The case of the vanishing contralto

by Eric Myers

we're living in the fat-free age, and that applies to singing as well as baked-not-fried potato chips and SnackWell's cookies. "Where are the huge voices?" is the common lament. It seems the vocal sound we now prefer is the aural equivalent of emaciated supermodels like Kate Moss -- pretty, but definitely a size 2. Spintos and true dramatic sopranos are scarce, as are dramatic mezzos. But the real endangered species is the contralto -- the lowest, fattest, richest sound among female voices. At the moment, that category appears to be on the verge of extinction.

The sound of a true contralto is huge and plummy, with organ-like tones covering a range from F below middle C to A above the treble clef, often with extensions at either end. "Their voices are nearly always powerful," writes Denis Forman in A Night at the Opera, "with booming chest notes that can frighten the horses. The late Dame Clara Butt of blessed memory could deliver a chest note that could have served to direct shipping in poor visibility." The sound can be comical (think Mistress Quickly), sometimes even scary (think Ulrica); it can also be profoundly beautiful and moving.

The contralto voice cannot be acquired; it is God-given. Mezzos can sometimes sing in the contralto range, but the real difference is in the timbre. The deep, resonant, open-throated contralto sound is unique, as if it were being drawn up out of the earth. It's often found in bodies that are tall, wide and solidly built, with an ample chest cavity to support the tone. The break in the voice tends to be around F above middle C, and, according to contralto Maureen Forrester, is negotiated through "clever singing."

The authentic contralto was always a rare bird. Still, there's no arguing the fact that there were many more of them during the first half of the century. And they were not only stars, they were utterly beloved. Six-foot-two Clara Butt personified Mother England to the British, and she often sang dressed as Britannia herself. The rotund, matronly Ernestine Schumann-Heink became America's Earth Mother and the object of intense public adoration. But contraltos also came in more glamorous packages. Kathleen Ferrier had the face of a film star; Jeanne Gerville-Réache was a Belle Époque beauty who made a stunning Dalila; and Rosette Anday was a petite flapper who looked like a flesh-and-blood Betty Boop.


Over the decades the Met has enjoyed the services of such famous contraltos as Schumann-Heink, Louise Homer, Kerstin Thorborg, Marian Anderson (albeit at the end of her celebrated career as a recitalist), Claramae Turner and Lili Chookasian. Currently it does not list a single contralto on its roster. Gwenneth Bean, who recently spent six seasons there, was lumped in with the mezzos on the Met roster. "Opera companies never seem to want to call me a contralto," Bean laments. "I never understood why. And yet the critics always recognize me as a contralto, and for years I was the only contralto on the CAMI [Columbia Artists Management, Inc.] roster. The only one listed." What has happened to this once common vocal classification, the one that inspired such composers as Handel, Brahms and Saint-Saëns to some of their finest writing?

Historically speaking, contraltos were rarely given the showiest parts in opera. Monteverdi, Cesti and Scarlatti usually cast them in comical roles, often as unlovely crones. So did Gilbert and Sullivan, who exploited the comic potential of the contralto sound 200 years later. Handel, however, recognized the beauty and drama inherent in the contralto voice and wrote leading roles for such prominent exponents as Anastasia Robinson, Francesca Bertolli and Maria Caterina Negri. Rossini's first great success, Tancredi (1813), ushered in that composer's stunning series of roles for the coloratura contralto voice. He went on to write Rosina and Cenerentola for Geltrude Righetti, and Zomira, Andromache and Malcolm Graeme (in Ricciardo e Zoraide, Ermione and La Donna del Lago) for Benedetta Rosamunda Pisaroni. In Paris, Pauline Viardot became the contralto muse for Meyerbeer and Berlioz, while Blanche Deschamps-Jehin, who reigned supreme during the 1880s and '90s, was the Opéra's first Dalila and Fricka and created the title role in Massenet's Hérodiade.

Gian-Carlo Menotti wrote two of the last great contralto roles in opera, Baba in The Medium and the Mother in The Consul. "It is true that the contralto is a vanishing voice, alas," says Menotti today. "Most women do not want to be contraltos or even mezzos.... But I think it is also the fault of many teachers, who are apt to push low voices up. Most teachers don't want their students to use the chest voice. Dramatic sopranos have got to use the chest voice. If you're not going to use the chest, how are you going to be a contralto?" The one place where Menotti is hearing some real contraltos these days is Sweden. "There, you can find some lovely low voices," he says. "They don't have a wobble. They're lovely, clean voices with very little vibrato."

