In classical music, the female voice with the lowest tessitura – that is, the most acceptable and comfortable vocal range for a particular singer – is known as contralto. It is pitched below mezzo-soprano and equivalent to the male countertenor. It is one of the rarest voice types and a true contralto is a joy to listen to.
The contralto’s vocal range typically falls between E3 – the E below middle C (known as C4) – to F5 –the second F above C4. C4 is so called in scientific pitch notation – a method of specifying musical pitch by combining a musical note name and a number identifying the pitch’s octave – because it’s the fourth C key from the left on a standard 88-key piano keyboard.
By comparison, countertenor range is typically E3-E5, overlapping almost completely with that of contralto. A mezzo-soprano’s range is usually A3-A5, higher than the former two but again with significant overlap.
The main differences between the three voices lie in factors such as timbre (that is, the tone of the voice, or tonal quality), colour and weight. This means the differences in the sound are more to do with the quality of the different voice types rather than the pitch.
A contralto’s voice is deeper and darker than that of a mezzo-soprano, lacking the lightness and brightness of the latter. On the other hand, it’s warmer, fuller and often more powerful than her countertenor counterpart. The voice type produces a well-rounded sound with plenty of colour; the voice is weightier than either mezzo or countertenor.
The voice is broken down into three subcategories: coloratura contralto; lyric contralto; and dramatic contralto. The first is the most lightweight voice in the contralto category, singing in the highest range. This is a very agile and flexible voice, capable of performing fast, florid passages and leaps. It’s very rare.
The most common contralto voice is the lyric. This is the mid-range voice. It’s a deeper, smokier and more powerful voice than the coloratura, but isn’t capable of the same ornamentation. On the other hand, it lacks the power and darkness of the dramatic contralto. However, this subcategory is likely to have a wider range than the other two.
Dramatic contraltos have the deepest-ranged voices with heavy tones. This is the darkest, most powerful voice within the category; singers in this class are rare.
Very rarely, some female singers can sing as low as male tenors, baritones and even basses. Although these voice types don’t appear in the traditional fach system, they are known as contralto profundo (tenor) oktavistka (baritone) and contralto basso (bass).
Since contraltos are rare, roles written specifically for them are few and far between in opera. But this doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Rossini particularly composed for some wonderful roles for this voice type, including Angelina in La Cenerentola (Cinderella, 1817), Rosina in The Barber of Seville (1816) and Isabella in L’italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers, 1813). These roles are often sung by mezzo-sopranos too.
Wagner, Gilbert and Sullivan and Britten also wrote for this voice type, creating (among others) Schwertleite, daughter of Wotan, in Die Walküre (The Valkyrie, 1870), Little Buttercup in HMS Pinafore (1878), and Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960), respectively.
More often, a contralto will sing what’s known as a trouser role – a male character that is performed by a female singer. They may also be cast in roles originally written for castrati, such as Orfeo in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (1762).
Well-known operatic contraltos include American singer Marian Anderson, who in 1955 became the first African-American singer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera. Another was Austrian-born Ernestine Schumann-Heink, who gave her first professional performance at just 15 years old in 1876.
More contemporary contraltos are American singer Meredith Arwady and New York-based Nicole Mitchell. Surely one to watch out for is Charles Court Opera favourite Jennie Jacobs, who put in a wonderful performance as Little Buttercup in the company’s 2019 production of HMS Pinafore.
This voice type has given rise to some of the best pop and jazz singers of all time – although these singers are rarely ‘officially’ categorised as such. Judy Garland, Nina Simone, Cher, Adele and Lady Gaga all possess this voice type.
Check out Jennie Jones singing a selection of opera
Some well-known contraltos from the musical worlds of opera, pop and jazz: clockwise from top left: Marian Anderson in Japan in 1953, Ernestine Schumann-Heink as Waltraute in a production of Wagner’s Ring cycle, circa 1900, Nina Simone at a concert in France in 1983, and Lady Gaga at a 2010 Royal Variety Performance (all via Wikimedia Commons).