Friday, November 21, 2014

A Soubrette Dilemma: Where Have All The Pretty Voices Gone?

Kathleen Battle sang the soubrette role of
Despina in Mozart's Così fan tutte during
January 1982 at the MET.
(Photo: Winnie Klotz/Metropolitan Opera)
When people talk about opera sopranos, many immediately conjure up the caricature of a Rubensian figure wearing viking horns with the vocal amplitude of an diaphone foghorn. Fortunately for audiences these high voices come in all shapes and sizes. On the more petite end of the spectrum is a specialized fach known as the soubrette. Often categorized as light and lyric, this voice type is more likely to caress the listener's ear drum rather than penetrate it. The last century has seen a radical shift in the characteristics of this genre. Marcella Sembrich was a late 19th-century Polish soprano who often made appearances onstage as Zerlina (Don Giovanni), Susanna (Le Nozze di Figaro), and Rosina (Il Barbiere di Siviglia). These roles were a sharp contrast to her typical fare of dramatic coloratura roles of Lucia (Lucia di Lammermoor) and Elvira (I Puritani). This fascinating cross-pollination of repertoire certainly brought a radiant sound and identity to her characterizations in the opera house. At the end of her career, the soprano taught at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia where one of her students, Eufemia Gregory, would go on to teach another famous soubrette of the 1970s & 1980s: Judith Blegen. It was in the latter half of the 20th-century that sopranos really began to give the vulnerable and sweet women in the soubrette repertoire their own distinct sound that didn't always carry over to other vocal categories. They were interpreters from around the globe like Rita Streich, Mattiwilda Dobbs, Norma Burrowes, Reri Grist, and Patrice Munsel, starting to emerge as leaders in this repertoire. But the silky floating tones of a coquette didn't mean she could not be strong in her own right. These roles became more crafted and unique under the domination of singers like Edith Mathis, Helen Donath, Elly Ameling, Judith Blegen, and Kathleen Battle. This group was heavily influenced with the stereo advancements in the recording industry which begged for a delicate immediacy from a voice in front of a microphone
Vocal Spectrum: Anna Netrebko as Adina* [top]
and Lady Macbeth** [bottom]. (Photos: Ken
Howard* & Marty Sohl**/Metropolitan Opera)
that didn't need to carry over a wave of 4,000 audience members in the opera house. Did all this saccharine give way to a more vanilla tone in the 1990s when voices seemed to be more precise and pointed than brilliantly sensuous in the likes of Sylvia McNair, Dawn Upshaw, Barbara Bonney, and Heidi Grant Murphy? This latter group of ladies was distinctly musical, possessed superb instruments, and sang musically. But something was lacking in the timbre of the sound that seemed to bloom in the previous generation. As opera crosses into its fourth century in existence, have interpreters of the soubrette roles become even more watered-down with a non-distinct sound lacking lushness and identity leaning more toward an early music style by sopranos like Danielle de Niese and Mojca Erdmann? Society today favors an individual who can "do it all" and this may lead to the demise of the specialized singing in soubrette repertoire. Take for instance superstar soprano Anna Netrebko who sang the role of Adina in Donizetti's L'elisir d'Amore at the Metropolitan Opera in January 2014 and then took on one of the heaviest soprano roles in opera,  Lady Macbeth in Verdi's Macbeth at the Bayerische Staatsoper in June 2014. This blurring of lines can produce dramatic reinterpretations of roles by bringing new colors, not to mention volume, to a character in opera and certainly harkens back to the old-school voices that could tackle multiple ranges of repertoire. Read more about soubrettes and listen to audio samples of 20 sopranos in soubrette repertoire after the jump.



