Dost thou know thy tongue’s true tune?: Discovering the early opera ‘mezzo-soprano’ voice for today’s interpreters

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Dost thou know thy tongue’s true tune?: Discovering the early opera ‘mezzo-soprano’ voice for today’s interpreters
Patricia Alessi

The University of Western Australia

The purpose of this article is to provide today’s operatic interpreter with the historical insight she needs to understand the early operatic female voice. In particular, it focuses on where today’s mezzo-soprano voice classification falls within the seventeenth- and early eighteenth- century operatic repertoire, which are the genre’s first efforts. This route of inquiry is particularly difficult since the mezzo-soprano classification did not emerge until the mid- eighteenth-century. Previously, it was not identified as a separate female voice category. Therefore, in order for today’s mezzo-soprano to access and, hence, engage with this early operatic repertoire, she must gain a clearer understanding of her historical predecessors, principally those in the soprano and [contr]alto voice classifications. By utilising the historically-informed performance practice approach suggested in this article, she will now possess the tools she needs to engage successfully with this early Baroque repertoire. Through this methodology, today’s mezzo-soprano can effectively begin to introduce early Baroque vocal works into her current repertory.

Stewart Carter has characterised the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries as ‘an age of… [musical]…transition between the High Renaissance and the High Baroque’1 periods. Drastic compositional changes occurred throughout all genres of music.2 The art of singing, in particular, underwent a significant change, such as the increased use of monody; the change in attitude toward the relationship between words and music; and the birth of new genres, such as opera.3 The traditional dissonances and counterpoint of prima prattica4 were abandoned in favour of stile moderno or seconda prattica.5 Seconda prattica urged greater freedom than prima prattica allowed. The result was the disappearance of out-dated polyphony6 in favour of the more modern declamatory songs, which were based on the Italian stile recitativo.7 Giulio Caccini’s 1601/2 Le nuove musiche, a collection of solo songs and monodies composed for voice and basso continuo (12 madrigals and 10 arias in total), is one of the earliest surviving and, perhaps, most significant8 examples of music written in seconda prattica.

Caccini’s vocal works were novel for two reasons. First, his accompaniment was subservient to the lyrics. In other words, Caccini’s songs stressed the importance of the text first and the accompaniment second. Next, Caccini believed his vocal interpreters often created or improvised unsuitable vocal ornamentations during public performance. To combat this practice, he composed his own vocal ornamentations for specific passages in his stile moderno monodies, often providing several different suggestions based on the possible emotion(s) that the singer may want to convey in performance. As a result, Caccini wrested vocal (and emotional) control over the portrayal of his works from his singers. By doing so, the singers were at Caccini’s compositional mercy. Thus, while this may have provided Caccini with some form of standard vocal interpretation, it also limited the singers’ ability to showcase their voices at their ornamental bests. Finally, Caccini’s use of basso continuo was also a unique feature of his compositions.9
Line of Inquiry
This article presents a contextualisation of the varied historical frequency ranges and historical pitch standards, particularly the manner in which they influenced composers’ as well as singers’ approaches to and use of the female voice. Indeed, when today’s mezzo-soprano approaches early Baroque vocal classifications and its corresponding repertoire, she must take into consideration when and where it was composed. She must understand the variety of performance pitches used, beyond today’s incorrect HIPP practice of simply using a’ = 415 as a uniform historical pitch standard.10 Finally, this is reconciled with the modern-day approach to the female voice, specifically focusing on the mezzo-soprano voice classification, recognising the detailed German Fächer system. By reconciling today’s mezzo-soprano with her female operatic predecessors, she can begin to unearth the historical vocal qualities suitable for her voice. As a result, the modern-day mezzo-soprano will gain a new approach towards the voices of early opera. She will be better-equipped to identify early operatic repertoire suitable for her mezzo-soprano voice type, despite the period’s lack of it.

Thus, today’s mezzo-soprano will begin to realise that instead of attempting to suss out exactly where the mezzo-soprano voice classification neatly fits within early Baroque operatic repertoire, she is actually required to tune herself to this repertoire. She will begin to realise that she is unable to fully reconcile the gap between the modern-day mezzo-soprano voice classification and early Baroque female voice classifications. Despite this lack of full reconciliation, however, today’s mezzo-soprano will recognise that she is the best-suited voice11 to sing the majority of seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century repertoire, regardless of the voice classifications originally12 suggested for the roles.13

An appreciation of historical precedent is essential, for many aspects of early opera performance practice ‘differ…considerably from modern…[operatic]…singing, as well as from country to country’.14 Early opera singing was far from being standardised. Rather, operatic music was often composed for pre-selected singers (still encouraging a certain amount of vocal personalisation), with composers tailoring their operas to these voices.15 Also, national singing schools existed during this time period, including, for example, the Italian, French, English and German schools,16 which further diluted the genre’s first efforts.

