A contralto (Italian pronunciation: [konˈtralto]) is a type of classical female singing voice whose vocal range is the lowest female voice type.[1]

The contralto's vocal range is fairly rare; similar to the mezzo-soprano, and almost identical to that of a countertenor, typically between the F below middle C (F3 in scientific pitch notation) to the second F above middle C (F5), although, at the extremes, some voices can reach the D below middle C (D3)[2] or the second B above middle C (B5).[1] The contralto voice type is generally divided into the coloratura, lyric, and dramatic contralto.


"Contralto" is primarily meaningful only in reference to classical and operatic singing, as other traditions lack a comparable system of vocal categorization. The term "contralto" is only applied to female singers; men singing in a similar range are called "countertenors".[3] The Italian terms "contralto" and "alto" are not synonymous, "alto" technically denoting a specific vocal range in choral singing without regard to factors like tessitura, vocal timbre, vocal facility, and vocal weight;[4] However, there exists some French choral writing (including that of Ravel and Poulenc) with a part labeled "contralto", despite the tessitura and function being that of a classical alto part. The Saracen princess Clorinde in André Campra's 1702 opera Tancréde was written for Julie d'Aubigny and is considered the earliest major role for bas-dessus or contralto voice.[5]

Voice type

The contralto has the lowest vocal range of the female voice types, with the lowest tessitura.[3][6]

The contralto vocal range is between tenor and mezzo-soprano. Although tenors, baritones, and basses are male singers, some women can sing as low (albeit with a slightly different timbre and texture) as their male counterparts. They are often erroneously referred to as "female tenors", "female baritones", "female basses" or "androgynous." In reality, such terms are usually derogatory informal (slang). Formal terminology[7] would be contralto profundo (tenor) and contralto basso or oktavistka (baritone), but these are not traditionally named among the fach system.

Some of the rare contraltos that can sing the female equivalent of tenor and baritone include Zarah Leander,[8][9] Hayedeh[10], Ruby Helder,[11][12] and Bally Prell.[13][14]

Subtypes and roles in opera

Within the contralto voice type category are three generally recognized subcategories: coloratura contralto, lyric contralto, and dramatic contralto. These subtypes do not always apply with precision to individual singers; some exceptional dramatic contraltos, such as Ernestine Schumann-Heink and Sigrid Onégin, were technically equipped to perform not only heavy, dramatic music by the likes of Wagner but also florid compositions by Donizetti.


The coloratura contralto has a light, agile voice ranging very high for the classification and atypically maintains extensive coloratura and high sustaining notes, specializing in florid passages and leaps. Given its deviations from the classification's norms, this voice type is quite rare.


The lyric contralto voice is lighter than a dramatic contralto but not capable of the ornamentation and leaps of a coloratura contralto. This class of contralto, lighter in timbre than the others, is the most common today and usually ranges from the E below middle C (E3) to the second G above middle C (G5).


The dramatic contralto is the deepest, darkest, and heaviest contralto voice, usually having a heavier tone and more power than the others. Singers in this class are rare.

True operatic contraltos are rare, and the operatic literature contains few roles written specifically for them. Contraltos sometimes are assigned feminine roles like Angelina in La Cenerentola, Rosina in The Barber of Seville, Teodata in "Flavio", Isabella in L'italiana in Algeri, and Olga in Eugene Onegin, but more frequently they play female villains or trouser roles. Contraltos may also be cast in roles originally written for castrati. A common saying among contraltos is that they may play only "witches, bitches, or britches."[15]

Examples of contralto roles in the standard operatic repertoire include the following:[15]

* indicates a role that may also be sung by a mezzo-soprano.

See also


  1. McKinney, James (1994). The Diagnosis and Correction of Vocal Faults. Genovex Music Group. ISBN 978-1-56593-940-0.
  2. Jones, David L. (2007). "Training the Contralto Voice". The Voice Teacher. Retrieved 24 July 2018.
  3. Appelman, D. Ralph (1986). The Science of Vocal Pedagogy: Theory and Application. Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0-253-20378-6.
  4. Stark, James (2003). Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-0-8020-8614-3.
  5. The part of Clorinde is notated in the soprano clef (original score, p. 71), but, although it never descends below d′, tradition has it that it was the first major bas-dessus (contralto) role in the French opera history (Sadie, Julie Anne, Maupin, in Sadie, Stanley (ed), op. cit., III, p. 274).
  6. Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Contralto" . Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  7. "Female Tenor...or...Profundo and Oktavistka?" Contralto Corner. 4 August 2013. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 20 September 2016. Retrieved 13 November 2016.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  8. Peucker, Brigitte. "The Material Image: Art and The Real in Film". 2007. p. 120 Archived 2017-09-05 at the Wayback Machine
  9. Rosa Sala Rose. "Zarah Leander and the Leibstandarte SS". Archived 2016-06-02 at the Wayback Machine 15 December 2012.
  10. "HĀYEDA – Encyclopaedia Iranica". Retrieved 30 June 2019.
  11. "Contralto Update: English Contralto Profondo Ruby Helder". Archived 2016-06-03 at the Wayback Machine Contralto Corner. 20 September 2013.
  12. Elliot, David J. (2005). Praxial Music Education: Reflections and Dialogues. Oxford University Press. p. 302. ISBN 9780199725113. Archived from the original on 26 March 2017.
  13. "Contralto Profondo Bally Prell Added To The Contralto Corner" Archived 2016-06-03 at the Wayback Machine, Contralto Corner. 14 July 2015.
  14. "Contralto Female Voice (Fach)". YouTube: DHO Gwen. 8 January 2017. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 5 September 2017. Retrieved 26 March 2017.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  15. Boldrey, Richard (1994). Guide to Operatic Roles and Arias. Caldwell Publishing Company. ISBN 978-1-877761-64-5.

Further reading

  • Coffin, Berton (1960). Coloratura, Lyric and Dramatic Soprano, Vol. 1. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. ISBN 978-0-8108-0188-2.
  • Peckham, Anne (2005). Vocal Workouts for the Contemporary Singer. Berklee Press Publications. ISBN 978-0-87639-047-4.
  • Smith, Brenda (2005). Choral Pedagogy. Plural Publishing, Inc. ISBN 978-1-59756-043-6.
  • Media related to Contraltos at Wikimedia Commons
  • The dictionary definition of Contralto at Wiktionary
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