The audience is waiting with bated breath. They have heard that a true contralto is about to take the stage. They have all heard about the rarity of this exquisite voice type, sultrily feminine at its highest, warm and motherly in the middle, and soulfully androgynous at its lowest, most guttural extremes. Alas, they are disappointed when a petite woman stands before them, trying and unknowingly failing to sing the rich strains of ‘Erda’s Warning.’ They clap. She sings. And neither of them realize that there is so much more to the epic aria.
The contralto is a rare creature; endangered today by the demand for a generic, girlish voice that may sometimes be seductive, husky and booming, but never mournful and melodiously agender like the earth mother.
Technically, a contralto voice is the lowest female voice in classical music. Sometimes, the term is incorrectly confused with ‘alto’, which is a choral part instead of an actual vocal fach. The alto line may be sung by true contraltos and low mezzo-sopranos in an ensemble. However, actual contralto repertoire is the domain only of a true contralto. Typically, the contralto can vocalize up to the second F above middle C and down to the E below middle C. Some special contraltos can extend their voices a few notes above and a few notes below as well.
Like all other voice types, the contralto voice is divided into three distinct subcategories; Coloratura, Lyric and, Dramatic.
The Coloratura contralto is a special kind of singer who has a low lying tessitura (the part where her voice is richest and most comfortable) but a highly developed and extensive coloratura, which demands agility, lightness, and flexibility of the voice; a feat made supremely difficult by the naturally thick vocal folds of the contralto voice.
The Lyric Contralto is the most common type of contralto voice. This singer can sing a number of contralto roles but will lack the extensive coloratura of her lighter counterpart. She would have a deeper and darker color than her, but nowhere near to the Dramatic contralto, who is arguably a class unto herself.
The Dramatic contralto is the heaviest, darkest, richest voice in the entire spectrum of female voices. This singer is a powerhouse of music and can belt out low chest notes with aplomb. She may have a certain amount of coloratura capability but her true worth lies in the color and size of her instrument.
Since the actual number of true contraltos is so small, many of them sing a number of roles not entirely meant specifically for their own subcategory. And that is alright because many contralto singers have an excellent command over music as a subject and know how to maneuver the difficulties presented by repertoire not entirely meant for them. With that being said, it is also important to note that while a contralto may explore various roles within her vocal fach, it would be damaging for her to sing vastly different music like the kind written for a soprano. Unfortunately, many voice teachers have caused grievous vocal and emotional harm to budding contraltos by misidentifying them as mezzo-sopranos or even sopranos. This can not only be damaging to the singer’s voice, but also to her self-esteem.
The celebrated contraltos in history have performed some of the greatest roles ever written in opera. Marian Anderson, the first African-American contralto to sing at the Metropolitan opera made her debut on that prestigious stage as Ulrica from ‘Un ballo in maschera.’ Ewa Podlés, the polish contralto can famously sing a Bb2 and D6 with equal ease and strength. Her greatest performances include her rendition of La Marquise de Berkenfield from ‘La fille du régiment.’ Other women who have owned the contralto voice and enriched its repertoire include Kathleen Ferrier, Dame Clara Butt, and Eula Beal, the young lyric contralto who gave up her skyrocketing career in order to raise her children.
Today, the contralto voice is hard to find. She masquerades as a mezzo-soprano, sings in her deep and soulful voice in the church choir, takes to pop music in order to vocalize her chesty brilliance. But she bleeds in her need to return to opera, which is only poorer without her.