There is no one specific or ‘right’ way to sing early opera. Today’s interpreter must remember that she is re-creating a historical performance. This is achieved through a historically-informed performance practice (HIPP) approach. Bar discovering a long-lost audio-visual recording from the early Baroque period or gaining access to a time machine to go back in time and interview these premiering operatic performers on their performance techniques, today’s singer can only strive to make the most historically-informed decisions she can regarding this repertoire. She ‘…cannot imitate the singers of the seventeenth… [ and early eighteenth centuries]…’; rather, she can only attempt to ‘…learn from the varying approaches of the singers of…[her]…time who have specialized in this repertoire and developed their own understandings of the instructions from the past’17 as well as learn from and create her own ideas based on historical sources. This is achieved through detailed historical performance practice-based research.

Today’s mezzo-soprano must remember this when attempting to discover the early operatic ‘mezzo-soprano’ voice – or, more aptly, attempting to discover early operatic repertoire vocally appropriate for her modern-day vocal classification. Indeed, the mezzo-soprano voice type did not exist until the mid-eighteenth century. It took until the end of the eighteenth century for the distinct differentiation between the soprano and mezzo-soprano voice types to become common.18 As such, a lack of readily-defined mezzo-soprano early opera publications exists.
Main Approach
On the superficial level, this lack of readily-available mezzo-soprano early opera publications results in confusion.19 It is compounded by modern-day audio/audio-visual recordings. For example, a simply search20 for the well-known ‘Dido’s Lament’ from Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Z. 626 provides the following first page of results, with 20 results in total:21

Result Rank

YouTube Clip Title

Singer’s Name & Vocal Classification

Collaborative Performer(s)


Date Recorded

Date Uploaded


‘When I am laid in earth (Dido’s Lament) – Sarah Connolly (Last Night of the Proms 2009)’

Sarah Connolly, Mezzo-Soprano

Not listed



14 Sept 2009


‘Henry Purcell – Dido and Aeneas – Dido’s Lament’

Xenia Meijer, Soprano

Dido Koor & Combattimento Consort Amsterdam with Jan Willem De Vriend, Conductor

Saturnina Lemme


11 June 2010)


‘Purcell - Dido & Aeneas - When I am laid in earth (Dido's lament) Elin Manahan Thomas’

Elin Manahan Thomas, Not listed

Not listed


Not listed

18 Jan 2013


‘Janet Baker – Dido & Aeneas – When I am laid in earth’

Dame Janet Baker, Not listed

Glyndebourne with Charles Mackerras, Conductor



18 Apr 2007


‘Jessye Norman - A Portrait - When I Am Laid In Earth (Purcel’

Jessye Norman, Not listed

Not listed


Not listed

27 Mar 2008


‘Jeff Buckley Didos Lament HD’

Jeff Buckley, Not listed

Not listed

Johnny Red

Not listed

27 Mar 2012


‘Alison Moyet - Dido's Lament: When I Am Laid In Earth’

Alison Moyet, Not listed

Not listed


2004 (from her 2004 album “Voice”)

13 Oct 2009


‘Dido's Lament - Malena Ernman (+lyrics)’

Malena Ernman, Not listed

Not listed



13 Sep 2009


‘Purcell -Dido and Aeneas"When I am laid in earth" / Emma Kirkby’

Emma Kirkby, Soprano

Taverner Players with
Andrew Parrott, Conductor


Not listed

27 Sep 2008


‘Henry Purcell - When I am laid in earth (Dido's Lament) - Dido and Aeneas’

Tatjana Troyanos, Soprano

Not listed

Titus Rivas

Not listed

28 May 2011


‘Malena Ernman - Dido`s Lament’

Malena Ernman, Mezzo-Soprano

Not listed


Not listed

11 Oct 2009


‘Dido's Lament - Fiona Campbell’

Fiona Campbell, Not listed

Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra


April 2011

5 Jun 2011


‘Henry Purcell: When I am laid in earth ~ Dido and Aeneas, Z. 193 | Andreas Scholl’

Andreas Scholl, Not listed

Not listed

Oedipus Coloneus

Not listed

6 Jul 2012


‘Emma Kirkby - Purcell: Dido's lament - York, 2007’

Dame Emma Kirkby, Not listed

Yorkshire Baroque Soloists with Peter Seymour, Conductor

Helmut Fischer


18 Aug 2007


‘Jessye Norman - Dido's Lament’

Jessye Norman

Orchestra of St. Luke’s with Jane Glover, Conductor

Baoban Shee

Not listed

15 Mar 2011


‘“The Swingle Singers" - H. Purcell - Dido's Lament (Aria from "Dido and Aeneas")’

The Swingle Singers

Not Applicable



22 Feb 2011


‘Sissel - Dido´s Lament’

Sissel, Not listed

Not listed

Oengus MacOg


26 Jan 2011


‘7. Henry Purcell - Dido and Aeneas (Dido's lament).mp4’

Stéphanie d'Oustrac

Not listed


Not listed

19 Jul 2010


‘Purcell - Dido and Æneas - When I Am Laid in Earth’