19th-Century Coquette: Marcella Sembrich sang
 Rosina in Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the
 Metropolitan Opera in 1883. 
(Photo: Erwin Raupp/Dresden)
Merriam-Webster defines soubrette as: "a soprano who sings supporting roles in comic opera." The origin stems from the Latin word verb superare (conjugation of supero), which means "to surmount, surpass, remain, survive." Ottican, a Romance language from the south of France, adapted the word as soubreto (feminine of soubret "coy" and soubra "surmount or exceed"). The first known use of the term soubrette was in the mid-18th century. "Soubrette, in theatre, comic female character usually in the role of a chambermaid. The soubrette role originated in French comedy, one of the earliest examples being Suzanne in Pierre-Augustin de Beaumarchais’ Le Mariage de Figaro (1784)." The aria database offers a large range of roles that fall into the soubrette category including Cis (Albert Herring/Britten), Echo (Ariadne auf Naxos/Strauss), Ännchen (Der Freischütz/Weber), Belinda (Dido and Aeneas/Purcell), Nannetta (Falstaff/Verdi), Gretel (Hänsel und Gretel/Humperdinck), and Elisa (Il Rè Pastore/Mozart). Additional roles that the public commonly correlates when they hear the term soubrette are many of the "ina" roles such as: Despina (Così fan tutte/Mozart), Zerlina (Don Giovanni/Mozart), Norina (Don Pasquale/Donizetti), Rosina (Il Barbiere di Siviglia/Rossini), Adina (L'Elisir d'Amore/Donizetti), and Pamina (Die Zauberflöte/Mozart). Often times sopranos in this special voice type will also sing: Sophie (Der Rosenkavalier/Strauss), Adele (Die Fledermaus/J. Strauss), Susanna (Le Nozze di Figaro/Mozart), and Oscar (Un Ballo in Maschera/Verdi). Wikipedia expounds further: "In classical music and opera, the term soubrette refers to both a soprano voice type and a type of opera role. A soubrette voice is light with a bright, sweet timbre, a tessitura in the mid-range, and
Light Lyric: Brazilian soprano Bidú Sayão 
balanced the roles of Adina, Susanna, Zerlina,
with the heavier lyric repertoire of Mimì, Gilda, 
and Manon, during the 1930s-1950s at
 the Metropolitan Opera.
with no extensive coloratura. A soubrette's range extends approximately from middle C (C4) to 'high C' (C6). The voice has a lighter vocal weight than other soprano voices with a brighter timbre. Many young singers start out as soubrettes but as they grow older and the voice matures more physically they may be reclassified as another voice type, usually either a light lyric soprano, a lyric coloratura soprano, or a coloratura mezzo-soprano. Rarely does a singer remain a soubrette throughout her entire career. The tessitura 
of the soubrette tends to lie a bit lower than the lyric soprano and spinto soprano. The soubrette roles are typically found in comic operas or operettas and they usually portray good-looking, youthful girls who are flirtatious, saucy, and street-wise. Typically these roles are sung by younger singers and both sopranos and mezzo-sopranos are cast in them. Many soubrette roles have a considerable amount of spoken German dialogue, and therefore the soubrette singer must possess both an excellent comprehension of the German language and considerable acting skills. It is rare today to find true soubrettes singing in major opera houses as their voices are typically unable to carry over larger orchestras in larger halls. Often lyric, coloratura, and mezzo sopranos are cast in soubrette roles, especially in the early part of their singing careers. This does not mean that these singers are soubrette sopranos but it does mean they can play soubrette roles. The coloratura soprano has a higher range, can sing more
Next Generation Diva: Lisette Oropesa, seen here
 as Susanna in Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro at the
 Metropolitan Opera in 2007, is already singing 
Verdi and Wagner. 
(Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)
dexterous vocal passages and has a somewhat brighter sound than the soubrette. The lyric soprano has a richer voice and higher range than the soubrette soprano. The mezzo-soprano can sing as high as a soubrette but with a darker timbre and heavier weight in the voice. Mezzos also have a much more extensive range in the lower register. In addition, the beautiful light voice of the soubrette is ideal for baroque music, early music and baroque opera, as well as many art songs. However, the soubrette soprano voice is limited even in this repertoire by its lack of coloratura skill and relatively limited range. Many operettas and musicals include soubrette characters, such as Valencienne in
The Merry Widow and in Gilbert and Sullivan, the Jessie Bond mezzo-soprano roles such as Cousin Hebe (H.M.S. Pinafore) and Lady Angela (Patience). Another example is the character Ellie Mae Chipley, who sings 'Life Upon the Wicked Stage,' in Kern and Hammerstein's Show Boat." [SourceSourceSourceSource, SourceSource]

