Faching for those who do not know the term is simply a system of categorizing operatic voices. There are general categories like soprano, alto, tenor, bass. In Handel’s time, even in Mozart’s there were only those categories. In Mozart’s time there were also categories of roles that were usually given to actors who could sing. Granted what was considered singing in Mozart’s time even at a low level is far superior to what we accept from the average actor today as is evident in movies and pop culture. Soubrette, for instance, is a female comic actress, with limited vocal range when compared to the lyric singers (bona fide opera singers) of Mozart’s time. Of course, there were Soubrettes with extraordinary voices when one looks at the role of Blondchen in Die Entführung aus dem Serail. But when compared to the part of Konstanze in the same opera, it is obvious that Mozart’s expectations of a bona fide lyric voice are far superior. This can also be seen in the writing of Fiordiligi and Dorabella vs. Despina, of Donna Elvira and Donna Anna vs. Zerlina as well as Pamina and Queen of the Night vs. Papagena.
Today, Soubrette is considered a voice type. There are enough operatic parts written for a wiry young soprano with a dramatic flair that one could consider taken on such roles as a specialization. This would not be too different from the case of a Spieltenor (character tenor in English) whose work requires greater comic facility than vocal virtuosity. The problem lies in the following: many singers are categorized by their voice teachers as Soubrette or Spieltenor when they are not able to overcome the technical difficulties that would make the singer viable in a bona fide lyric Fach (category). This is no slight of the great Soubrettes and Spieltenors of past generations who were great singers and who would pass as lead singers today without problem.
There is a great difference in a great singer who excells as a Soubrette or Spieltenor compared to a singer who sings poorly who defaults to these dramatic types because they lack the vocal means to do what they might have preferred to do or what their voices might have been better suited for.
Certainly I could not tell a successful Soubrette with a light high voice that she should develop her upper range to broaden her repertoire to include certain coloratura roles that are not easily found! Or would I? Yes I would, on principle! I am a voice teacher and I am concerned with taking away technical limits. Whether a Spieltenor or a Soubrette, the problems are the same when it comes to vocal technique.
I had the luxury in my youth to work with two singers who defined for me the separation of vocal technique as an ideal and the work that is given to us as practical. They are Beverly Hoch, one of the finest Coloratura Sopranos that I have ever heard and Anthony Laciura, the most celebrated American Spieltenor. Beverly and Tony are both small of stature. They both have what would be considered very light voices and furthermore they are musicians of the highest order and have a comic timing at the level of the greatest vaudevillians we could think of.
I first met them in Rameau’s Platée, in the first modern production of the Opera at the Spoleto Festival.
When experiencing Beverly in the role of La Follie in Platée, which required both virtuosity and comic skill, it was obvious that this woman could be the greatest Despina or Gilda. Beverly had sung her share of Despinas and Zerlinas, for sure because coloratura roles are lead roles and a young singer does not get to sing them until they have proven themselves in the secondary parts. Beverly indeed became a first class coloratura with several recordings and worldclass debuts to her name. If not for a bout with cancer she would no doubt have climbed to household name status. She lacked nothing. She IS a first class singer, actress, colleague, mentor, friend, you name it.
Tony Laciura’s career is legendary among opera singers for his countless characterizations of unforgettable so-called small parts at the Metropolitan Opera. But beware if he should ever be thought of as limited. The repeat production of that Platée in the Charleston edition of the Spoleto Festival featured none other than Mr. Laciura in the title role of the ugly nimph, written for tenor in drag. Beyond the obvious over the top comedy (and Tony looks awesome in a dress), the role of Platée must have been written for a haute contre, a particularly high tenor whose comfortable range lies between tenor and alto. The countless top notes in the work were executed with flawless technique. All the while Mr. Laciura’s legendary comic timing was never compromised. If I languish about the unrefined level of many of Opera’s top earners, it is in reverence of great singers like Beverly Hoch and Anthony Laciura.
Another important point about Faching is appropriateness. Some wonderful colleagues of mine feel that one should not categorize a singer early or even at all. I disagree on both counts. The reasoning behind my respected colleagues opinions is that 1) the voice does not reveal its nature until later. 2) Categorizing a singer is superficial and limits the singer psychologically and therefore vocally relative to the inherent flexibility of the instrument.
