The German system Fach is a means of classifying singers. It was developed at the end of the 19th century as a way for opera houses to create distinct categories for operatic roles to aid with auditioning and casting.
Fach – pronounced to rhyme with Bach – translates as ‘subject of study’ or ‘category’. The system is still in use today and has given us all those voice types with which we’re familiar, from bass to soprano.
The method classifies singers by the range (the notes they can produce), weight (light voices, bright and agile; heavy voices, powerful, rich and darker), size (the amount of sound they can produce and the voice’s dramatic effect) and colour (also referred to as timbre; the unique quality and texture of the voice). The performer’s age and experience, as well as physical characteristics, also play a part.
There are several Fächer – the plural of Fach – within each broad category such as soprano, tenor or contralto. Even within the same voice type, the particular Fach can sound very different and make very different demands on the singer, meaning that one soprano might be suitable for a certain role but completely wrong for another, while other roles may well work for more than one Färcher.
A soubrette soprano, for example, is young, bright and light, best suited to younger singers. Susanna in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786) is a good example. This voice is completely different from, say, a dramatic soprano, which is rich, dark and powerful – think Die Zauberflote’s (The Magic Flute, Mozart, 1791) Queen of the Night.
Lucia Popp sings Susanna’s ‘Deh vieni non tardar’ in Le Nozze di Figaro.
Diana Damrau sings Queen of the Night’s ‘Der Hölle Rache’ in Die Zauberflote.
Most composers have a particular voice type in mind when writing a role – and sometimes even a particular singer. In order to properly recreate the part an opera house will have a list of singers based on their Fach. Using that list when casting for a production, the opera house can call on singers with the right voice for each role.
Knowing their own Fach can be particularly important to performers. It means they understand which roles they are suitable for and won’t end up straining their voices to sing a part that’s not for them. As soprano Suzanne Fischer put it: “What seems most important to me, is that Fach is what is easy for you. If it is hard for you to sing in a piece that consistently moves over the upper passaggio, or you are consistently tired after practising, then chances are it isn’t written for your Fach.”
It isn’t an exact science, of course, and some roles can be sung by more than one Fach, while many singers don’t fit easily into one type. However, the Fach system is a very practical way of classifying singers and one that remains in use throughout the world.
John-Colyn Gyeantey as the Count and Emily Rowley Jones as Susanna in Marcos Portugal’s production of The Marriage of Figaro at the Bampton Classical Operain 2010 (Jeremy Gray, via Wikimedia Commons).