If teachers are urging voices upward, and contraltos are being billed as mezzos, simple economics may have something to do with it. Artist manager Laurence Wasserman, vice president and director of Thea Dispeker Inc., explains, "The rent is due the first of the month, and a contralto who says she's a contralto will never be asked to do anything except Handel and Mahler." Met assistant manager Sarah Billinghurst agrees. "People have to live," she points out, "and they're probably encouraged to sing a wider repertoire. I think there just isn't enough work otherwise. And perhaps as far as singers are concerned, it's more interesting to have a variety of roles. You know, if you go around singing Ulrica, La Cieca and La Vecchia Madelon and doing concert work, it's not as interesting as moving on to Carmen and Fenena and Azucena." Billinghurst also points out that we're now beginning to see a similarly alarming shortage of true basses, and that even the former Soviet Union, once a mine of the lower depths, is yielding few new prospects in this category.

New York City vocal coach Peter Elkus, on the Mannes College of Music faculty, feels that any good voice teacher would nurture a real contralto rather than force it upward. "Essentially," he says, "I think everyone has the sense that there are few contraltos. So if someone came along leaning toward that voice category, everyone would welcome it. However -- not to create too much of a sacrilege -- if Kathleen Ferrier, for example, had sung differently, I think she could have had use of much more of the upper part of her voice. But I can't say she wasn't a true contralto, and she was certainly wonderful as she was."


"You'd be amazed how many people want me to go up," says Bean. "So many people hear the size of my voice and say, 'Oh, you should be doing Azucena,' or 'Oh, you're going to be a Wagnerian soprano.' People have told me this over and over, from day one, and I think, 'Where do they hear that in my voice?' Because I don't hear it. Not at all. I guess people feel sopranos get all the glory and all the high notes. But I want to stay with the beauty of the voice. I don't want to scream up there."

Lili Chookasian, currently on the faculty at Yale University, spent twenty-four years at the Met and first heard Bean in Ariadne auf Naxos. "I thought, 'Oh yes. This is it. This is a wonderful sound,'" Chookasian remembers. "I always feel that women who are aspiring to be singers do not really like to tread down there. They don't care for the repertoire, really. I don't know, I always felt great power having those low notes and being able to sing them. I do feel that many of the singers I teach at Yale are afraid to use their chest voice. But it's there, and why not use it?"

Marilyn Horne feels that this state of affairs actually began with the mezzo roles of Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi, many of which were considered soprano parts at the time. "Those parts were written higher than Rossini, who really knew how to write for the contralto voice. Bellini wrote very high for Adalgisa and even for Romeo in Capuleti. The Verdi mezzo roles were high. Since that time, vocal categories have gotten confused." Horne, incidentally, now considers herself a contralto. "Certainly!" she laughs. "At this age? You bet!"

Turner, who made her Met debut fifty years ago, never called herself anything but a contralto, but she had an extended range that enabled her to triumph as Preziosilla, Amneris and Carmen. "If you're going to make a living at this," she says, "you've certainly got to try to get yourself into the mezzo roles as well. I was fortunate to have that high range. What determines where the voice really lies is where the tessitura is. With my voice, for instance, I can get up there but can't stay there."


"Many of the singers I teach at Yale

are afraid to use their chest voice.

But it's there, and why not use it?"

The 1980s and '90s have brought about a rival that golden-age contraltos never had to contend with -- the countertenor. "I think countertenors are the contraltos of the future," says falsettist Ira Siff, celebrated for his nightclub and concert-hall impersonation of Vera Galupe-Borzkh, prima donna of La Gran Scena Opera di New York. "We're in a baroque opera revival without the presence of castrati. Who would have dreamt, even five years ago, that you would open an opera news summer festival issue and see a zillion baroque operas starring several countertenors in each opera? I can't tell you where the contraltos went, but I can tell you who's gonna take their place." Siff's belief is borne out by this year's Met roster. While you search in vain for contraltos, you'll find two names listed under the new category "male altos."