LISTENING SAMPLES:


Elisabeth Schumann
"Deh vieni non tardar"
Le Nozze di Figaro
Mozart


Rita Streich
"Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen"
Der Freischütz
Weber


Mattiwilda Dobbs
"Batti, batti, o bel Masetto"
Don Giovanni
Mozart


Norma Burrowes
"Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln"
Die Entführung aus dem Serail
Mozart


Reri Grist
"Una voce poco fa"
Il Barbiere di Siviglia
Rossini


Patrice Munsel
"Mein Herr Marquis" [sung in English]
Die Fledermaus
J. Strauss II


Graziella Sciutti
"Quel guardo il cavaliere...So anch'io la virtu magica"
Don Pasquale
Donizetti


Edith Mathis
"Se il pardre perdei"
Idomeneo
Mozart


Lucia Popp
"Oh war' ich schon mit dir vereint"
Fidelio
Beethoven


Helen Donath
"Ein Männlein steht im Walde" [with Anna Moffo as Hänsel]
Hänsel und Gretel
Humperdinck


Elly Ameling
"Vedrai, carino"
Don Giovanni
Mozart


Judith Blegen
"Vorrei spiegarvi, o Dio, K.418"
Mozart


Ileana Cotrubas
"Prendi Prendi, per me sei libero"
L'elisir d'Amore
Donizetti


Kathleen Battle
"Quel guardo il cavaliere...So anch'io la virtù magica"
Don Pasquale
Donizetti


Sylvia McNair
"Alla selva, al prato"
Il re pastore
Mozart


Dawn Upshaw
"Ach, ich fühl's"
Die Zauberflöte
Mozart


Barbara Bonney
"Sul fil d'un soffio etesio"
Falstaff 
Verdi 


Heidi Grant Murphy
"L'ho perduta... me meschina!"
Le Nozze di Figaro
Mozart


Danielle de Niese
"Una donna a quindici anni"
Così fan tutte
Mozart


Mojca Erdmann
"Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben"
Zaide
Mozart


To get a sense of what type of soprano has sung these roles over the years, look no further than the archives of the Metropolitan Opera for a cast sampling:


Adina (L'elisir d'Amore by Donizetti)
Bidú Sayão
Elisabeth Söderström
Mirella Freni
Sona Ghazarian
Hei-Kyung Hong
Youngok Shin
Ruth Ann Swenson
Angela Gheorghiu
Diana Damrau
Anna Netrebko

Rosina (Il Barbiere di Siviglia by Rossini)
Amelita Galli-Curci
Lily Pons
Patrice Munsel
Roberta Peters
Costanza Cuccaro
Erie Mills
Carmen Oprisanu

Despina (Così fan tutte by Mozart)
Lucrezia Bori
Patrice Munsel
Roberta Peters
Teresa Stratas
Mariella Devia
Julia Hamari
Betsy Norden
Cecilia Bartoli
Nuccia Focile
Danielle de Niese

Pamina (Die Zauberföte by Mozart)
Jarmila Novotna
Eleanor Steber
Lucine Amara
Gloria Davy
Anna Moffo
Judith Raskin
Teresa Zylis-Gara
Pilar Lorengar
Benita Valente
Leona Mitchell
Lucia Popp
Marvis Martin
Joyce Guyer
Joan Rodgers
Barbara Bonney
Angela Maria Blasi
Esther Heideman
Lisa Milne
Isabel Bayrakdarian
Susanna Phillips
Heidi Stober