I agree with my colleagues partly. If Faching is approached with a sense of limitation a a primary mindset, then it is harmful. If it is approach with a sense of defining the singers vocal center, then it is helpful. There are major psychological implications to identifying oneself with a vocal catergory. It gives one certain parameters to operate in. In a sense these are limitations. They are however limitations that allow the singer to become conscious of the nature of his/her voice. Where is the voice powerful without strain? That would be the vocal sweet-spot or what I call the vocal center. The rest of the voice can be strengthened to the level of the center, by which the instrument becomes viable for many more roles than would have been possible a the onset.
It is however dangerous to assume that a voice is strong enough to do every kind of role without harm over time. In our time, we do not make much difference between a note that is sung securely with strength and stability to one that is simply phonated in pitch. The difference between longevity and a short operatic shelf-life is knowing which notes in the voice are truly strong and which are unreliable when confronted with a slight cold or a night of poor sleep. A strong voice must be able to handle more than that.
In my personal experience, it is crucial to identify the basic vocal category (soprano, alto, tenor or bass) and that can be figured out very early if one knows what to listen for. A bass singing a full-closure falsetto can give the illusion of being a tenor. Apparently the celebrated bass-baritone René Pape began as a tenor. If his early teachers had recognized that function for what it was, they would have worked to balance his modal range and reveal the true nature of his voice. I often think that my development as a baritone might have been a conscious decision by some of my teachers because they thought it might be too difficult to train me as a tenor. Perhaps they assumed I might either give up when my baritone excursion (25 years) reached its limits, that I might remain safely in academia, where unfortunately little artistic work was being done, or that I might be very successful as a baritone because the rest of my package was so strong. Either way, I am here now confronting the true dramatic tenor voice that I have. And I wish I had been an unskilled tenor first instead of a safe baritone. Knowing myself at least, I know that I would not have remained an unskilled tenor for long. I am currently training several ex-baritones who are now convinced of their tenor natures. If they are like me, they will have many days when they will wonder whether it would not be much easier to stay a baritone. Nothing is more difficult for a singer than to give up the sound that they have expected from themselves for most of their formative life. It is somewhat hardwired. But it is perfectly possible to make friends with the true vocal self and rewire the brain to accept it.
Refining an unskilled tenor, or helping a soprano to find her top notes and become a coloratura instead of settling for soubrette because of technical limitations, is much easier than convincing a baritone that he is a tenor or a mezzo that she is actually a coloratura (believe it or not, the latter was much easier)
Oddly enough, determinging a coloratura’s voice does not depend on how high she can sing at the on set but rather how high her lower vocal quality goes before she feels a desire to let go. The muscular passaggio is the key to figuring out voice type, but in a balance voice we do not hear when the voice goes from so-called heavy mechanism to light mechanism (not to be confused with acoustic changes that we call areas of passaggio). The earlier we can figure out where the muscular change is the faster we can chose repertoire that is in keeping with the singer’s vocal center. It is not necessary to call the singer coloratura or lyric or dramatic. In fact those categorizations are less important and even detrimental at the onset. It is enough that the singer sings in a tessitura that is suited to his or her voice. Final catergorizations can be used later. Although I could categorize a young dramatic soprano pretty early, it does not help her to know this information because the young voice does not have enough strength in the laryngeal musculature to handle the kind of sheer volume required for dramatic repertoire. If she knows she is a dramatic by nature, she may try to produce sounds that she is not ready to produce at a young age. In the end, the correct length and depth of the vocal folds on a given note is what should be maintained over a lifetime. The voice gains in richness over time because it becomes able to handle greater subglottic pressure without losing its structure. The road of danger is changing the muscular balance of the voice to create a richer sound instead of waiting for the voice to grow in strength. Pavarotti’s voice lost little flexibility over a lifetime. He always referred to his voice as elastic. Domingo lost more, but not so much that he could not continue to sing for a long time. Others lose great flexibility and quality over a short period of time and end up having very short careers.
In short, Fach generally as early as enough information can be gathered to make that determination. Leave final categorization for a time when the singer has amassed a body of work that points to one subcategory or another.