There are, broadly speaking, seven voice types. These are the three female voices – soprano, mezzo-soprano and contralto – and four male: countertenor, tenor, baritone and bass. Of these, soprano is the highest-pitched human voice type.
The typical soprano range lies between C4 and C6. The former is the musical note middle C. It is referred to as C4 because it is the fourth C key from left (that is, starting from the bass notes) on a standard 88-key piano keyboard. C6 (known as soprano high C) is two octaves higher than C4. This numbering system is used to classify and describe all voice types.
Soprano generally refers to female voices. However, it is also sometimes applied to boys, although these are more properly called trebles, and to male castrati singers of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Some countertenors can sing in the soprano range, but these male singers are very rare.
The soprano voice type is split into five major subcategories. These are coloratura, soubrette, lyric, spinto and dramatic.
The term coloratura refers to the elaborate ornamentation of a melody – runs, leaps and trills. Accordingly, this voice is extremely agile, firing out fast-paced sections that ascend as high as F6 (high F). Dame Joan Sutherland was a well-known coloratura soprano; a particularly fine example of her singing is Lucia in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (1835).
Within this subcategory, singers may be further divided into lyric or dramatic coloratura. The former is a very agile light voice with a high upper extension capable of fast vocal coloratura. The dramatic coloratura soprano has great flexibility in high-velocity passages, yet with great sustaining power comparable to that of a full spinto or dramatic soprano.
A soubrette soprano refers to both a voice type and a particular type of character. Soubrette roles are generally found in comic operas or operettas; they usually portray attractive, youthful girls who are flirtatious, cheeky and coquettish. Such parts include Hebe in Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore (1878) and Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart, 1784).
A soubrette voice is light and sweet, with a bright timbre. The tessitura – the range within which most notes of a vocal part fall – lies within the mid-range, but with no extensive coloratura. Many younger singers start out as soubrettes but as they grow older and the voice matures, they may be reclassified as another voice type.
The lyric soprano is a warm, rich voice with a bright, full timbre. The range is generally higher than that of a soubrette, but not so high as a coloratura. This is the most common female singing voice and many of opera’s most famous roles were written for this voice type. These include Musetta in La bohème (The Bohemians, Puccini, 1896) Pamina in The Magic Flute (Mozart, 1791), Micaëla in Carmen (Georges Bizet, 1875) and Bess in George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935).
Spinto is more fully known as lirico-spinto, Italian for ‘pushed lyric’. It has the brightness and height of a lyric soprano, but can be ‘pushed’ to dramatic climaxes and may have a somewhat darker timbre.
The spinto repertoire includes many roles from the Italian Romantic tradition of Verdi and Puccini, including Cio-Cio San in the latter’s Madama Butterfly (1904) and Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello (1887). This is an uncommon voice type and often parts meant for these voices are performed by singers from other classifications.
Dramatic (or soprano robusto) is the big soprano voice. This is a powerful, rich, emotive voice that can be heard over a full orchestra. It generally has a lower tessitura than the other subcategories, as well as a darker timbre.
Roles for the dramatic soprano really came to the fore in the Romantic era, with Wagner particularly writing a good variety of dramatic soprano parts. These include the magnificent Brunnhilde in his epic Ring Cycle, as well as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser (1845), Isolde in Tristan und Isolde (1865) and Sieglinde in Die Walküre.
Famous operatic sopranos include Maria Callas, Diana Damrau, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Montserrat Caballé and Renée Fleming. But well-known sopranos aren’t limited to the classical world, and include Mariah Carey, Björk and more recently Billie Eilish from the world of pop and rock, and Kristin Chenoweth and Julie Andrews from musical theatre.
It’s probably fair to say that soprano is the voice type that everyone recognises and which is most associated with opera in people’s minds. The high notes, the trills, the thrills – it’s certainly a voice that can impress.
Some sopranos you might have heard of (clockwise from top left): Maria Callas, Renée Fleming, Billie Eilish and Julie Andrews (Federico Patellani, Federico Patellani, Icebox, CBS Television; all via Wikimedia Commons).