Sarah Connolly (Dido), Mezzo-Soprano

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with
Christopher Hogwood, Music Director



26 Feb 2013


‘Dido's Lament, from Dido and Aeneas (classical guitar) - Henry Purcell’

Not applicable - arranged for the classical guitar by Emre Sabuncuoglu

Not applicable

Los Angeles Guitar Academy

Not listed

7 Sep 2011

The worldwide impact factors of these search results are as follows:

236084id in earth"es Mackerras (Conductor)lete name and use of parentheses isar)television. With millions of subscriptions each

YouTube Clip (By Rank)

Worldwide Views

Number of Comments


52#1 MS




53#2 S




54#3 S




55#4 MS




56#5 S












59#8 MS




60#9 S




61#10 S




62#11 M-S




63#12 M-S







Not listed

66#14 S




67#15 S












70#18 M-S




71#19 M-S








As seen with these search results, the ideal (or correct) vocal category to sing this well-known aria ‘Dido’s Lament’ and, thus, the corresponding operatic title role of Dido in Dido and Aeneas is hotly contested, even by the current industry’s top female opera singers.73 Of the twenty first page results, eleven can be analysed as follows:

Singer’s Name

Singer’s Vocal Classification

Sarah Connolly


Xenia Meijer


Elin Manahan Thomas


Dame Janet Baker


Jessye Norman


Malena Ernman


Dame Emma Kirkby


Tatjana Troyanos


Fiona Campbell


Andreas Scholl


Stéphanie d’Oustrac


The results demonstrate the popularity of different vocal interpreters of this aria, including five sopranos, five mezzo-sopranos and one countertenor. With the countertenor as an outlier, it appears that the aria is equally sung by both soprano and mezzo-soprano voice classifications. For these two female voice classifications, mezzo-soprano interpreters received 912,911 views and soprano interpreters received 1,536,443 views.

This insinuates a slight bias in viewers towards soprano interpreters, which may suggest that more viewers think sopranos should interpret this aria than mezzo-sopranos; however, statistics on which viewers viewed which YouTube clip or clips are unavailable. Clearly, with these split beliefs regarding which vocal classification should sing this aria, today’s interpreter may certainly become confused as to whether or not this aria is vocally appropriate for her voice type. Therefore, she should abandon attempts to decode these modern-day contradictory views on who should sing ‘Dido’s Lament’. Instead, she should accept the demands of early operatic repertoire, which requires today’s mezzo-soprano to acquire or possess greater vocal responsibility for her voice and voice type.

In this instance, greater vocal responsibility means gaining a deeper historical knowledge of the female voice. This would provide her with the tools she needs to access early operatic repertoire. Such accessibility would be achieved via a historically-informed approach. To achieve this goal, this article will undertake the following historically-informed performance practice (HIPP) approach.

First, this article will address the gap in understanding early opera vocal classifications, delving into the early operatic concept of the singing voice. In particular, it will address the four differing national European singing schools: Italian, French, English and German. Four key treatises from the four national schools shall be referenced, including:

  1. Dr Thomas Campion’s 1615 treatise, The Art of Setting or Composing of Musick in Parts, which was reprinted as the second book in John Playford’s 1654 treatise, An Introduction to the Skill of Music;

  2. Bénigne de Bacilly’s 1668 treatise Remarques curieuses sur l’art de bien chanter;74

  3. Pier Francesco Tosi’s 1723 Opinioni de’ cantorio antichi, e moderni o sieno osservazioni sopra il canto figurato;75

And, Johann Friederich Agricola’s 1757 extended translated version of Tosi’s 1723 vocal treatise, titled Anleitung zur Singkunst.

These vocal realisations will be grounded in their respective historical pitches, as historical pitch was also not standardised. This grounding will accompany the discussion of early opera vocal classifications.

Finally, this article will reconcile the early operatic understandings of the female voice with the modern-day mezzo-soprano voice classification, briefly acknowledging the use of the German Fächer system in the modern-day opera industry (and its resulting attempt to create and maintain specific vocal standardisations within the larger female voice categories).76

By teasing out the links between the four differing national European singing schools – Italian, French, English and German – , this article will offer valuable musical insight, ‘reveal[ing]...both…[the]… continuity and evolution’ of the female voice as well as vocal ‘crosscurrents’ within compositional and stylistic schools.77 When these vocal concepts are grounded in their respective historical pitches, their contemporary links become contextualised within the broader seventeenth- and early eighteenth- century European musical scope. As a result, today’s mezzo-soprano gains a clearer historical comprehension of her female vocal predecessors. This historical analysis of the voice and its historical pitch contexts can then be compared and contrasted to the modern-day mezzo-soprano voice classification, seeing where these historical predecessors fall within the modern vocal world. With a more finite vocal grasp, today’s mezzo-soprano can begin to untangle the early operatic vocal quandary, self-selecting vocally-appropriate repertoire for her unique voice and voice classification.

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