Kashu-do (歌手道): The Paradox of the Zwischen-Fach: Dedication to a very gifted Singer

Fiorenza Cossotto was the Verdian mezzo of my generation of operatic fans. She was the Amneris par excellence of her time and equally known for the role of Lady Macbeth. She sang all of the great Verdian mezzo roles exhibiting equal ease in Ulrica’s contralto depths as in Eboli’s stratospheric heights. But is Lady Macbeth a mezzo role?

How would you Fach the following roles: Purcell’s Dido, Lady Macbeth, Santuzza, Komponist, Leonore (Fidelio), Cherubino, Dorabella, Siebel, Stephano, Fenena, Adalgisa, Venus, Kundry, Ortrud?

Christa Ludwig, a modern legend in the German repertoire sang probably all of the above roles. They are all listed as soprano roles in the scores. These parts are made for a specific voice that is called mezzo-soprano only because the singer in question has a voice that lies just below the comfort zone for the traditional spinto parts. Such voices, including that of Grace Bumbry, Fiorenza Cossotto, Shirley Verrett, Giulietta Simionato, Margarete Klose, Tatyana Troyanos, to name a few, were not soprano voices in the spinto sense. Bumbry and Verrett who made forays as Tosca among other traditional spinto parts did not fare too well in those roles. 

I wrote this post specifically after having a difficult talk with a very talented student of mine. I have agreed with her from the beginning that her voice is that of a mezzo-soprano because I hear her as that type of voice that would not do well as Tosca or even the Forza Leonora. Yet when she brought in Santuzza the other day, a sparkle came into the voice that I had not experienced before. There was a kind of brilliance I had hoped to hear from her that did not come out so consistently until she sang that role. Her voice blooms higher than a classic mezzo and slightly lower than the average spinto.  As Komponist, she is extraordinary as well. The problem in this case is that the chest voice is not yet developed enough to bring out the power necessary in the lower mezzo, quasi contralto parts.  Roles like Carmen or the Favorita Leonora or Gluck’s orfeo require such strength in the lower range that this singer does not yet possess. Even Charlotte in Werther requires a presence in the lower passaggio that is not native to this voice.  The power that this singer possesses in the top register is extraordinary, but she identifies so much with the label mezzo-soprano that any other title is unacceptable.

The problem is the following: How does such a singer audition? The voice is powerful and clear enough to handle the Santuzza aria with no problem. Would she have to work to gain the stamina necessary for an Ortrud or even Kundry? Certainly. Does it make more sense than attempting to develop the low? I think the low should be further developed, but the middle and upper are so much more ready. My instincts tell me that this singer should sing these zwischen-Fach roles, but would her strong identification with the mezzo label make it psychologically difficult to assume this tessitura, which she proves to handle strongly by way of Komponist and Santuzza?  When dealing with an advanced singer, we cannot dictate as teachers. I have to trust the singer to follow her own path, but at the same time I have to help the singer see her own reality from a different angle. 

Janet Baker as Dido (Purcell)

Giulietta Simionato as Santuzza

Margarete Klose as Ortrud

Troyanos as Komponist

Troyanos as Kundry

The main difference between my student and these fully-developed legends is that the legends had developed their chest voice considerably where as my student began with a very top-heavy approach. Although she has balanced the top and the middle beautifully, the low lags behind a bit, which inspires thoughts by agents and intendants that she might be a soprano.  I do not believe she is a soprano in terms of the standard soprano repertoire (i.e. lyric or spinto or even the hoch-dramatisch type that sings Turandot and so on).  The time it would take to develop the stamina to sing a Turandot or a Brünnhilde might be too much. But the time it would take to develop considerable strength in the low that would make Carmen or Dalilah viable is also long.
She is also afraid of singing repertoire that is too big, and her excellent coach cautioned her against roles like the Favorita Leonora. This is correct in that she lacks the strength in the low to make that part work well. But as Komponist or Santuzza she sounds very big because those parts lie in the “sweet spot” of her voice.

I write this post, such that my very talented student might read this in black and white rather than in the emotion-filled environment of the studio right after a lesson.  As I believe she is ridiculously talented I hope she will consider this approach with her usually logical mind. Personally, I believe it will make a difference in the coming audition season.

I am not a fan of labels, but sometimes it helps a singer to feel more secure.  I have heard singers throw the label zwischen-Fach around for specifically this voice type. It always seemed strange to me as the words mean simply “between categories”. Indeed many of these labels like Bass-baritone or mezzo-soprano developed because certain voices lie between the standard categories. So my dear, I am not calling you a soprano, although all the roles above are listed as Soprano and are traditionally sung by mezzos.  As I said before, it does not matter to me what you call yourself, as your lengendary predecessors, like you, favored the calling-card “mezzo-soprano”. I do think however, we need to come up with parts that make your voice sparkle like Komponist and Santuzza. The paradox is this: the label Zwischen-Fach at once defies categories but also gives a category to those who need one.  I hope we will come together on this rather important development.

© 06/07/2010

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