The word bass comes from the late Latin word bassus, meaning thick or low. Fittingly, this voice has the lowest vocal range of all human voice types. It packs a hefty punch – it’s weighty with a low, rich sound. The bass voice provides the foundation in an ensemble, while in opera the bass often sings villainous roles; although wise priests and noble fathers also feature.
The bass’s normal range is the second E below middle C – usually notated as E2 – up to E4, or the E above middle C. Mid-C is usually written as C4 because it’s the fourth C from the left on a standard 88-key piano keyboard. Some basses, however, can go as low as C2, the second C below mid-C.
There is considerable overlap in range with baritone voices and even tenor. What really differentiates these voices is the range within which the singer can sing most comfortably – what’s known as the singer’s tessitura. The bass can reach the tenor’s high notes but he’ll feel much more at home lower down.
Two elements that further determine voice type are what’s known as vocal weight and timbre. The former relates to how heavy or light a voice is, the latter to the texture of the voice. The bass voice differs from a baritone even in the same range in that it is a much heavier, weightier sound, with a richer and darker texture – this is why basses often play evil characters.
As with all other voice types, bass can be further broken down. There are seven generally recognised subcategories within the German Fach system, a means of classifying singers according to the range, weight and colour of their voices.
The first of these is basso cantante or lyric high bass. The Italian translates as simply ‘singing bass’ – it is the most lyrical of the bass subcategories. This is the lightest and most flexible of bass voices, more easily able to access the upper register of the bass range. The singer will have a faster vibrato than deeper basses. This voice is almost similar to a bass-baritone, but possesses the deep resonance and rumbling quality of the bass.
Mozart wrote some wonderful music for this subcategory, including the eponymous hero in The Marriage of Figaro (1786). This is unusual in that the bass is the hero – but this is maybe to emphasise Figaro’s wisdom and maturity compared to the earlier story The Barber of Seville (Rossini’s opera, though written in 1859, after Mozart’s, was based on the same comedic trilogy by French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais).
More typically, the meddling, cynical Don Alfonso of Mozart’s Così fan tutte (Women are Like That, 1790) is also a basso cantante, as is Méphistophélès in Gounod’s Faust (1859).
The second subcategory is the hoher bass or dramatic high bass. This voice is again in the higher register, with a very similar tessitura to the basso cantante. But it is darker and has more intensity.
This particular type of voice is required to sing three Wagnerian roles: the title role in Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman, 1843), Wotan in the Ring Cycle (1876) and Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Master-Singers of Nuremberg, 1868). However, these roles are often sung by bass-baritones as well.
Other parts include the title role in Boris Godunov (1874) by Mussorgsky, Banquo in Verdi’s Macbeth (1847), and the eponymous prince in Borodin’s Prince Igor (1890).
The jugendlicher bass, or juvenile bass, refers to the role of a young man sung by a bass, regardless of the age of the singer. This is one of the lightest of the bass voices, showing the character’s youth, but might denote a character of wisdom beyond his years. A typical example would be Colline the philosopher in Puccini’s La bohème (The Bohemians, 1896). The young peasant Masetto in Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787) is another such role.
The basso buffo is known for playing comic parts – buffo means funny in Italian. These roles, often the hero’s blustering antagonist, resourceful servants or gullible old men, became important in Italian opera of the 18th century. Mozart and Rossini were the masters of such roles.
These singers need a good coloratura technique – coloratura is an elaborate melody with runs, trills, wide leaps, or similar virtuoso-like material which requires a lot of vocal agility. This voice type also has a capacity for patter singing – a moderately fast to very fast tempo with a rapid succession of rhythmic patterns – and ripe tonal qualities.
Typical roles include Don Magnifico in Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella, 1817) and Leporello in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
The schwerer spielbass, sometimes known as the dramatic buffo or dramatic comic bass, is similar to the basso buffo, but lacks the lightness and agility. This is a heavier (schwerer is German for heavier), darker and more voluminous sound.
Roles include Ferrando in Verdi’s Il trovatore (The Troubadour, 1853), Baculus in Lortzing’s Der Wildschütz (The Poacher, 1842), and Daland in Der fliegende Holländer.
The lyric basso profundo, or lyric low bass, is the lowest of bass voices, along with the dramatic basso profundo, or dramatic low bass. These voices have a particular tonal solidity, with little or no vibrato or wobble.
The difference between the two types lies in their power rather than the depth of range. The dramatic is the more powerful, darker and warmer voice; it is loud and often booming sounding with a very full tone. The lyric is lighter, lacking the weight and heftiness of the dramatic.
The basso profundo can be called on to sing all the way down to low C (C2), as in the role of Baron Ochs in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose, 1911).
Examples of lyric basso profundo roles include Rocco in Beethoven’s Fidelio (1814), Sarastro in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute, 1791) and Baldassarre in Donizetti’s La favorite (1840).
Wagner was the master of writing for the dramatic basso profundo. Just a few examples include Hagen in Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods, 1876), Heinrich in Lohengrin (1850), Gurnemanz in Parsifal (1882), and Fafner in Das Rheingold (1869) and Siegfried (1876). Britten also wrote some fantastic music for dramatic basso profundo roles, including Claggart in Billy Budd (1951).
An oktavist is an exceptionally deep-ranged basso profondo, capable of reaching lower notes, such as G1 or even F1. The oktavist will sometimes sing an octave below the bass part. American singer and composer Tim Storms holds the Guinness World Record for the lowest note produced by a human. His record-setting sounds are so low as to be infrasonic, incapable of being perceived by the human ear. But he can be heard by elephants.
True basses are quite rare, but they do exist in both classical and popular music. German opera singer Kurt Moll was a true basso profundo, with a wide range extending down to the lowest notes. Bulgarian Boris Christoff was widely considered one of the greatest operatic basses of the 20th century. A more contemporary example is American Zachary James, known for the role of the Scribe in Phelim McDermott’s production of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten (1984).
In the world of popular music, Leonard Cohen, Barry White and Louis Armstrong were all well-known basses.
American singer Zachary James is a contemporary bass; he was recently seen as the Scribe in the ENO’s production of Glass’s Akhnaten (Belinda Jiao).