Sophie (Der Rosenkavalier by Strauss)
Eleanor Steber
Erna Berger
Hilde Güden
Nadine Conner
Anneliese Rothenberger
Elisabeth Söderström
Edith Mathis
Laura Aikin
Christine Schäfer
Erin Morley

Norina (Don Pasquale by Donizetti)
Hilde Güden
Roberta Peters
Reri Grist
Adriana Maliponte
Beverly Sills
Gail Robinson
Anna Netrebko
Rachelle Durkin

Adele (Die Fledermaus by J. Strauss II)
Patrice Munsel
Roberta Peters
Laurel Hurley
Patricia Welting
Judith Blegen
Gail Dobish
Barbara Kilduff
Harolyn Blackwell
Janet Williams
Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz
Rosemary Joshua
Marlis Petersen
Jane Archibald

Zerlina (Don Giovanni by Mozart)
Marcella Sembrich
Fritzi Scheff
Geraldine Farrar
Editha Fleischer
Marita Farell
Bidú Sayão
Nadine Conner
Genevieve Warner
Laurel Hurley
Teresa Stratas
Rosalind Elias
Jeanette Scovotti
Judith Raskin
Jeannette Pilou
Huguette Tourangeau
Roberta Alexander
Maria Ewing
Dawn Upshaw
Myra Merritt
Ruth Ann Swenson
Hei-Kyung Hong
Maria Bayo
Rebecca Evans
Anna Netrebko
Camilla Tilling
Isabel Bayrakdarian
Magdalena Kozená
Isabel Leonard
Mojca Erdmann
Ekaterina Siurina

Susanna (Le Nozze di Figaro by Mozart)
Frieda Hempel
Bidú Sayão
Licia Albanese
Frances Greer
Irmgard Seefried
Dolores Wilson
Hilde Güden
Elisabeth Söderström
Anneliese Rothenberger
Mirella Freni
Benita Valente
Marie McLaughlin
Barbara Bonney
Heidi Grant Murphy
Cecilia Bartoli
Joyce Guyer
Korliss Uecker
Dorothea Röschmann
Andrea Rost
Lisa Milne
Lisette Oropesa
Ekaterina Siurina
Danielle de Niese

Blonde (Die Entführung aus dem Serail by Mozart)
Pierrette Alarie
Mimi Benzell
Norma Burrowes
Kathleen Battle
Judith Blegen
Erie Mills
Barbara Kilduff
Jennifer Welch-Babidge
Aleksandra Kurzak

Echo (Ariadne auf Naxos by Strauss)
Jeanette Scovotti
Joy Clements
Betsy Norden
Marvis Martin
Gail Robinson
Korliss Uecker
Alexandra Deshorties
Nicole Heaston
Erin Morley
Lei Xu

Ännchen (Der Freischütz by Weber)
Bella Alten
Queena Mario
Ellen Dalossy
Editha Fleischer
Edith Mathis

Nannetta (Falstaff by Verdi)
Zélie de Lussan
Lola Beeth
Frances Alda
Marisa Morel
Licia Albanese
Judith Raskin
Jeanette Scovotti
Judith Blegen
Benita Valente
Mariella Devia
Barbara Bonney
Heidi Grant Murphy
Camilla Tilling
Lisette Oropesa

Gretel (Hänsel und Gretel by Humperdinck)
Teresa Stratas
Christine Weidinger
Carol Malone
Catherine Malfitano
Gail Robinson
Betsy Norden
Judith Blegen
Dawn Upshaw
Clare Gormley
Christine Schäfer
Miah Persson
Aleksandra Kurzak

Oscar (Un Ballo in Maschera by Verdi)
Stella Andreva
Frances Greer
Pierrette Alarie
Roberta Peters
Laurel Hurley
Jeanette Scovotti
Joy Clements
Judith Blegen
Harolyn Blackwell
Sumi Jo
Heidi Grant Murphy
Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz
Youngok Shin
Lyubov Petrova
Kathleen Kim

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