Just like people, vocal cords come in all different shapes and sizes. Our voice types are what they are, and there’s nothing we can do to change them. For opera singers, a long and healthy singing life is the goal, and one of the biggest vocal killers is singing the wrong repertoire (or fach).
DISCLAIMER: most of these thoughts can apply to sopranos and mezzos, too, but I’m going to stick to what I know, and that’s male singing.
Most young men are baritones because, just like body types, most vocal cords are of average length and thickness. The average height of males in the US is 5’9 1/2” (182 cm). It’s the same concept when we discuss the average range of the human voice.
Now the fach system is not always so clear cut and some of us singers can be right in the middle of two fachs. As a young singer, it can be especially tricky to figure out whether you’re a tenor, baritone, or bass—or even a countertenor (but I’m not going to go there). I’ve been there, done that, and I’ve got a lot to share.
When you’re a young singer and you’re unsure which fach you are, you’re going to need another set of ears to help you out. The first step is finding a support group of musicians you trust and who have years of experience as a voice teacher or singer. This group can also consist of conductors, coaches, or stage directors, each one having a modicum of success. You need a support group because basing your career on only one person’s opinion can be very risky.
For instance, in 2 weeks as a young artist, I was literally told by two different (both distinguished) voice teachers that I was definitively a baritone and the other said I was definitively a tenor. Obviously, one of them misjudged my voice. Imagine if I had taken the wrong advice just because of that one person. Everyone else in my life (on my “committee”) told me otherwise, so as an inexperienced and wide-eyed singer, I had to listen to the majority of those older and wiser than me.
Now, as older Lucas, I know why that one teacher heard me and thought “he’s a tenor.”
Timbre (the quality of one’s sound and what makes a voice distinct) comes into play when deciding fach. Baritones are known to have a deeper, honeyed timbre and tenors a lighter, brighter one.
Personally, I have a bright timbre for baritones because that’s how my voice naturally sounds. I was taught my whole life (thank you to my teachers!) to keep my sound in that bright position, and that my voice would naturally darken over the years. Now as I approach 40, my voice has done just that, as opposed to me artificially darkening my sound and shortening the lifespan or likelihood of my career.
I like to think of the baritone timbre as a cello: the deep richness of a bass instrument with a singing-like quality on the upper range. It’s never overly muddy or brassy.
It’s very important to take one’s age into account when discussing voice type. Experienced teachers who have taught successful students of different fachs can compare your timbre with other singers when they were the same age.
Your timbre must be a pure sound—unaffected and fully supported.
Teachers have told me that roles live in the middle voice, because that’s 90% of your singing. Thus, your strengths should be in your middle voice, which is also where your true timbre rings the most.
When you know how to handle the extremity of your range, your fach becomes more clear. This is a good way to go about it but high notes don’t tell the whole story. You have to consider the high notes AND the passaggio.
A baritone’s passaggio, depending on the vowel (let’s stick to ol’ faithful “Ah”) will start just around Eb or E and will end around F-F#. For tenors, it can start between F or G and end around Bb – B. So, a full whole step higher or more than a baritone. That makes a huge difference!
Now, when traversing the passaggio, it must be fully supported. No half-assing with falsetto or off-the-voice singing. Once that support gives out, and you can’t sustain singing in that range, you’ll know you’re singing out of your fach range.
After learning to sing through your passaggio (fully supported!) it’s time to reach your high notes in an operatic way. Wherever your voice “taps out” once you’ve made it through the passaggio, is where your highest notes are.
Once you’ve correctly reached the extreme end of your voice, (creating space between your back molars, lifting in the front, with the thought of “uh” in the back) and with the feedback from a few experienced voice instructors, you’ll begin to find where those high notes lie.
Another tenor-like quality to my voice is my range because I can sing up to a high Bb. This doesn’t mean I’m a tenor, though, and I know that it’s okay to lie in the cracks. It means I’m able to sing high lyric baritone rep well, like Sherrill Milnes, Thomas Allen, Thomas Hampson, and Simon Keenlyside. I’m between a low heldentenor and a lyric baritone, which proves just how tricky the fach system can be and how it takes years to figure it out.
If you’re a baritone who’s curious about testing out the tenor waters, try out some tenor rep. A couple good ones would be Ottavio, Lensky, Canio, or Werther. I tried to sing “Un’aura amorosa” once but I was only able to sing it off my voice, so that’s not real singing. So make sure to support your sound and keep it light and bright.
For tenors who might be baritones, try out Don Giovanni, The Count, Valentin, or Wolfram.
As you try them, listen to recordings (Without Imitating!!!) of these pieces to get accustomed to the different timbres of these two voice types. Record yourself and when you listen back, ask yourself: does it sound like you’re imitating a tenor or a baritone? Does it sound like a copy version? Whatever the answer is, don’t fabricate a false sound. You’ll hear what I mean if that’s the case.
Interestingly, I can sing “Winterstürme” really well but I can’t sing Canio: it kills my throat. I have all the notes, but Italian tenor rep and style is nearly impossible for me. The lead up and length of the phrases are so hard for me to sing correctly. Same thing goes for French tenor rep: it’s way too high (except Werther). But for some reason, German tenor rep is a different beast. This is why it’s important to try different styles and experiment with different rep in the first place.
If you really feel like you can take a fach leap, sing for someone in your “committee” and get feedback on your range and timbre. Again, the key is not to fabricate the sound. Tenors out there, don’t over-darken your sound but do experiment with it. And for you baritones, keep your sound in a light, bright and forward space.
Making the Switch
Success is a big factor to determining fach because the people hiring you know what they want from a fach. If you’re only getting 1-2 gigs per year this might be an indication. It’s not a reason to change fachs but it COULD be one of the reasons you’re not getting hired more. It may be best to take off a year or two and dedicate yourself to solid voice lessons to transition to the right fach.
So what do you do if you’re a baritone with high notes but have nowhere to show them off? Add em’!
When a baritone role sits rather low for my tessitura (and the style allows it), I like to add high notes. For instance, as Athanaël in Thaïs, I add three high notes in the score that fit dramatically and harmonically.
Also, in the Count, I use a few notes from Mozart’s own higher rendition of “Hai già vinta la causa” and I feel like I tap into the strongest part of my voice. So, there’s lots of options for high baritones like me.
I also jump at the chance to sing all the high lyric baritone rep that’s out there. For example, it’s rare for a baritone aria to have a culminating high note like in Barber, so I sing that role as often as I can, since it shows off the goods.
High baritones like Simon Keenlyside, Thomas Hampson, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau were a big inspiration for me, and gave me the gumption to sing beautifully and embrace high-quality singing at all times. I keep them in mind when I’m not singing those “flashy” pieces.
No matter the role, Barber, Guillaume Tell, Wolfram, Zurga, Rodrigo, Eugene Onegin, Don Giovanni, Il Conte, or Marcello, I always try to own it.
I’ll always be proud that I am what I am by never trying to be something that I’m not. I’ve worked hard to be one of the best in the world in my fach.
So stick to your guns but know what your guns are.
Baritones RULE, Tenors Drool… 😜
What do you think? Did you find this article interesting, entertaining, or helpful? Feel free to chime in with a comment below.