lead role of Rodolfo – a tenor, obviously – Marcello even gets a girlfriend. It’s left ambiguous, but I like to think that in the end he and Musetta stay together.
Despite this, though, the baritone will often find himself cast as the villain – think Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca (1900). Father figures, such as the title character of Verdi’s Rigoletto (1851), also remain popular.
This doesn’t mean that the roles weren’t sought after, though. Verdi particularly wrote some plum parts for baritones, including title characters in Nabucco (1842), Macbeth (1847), Simon Boccanegra (1857) and Falstaff (1893). Rossini and Donizetti also created great baritone parts, with the former’s Figaro in The Barber of Seville (1816) often referred to as the first true baritone role. Wagner’s physically demanding and musically complex operas opened up yet more opportunities for baritones.
The contemporary operas of the 20th century, with their taste for strenuously exciting vocalism, provided more roles for baritones. Chief among these were the pivotal part of John the Baptist in Richard Strauss’s Salome (1905) and lead roles in Alban Berg’s harrowing Wozzeck (1925), Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935), Bernstein’s Mass (1971) and John Adams’s Nixon in China (1987). French composer Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) featured two lead baritones: the titular Pelléas and his brother and rival Golaud.
Within the baritone voice type category are seven generally recognised subcategories: baryton-Martin baritone (light baritone), lyric baritone, Kavalierbariton, Verdi baritone, dramatic baritone, baryton-noble baritone and bass-baritone.
The baryton-Martin, so called because of its association with 19th-century French singer Jean-Blaise Martin, is the lightest, most flexible style, most tenor-like in quality. The range is generally from C3 to the B above middle C, or B4, lacking the heavier, lower G2-B2 range. The most famous role for baryton-martin is Pelléas in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande.
The lyric baritone, too, produces a sweeter, milder sound, more mellow than the dramatic baritone with a higher tessitura. Its range is from A2, that is the A below C3, to G4, the G above middle C. This voice type is often assigned to comic roles such as Papageno in The Magic Flute.
Kavalierbariton is a more steely voice that can sing both lyric and dramatic phrases. It ranges from G2, the G below low C, to B♭4, the B♭ above middle C. Mozart’s eponymous Don Giovanni is a good example. This voice is more powerful than both lyric and light baritones. However, it lacks the strength of a Verdi baritone, who will have more dramatic power in his voice.
The Verdi baritone is darker than his lyric counterpart, but with a higher tessitura than the dramatic baritone. The range generally lies between the G below low C, G2, to the B♭ above middle C, B♭4. The voice is well suited to characters with some authority particularly such as fathers Giorgio Germont in La traviata (The Fallen Woman, Verdi, 1853) and the titular Rigoletto.
For a voice that is richer, fuller, harsher and with a darker quality, we turn to the dramatic baritone. However, the difference between Verdi and dramatic is minimal, with the former often considered a subset of the latter; differentiation between the two is based on timbre and tessitura. Dramatic’s range is from G2 to the G above middle C, to G4. Villainous roles are often written for this type, including the aforementioned Scarpia, but also Iago in Verdi’s Otello (1887) and Escamillo in Carmen (Bizet, 1875).
Baryton-noble is French for ‘noble baritone’. It describes a part that requires a noble bearing, smooth vocalisation and forceful enunciation. As such these singers often play counts, princes, kings or even gods: Jupiter in Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld (1874), for example. This voice type might even get to play the hero: The Barber of Seville’s Figaro and William Tell in Rossini’s opera of the same name (1829).
The deepest subcategory is the bass-baritone, with a range that extends from F2, the F below low C, to the F or F♯ above middle C, F4 or F♯4, respectively. This is a heavy, powerful voice, usually with quite a wide range that goes lower than other baritones; these singers sometimes sing bass roles as well. Bass-baritones can be divided into two further categories: lyric and dramatic. The difference here lies mainly in tone, with the latter being the darker sound.
These voices suit very powerful characters and Wagner was the master of the bass-baritone role. These include the Dutchman in The Flying Dutchman (1843) and Wotan in The Ring Cycle (1876).
One of the best contemporary baritones is Welsh singer Bryn Terfel. A bass-baritone, Terfel has sung a huge variety of roles. Fellow Welshman Tom Jones is also a baritone, as are crooners such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Perry Como and Dean Martin. Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Cash are more baritones from the world of rock and pop.
Great baritones in the world of opera include Italian Tita Ruffo, a dramatic baritone known as ‘La voce del leone’ (The lion’s voice) and Canadian Gerald Finley, who is known for his exceptional versatility, while American Robert Merrill was deemed one of the finest Verdi baritones of his generation.
Welshman Bryn Terfel is one of the best baritones performing today. Here he sings the role of Falstaff in Verdi’s opera of the same name in a 2018 production at the Royal Opera House (Catherine Ashmore).