Countertenors are indeed becoming opera superstars worthy of exclusive recording contracts and photo spreads in Vanity Fair. They are even beginning to invade the wider opera repertory, taking on trouser roles like Nicklausse and Prince Orlofsky, traditionally the province of lower female voices. Even Baba the Turk, the bearded lady of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, was recently sung by countertenor Brian Asawa in an internationally televised production. With "Di tanti palpiti" already on the recital programs of many young countertenors, could a Rosina or Cenerentola in drag be next?

"Well, I don't think they're gonna sing Delilah!" laughs Horne. "But I thought Brian Asawa was quite effective as Baba the Turk, and I heard David Daniels do the entire Tancredi scene with 'Di tanti palpiti,' and it was remarkable. Remarkable. Well, we live in a strange world, and it gets stranger all the time. I've always said that if we live long enough, we may hear another castrato!"

Countertenor Drew Minter would hate to see the contralto disappear. "It's a very valid voice type," he asserts, "and an important one. But I think it's a timbre that people don't necessarily appreciate today. There's an emphasis on higher, brighter and lighter, which didn't exist even fifty years ago. I think contralto voices are there. There are women whose voices really want to resonate lower, and they walk into your studio once in a while and you go 'Oh! That's beautiful!' But people aren't teaching true contraltos anymore. They're all going into this upward push toward mezzo repertoire and working on high notes, high notes, high notes. Voices used to be trained differently, with more of a sense of low color." Minter also points out that recitals were far more common years ago, and music-lovers would fill a hall to listen to a contralto and her accompanist.

One of the most beloved of contraltos is Forrester, who, following in the footsteps of Schumann-Heink, is still singing at sixty-six. "That's one good thing about being an alto," she laughs. "We go on longer." Forrester virtually cornered the market for thirty years, taking the contralto parts in what seemed to be every major recording and performance of Bach, Handel and Mahler vocal works. Her artistry was championed by Bruno Walter, and she developed an important international career. But she has always been particularly popular in her native Canada. Although voice recitals seem to be a dying species everywhere else, they are alive and healthy in Canada, so long as it's Forrester who is giving them. Forrester has never wanted for work, and she does not consider the contralto repertory at all limited. "It's a wonderful repertoire," she insists. "The alto is always needed in oratorio, and in opera for character roles. You're never out of work as an alto. In fact, I have so much new music that I just had to install more shelves in my library. A lot of altos feel defeated in some way because they think sopranos and mezzos get the best parts, but nobody should feel like a second-class citizen because she's an alto. Altos are always in demand, because there aren't too many. People are always eager to hear them; there's a certain excitement in the musical community when an alto comes along."

So what new altos have come along lately? Nathalie Stutzmann is an elegant young Frenchwoman who has been making a bit of a splash with recordings and recitals. How well her voice can ride an orchestra in an opera house is still open to question. Polish-born Ewa Podles´ began as a mezzo in the '80s but has now achieved success as a contralto in repertory ranging from Rossini to Mahler. Nancy Maultsby, Jill Grove and Ellen Rabiner are rising young singers with a powerhouse contralto sound, though the first two continue to bill themselves as mezzo-sopranos.

But that's no avalanche of new prospects. And if we're losing real contraltos to teachers, tastes and economic demands that all conspire to force low voices higher, then without doubt we're going to be missing out on some great singing. As Forrester puts it, "I'd rather be a damn good alto than a so-so mezzo."

The following is a list of currently available CDs
containing some of the best recordings
of singers mentioned in this article.
 Rosette Anday:
Lebendige Vergangenheit 89046
 Marian Anderson:
RCA Victor 7911
 Kathleen Ferrier:
Vols. 1-10, Decca 473-467/477
 Maureen Forrester:
Handel Arias, CBC Records 2002
 Jeanne Gerville-Réache:
Opal 9853
 Louise Homer:
Pearl GEMM 9950
 Ernestine Schumann-Heink:
Nimbus (Prima Voce) NI 7811
 Nathalie Stutzmann:
Rare Mozart Arias, RCA Victor 09026-68187
 Kerstin Thorborg:
Lebendige Vergangenheit 89084


MR. MYERS writes frequently about music, film and architecture.

OPERA NEWS, December 28, 1996 Copyright © 1996 The Metropolitan Opera Guild, Inc.