Ken Scicluna

The Operatic Voice - Part 3

In last week’s blog  Ken Scicluna gave us details of the sub-categories of the female operatic voices. In this week’s blog (the last in this short series) Mr.Scicluna will give us details of the male sub-categories and other less common voice types.


Lirico - this voice category normally has very easy top notes and a gracious quality to the voice - examples of roles include Nemorino from Donizetti’s l’Elisir d’Amore, Lensky in Tchaikovsky’s Evgeni Onegin and Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Boheme . Prominent international voices include Beniamino Gigli, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Luciano Pavarotti, Giuseppe di Stefano, Jussi Björling, Nicolai Gedda and Jerry Hadley.

Spinto - this is normally a very large voice also particularly rare, with a lot of ‘squillo’ and darker tone close to that of the baritone. There is a trumpet like element in the sound of a real spinto. Roles include Otello in Verdi’s Otello, Calaf in Puccini’s Turandot, Radames in Verdi’s Aida, Turiddu in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Canio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Renowned international spinto tenors are Mario del Monaco, Franco Corelli, Franco Bonisolli and Daniele Barioni.

Helden-Tenor - This is an extremely rare voice normally a real heavyweight tenor with ‘squillo’ but normally sounding dark almost like a baritone - this type of voice is normally very much sought after for Wagnerian roles or in the heavier Russian Operas - classic examples are the voices of the German tenors Lauritz Melchior and Max Lorenz.



Lirico- the higher of the baritone voice sometimes known as Baritono Leggiero, high baritone or kavalier-baritone, at times with a timbre similar to that of the tenor, which might also easily sing top notes - this is usually not a heavy voice - roles include Barbiere in Rossini’s Barbieri di Siviglia and Onegin in Tchaikovsky’s Evgeni Onegin.

Drammatico - known also as Kharacter Bariton or sometimes as Baritono Verdiano - usually a very flexible voice with an extended register, powerful and with squillo and flexible for several roles , examples are Rigoletto in Verdi’s Rigoletto, Macbeth in Verdi’s Macbeth, Alfio in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Gerard in Giordano’s Andrea Chenier. Established dramatic baritones include Ettore Bastianini , Tita Ruffo, Giuseppe Taddei, Lawrence Tibett and Nicola Herlea.

Bass-Baritone - a sonorous bass sounding voice with baritone flexibility this voice excels in the lower register usually possessing a darker rounded sound. Repertoire can include that originally written for either bass or baritone - roles might include Leporello or Don Giovanni from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Pizarro in Beethoven’s Fidelio, Méphistophélès in Gounoud’s Faust or Aleko in Rachmaninov’s Aleko. Renowned bass-baritones  include George London and Hans Hotter



Buffo - a bass voice with a lighter tone than that of the basso cantante (see below) which can excel in comic roles such as Dulcamara in Donizetti’s L’Elisir D’Amore and Don Pasquale in Donizetti’s Opera by the same name.

Cantante - this is normally a heavier darker voice than the buffo which can tackle the more dramatic roles. These include Filippo in Verdi’s Don Carlo, Boris in Mussorgsky’s Boris Gudonov and Gremin in Tchaikovsky’s Evgeni Onegin. Renowned Cantane basses include Cesare Siepi, Ezio Pinza, Fyodor Chaliapin, Boris Christoff, Alexander Kipnis, Ezio Flagello, Jerome Hines and Nicolai Ghiaurov.

Basso Profondo - An extremely rare voice normally found in Slavic countries especially Russia and satellite countries previously part of the Soviet-Union. These are also know as octavists (or oktavists) as they can sing effortlessly an octave lower than an ordinary bass. This voice is rarely used to its full extent in opera and classical compositions probably due to its rarity (though Rachmaninov’s Vesper Op.37 All Night Vigil features this voice excellently) but some examples are Sparafucile in Verdi’s Rigoletto, the Grand Inquisitor in Verdi’s Don Carlo, Dosifei in Mussorgsky’s Khovanschina and Osmin in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Their main function even nowadays is in the Russian Orthodox religious music, whilst, though different in style, something similar exits with the traditional ‘throat’ singers of Mongolia and the Buddisth Monks who have similar very low type of chanting voices. Examples of established singers are Matti Salminen, Kurt Moll and Giulio Neri.

Besides these more common male vocal categories there are other very rare voice categories are those of the Castrato, Falsettist and Counter-Tenor.

The Castrato is something of the past. As evidence of how this voice might have sounded we have recordings of the voice of Alessandro Moreschi known to be the last Castrato (it is illegal nowadays as this involves castrating a young male during puberty before the voice breaks to retain its characteristics, but was the order of the day in the Renaissance, reaching its peak during the Baroque era) - this voice category was mysticized through the film Farinelli, who was the star singer of his time - the film is dramatized but it has elements of truth, and it is true that a castrato could reach the highest ranks of society from the most humble origins through being a popular singer - Farinelli was no such case as he was one of the few who already came from a wealthy background - one has to add though that many tragedies occured when these ‘experiments’ went wrong.

The Falsettist is commonly a made up (unnatural) voice achieved through a particular technique. When a male learns to sing and develop the voice only in falsetto form - the voice is by nature normally a higher tenor including at times a Counter-Tenor .This can also be done by a baritone.

The Counter-Tenor is a naturally high voice sung by a male which sounds very similar to a female voice, a very good example being the voice of Alfred Deller. One should mention here that a Falsettist or a Counter-tenor is no real match for a Castrato.


Next week we shall take up again Mr. Joseph Vella Bondin’s series of blogs about Maltese composers of opera with the composer Paolino Vassallo.