Often known just as mezzo, mezzo-soprano is the mid-range female voice, lying between – and overlapping with – soprano and contralto. Mezzo literally means ‘middle’ in Italian, and the mezzo-soprano is sometimes referred to as ‘half-soprano’.
This is probably the most versatile of voices. The vocal range usually extends from A3 – the A just below middle C, or C4 – to A5, or the A two octaves above C4. Mezzos can, however, have a much wider range, with some capable of singing down to the F below middle C or all the way up to high C, known as the ‘soprano C’. Mezzos can often hit the same highs as sopranos, they just can’t stay that high over long periods.
One of the main differences between a mezzo and a soprano lies in their different tessitura – that is the vocal range at which they feel most comfortable, where the voice is at its richest. The former is most comfortable in the mid-range: they can sing the high notes, but find it hard to maintain them, preferring to stick to the middle notes. The soprano, however, is happiest at the high end of her vocal range.
The two voice types also differ in tone. The mezzo will be darker and rounder than her soprano counterpart, lacking the silvery brightness of the latter. This is why the heroine of an opera is rarely a mezzo. The innocent damsel-in-distress role that usually takes centre stage is more suited to the brighter voice of the soprano.
Mezzos often sing a supporting role – a sister, servant or mother maybe – the gypsy, witch or villainess, or take on trouser roles, male characters (often boys) played by female singers. This range of roles is sometimes referred to as ‘witches, bitches and britches’.
There are notable exceptions. Bizet’s eponymous femme fatale Carmen is a mezzo-soprano, while the secondary role of the sweet and innocent Micaela is written for a soprano. Rossini wrote his comic heroines for mezzos; for example, Rosina in The Barber of Seville (1816) and the title role in La Cenerentola (Cinderella, 1817). These parts are also sung by contraltos and sopranos.
This voice type is broken down into three subcategories: coloratura, lyric and dramatic. The first of these is characterised by agility; the coloratura mezzo-soprano will sing long lines of fast notes. This subcategory has a warm lower register and is suited to roles that make use of this register but also leap into the upper tessitura with highly ornamented, rapid passages.
The coloratura mezzo range generally extends from the G below C4 (G3) up to the B two octaves above C4 (B5), but some can go all the way up to high C (C6). What distinguishes such voices from sopranos is their extension into the lower register and the warmer tone.
Many of the hero roles in Baroque operas were written for the castrati. Today, these parts are often sung by coloratura mezzo-sopranos; for example, the title role in Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt, 1724).
Lyric mezzos lack the agility of the coloratura. The voice is smooth, sensitive and tender, even mournful at times. It sits slightly lower in the range than coloratura: from G3 to A5. This voice type is well suited to trouser roles, such as Cherubino, the teenage boy in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (1786).
The dramatic mezzo-soprano is broader and more powerful than either lyric and coloratura and can sing over an orchestra and chorus with ease. She has the lowest vocal range – from the F below middle C (F3) to the G two octaves above C4 (G5). This voice is strongest in the medium register, but also has a warm high register.
This voice type is especially suited to older female characters and opera’s femmes fatales and bad girls. The most famous of these is Carmen, but it also includes Klytaemnestra, mother of Elektra in Richard Strauss’s opera of the same name (1909).
Joyce DiDonato is a well-known coloratura mezzo-soprano, while Janet Baker almost defines the lyric mezzo. Dolora Zajick is an excellent example of a dramatic mezzo. Famous mezzos in pop include Beyonce and Miley Cyrus.
Janet Baker, seen here at the Grand Gala du Disque Klassie in The Netherlands, is a great example of a lyric mezzo-soprano (via Wikimedia Commons).