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  #1  
Old 03-08-2006, 11:43 PM
Carnac the Magnificent! Carnac the Magnificent! is offline
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Why are tenors--not baritones or basses--the reigning kings of the male opera world?

The male operatic archtype seems to be manly, virile, the quintessential man's man. So why does the tenor get so many starring roles, while the baritone and bass singers typically--though not always--take a back seat to him?

Lower-pitched male voices seem more associated with "manliness" in Western cultures, but this isn't so on the stage. Is it largely because the tenor voice carries better? Can it really be argued that a tenor is more "dramatic" sounding than a baritone or bass? Ever hear Sam Ramey in his prime? Damn.

I understand the appeal of the soprano and mezzo soprano. Please connect the dots for this opera flyweight.
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  #2  
Old 03-08-2006, 11:52 PM
Cunctator Cunctator is offline
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They tend to get the romantic roles in opera. Perhaps that helps?

Or perhaps it's simply a case of numbers. I'm not familar with the world of opera but I do have years of experience in the world of choral music. Tenors are simply rarer than baritones/basses. I don't know why, but that's just how it is. In any group of singers the woman will split something like 55/45 soprano/alto. The men will split 70/30 bass/tenor.
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  #3  
Old 03-08-2006, 11:56 PM
lissener lissener is offline
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Because it's the voice of youth and beauty. The romantic leads tend to be juveniles and ingenues; the lower registers tend to be older characters.
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  #4  
Old 03-09-2006, 12:17 AM
panache45 panache45 is online now
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But we basses get to play the villain.
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  #5  
Old 03-09-2006, 06:14 AM
FlyingRamenMonster FlyingRamenMonster is offline
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I'm wondering if there isn't a... well, I don't know the word for it, but another reason. Tenors and altos just sound better to me. It doesn't matter if it's a person singing, or an instrument, or whatever. Play in that range of notes and you're more likely to get my attention.
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  #6  
Old 03-09-2006, 06:24 AM
Fortean Fortean is offline
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I heard a story once (probably an urban legend) that young girls screams at a Beatles concert registered as almost twice as loud when the young lads sung falsetto. Anyway the point of my telling this story is that ladies love the high notes. We LOVE them. They evoke high emotion, sensitivity, yearning, strength and willingness to concede an argument. A man willing to enter a lady’s register may be up to entering other things, if you know what I mean, and I think you do. A bad-boy bass, on occasion, will hit the spot, but crikey, from his grumpy low notes, you just KNOW he won’t be the one to sleep in the wet spot.

YMMV.
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Old 03-09-2006, 06:32 AM
twickster twickster is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Fortean
I heard a story once (probably an urban legend) that young girls screams at a Beatles concert registered as almost twice as loud when the young lads sung falsetto. Anyway the point of my telling this story is that ladies love the high notes. We LOVE them. They evoke high emotion, sensitivity, yearning, strength and willingness to concede an argument. A man willing to enter a lady’s register may be up to entering other things, if you know what I mean, and I think you do. A bad-boy bass, on occasion, will hit the spot, but crikey, from his grumpy low notes, you just KNOW he won’t be the one to sleep in the wet spot.

YMMV.

MM most definitely Vs. I prefer the lower registers -- I like baritones better than tenors, altos more than sopranos, I prefer the cello to the violin, etc. Sexiest voice I've ever heard belongs to a friend of mine -- it's a baritone you want to spread all over your ... um, what were we talking about?
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  #8  
Old 03-09-2006, 06:53 AM
Oy! Oy! is offline
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Heck, I was in a performance of Bach's St. Matthew's Passion, and we choral women were practically ready to throw our hotel keys (had we had any) to the deep baritones! SERIOUSLY yummy.

Maybe it's a generational thing, but I think women of Twickster's and my age prefer baritones, at least for classical music. Pop, unfortunately, hasn't seen a serious bass since, maybe (it's a little iffy, he's on the high side for a baritone), Jim Morrison (unless you want to count Bowser of Sha Na Na).
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  #9  
Old 03-09-2006, 10:08 AM
ddgryphon ddgryphon is offline
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Remember that the Tenor was used as a replacement (Ultimately) for the Castrati of the Baroque era. For some reason or other, it was decided that the leading roles went to the higher voices -- this from who knows when? Basically, I'm a lower register lover (altos, Baritones, Basses, Cello, Bass, Viola even and give me an English Horn over an oboe any day.)

Basses and Altos were given character roles, and villain roles. It is a tradition that has stayed true to form for centuries now.

Why? Who can say? It is what it is.
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  #10  
Old 03-09-2006, 10:44 AM
Eonwe Eonwe is online now
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Quote:
Originally Posted by FlyingRamenMonster
I'm wondering if there isn't a... well, I don't know the word for it, but another reason. Tenors and altos just sound better to me. It doesn't matter if it's a person singing, or an instrument, or whatever. Play in that range of notes and you're more likely to get my attention.
I think you're onto something here.

[commences speaking out of his ass... figuratively]

There are certain ranges that the human ear is more attuned to; that sound the most clear and crisp. Perhaps that range (tenor/alto-ish) falls within that frequency range more often than not. Certainly the pitches of low bass notes are more challenging to even distinguish from one another (as the frequency difference between lower notes are dramatically less than the frequency difference between higher notes; the relationships are logarithmic). Bass tones can be muddy and unclear because of this. Also, the natural vibrations of the voice can further muddy the sound we ultimately hear.

When I get home I can look it up, but I'm pretty sure that I have in a book somewhere some information regarding this.

[/CSOOHA...F]
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  #11  
Old 03-09-2006, 10:50 AM
silenus silenus is online now
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What can I say? We tenors are just naturally sexy.
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  #12  
Old 03-09-2006, 11:08 AM
Figaro Figaro is offline
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Operatic bass, here...

The short answer to this question (and the parallel question of why sopranos are far more popular than mezzo-sopranos and contraltos in the opera world) is pretty simple: the visceral thrill of high notes.

Disregarding it's many other aspects for the moment (drama, beautiful music, etc.), opera is first and foremost a spectacle, and people appreciate most what they deem to be most impressive (i.e. least attainable or familliar to them).

I have great high notes. But I'm a bass, and because of the color and timbre of my voice, my high notes don't sound high in the same way that a tenor's high notes do for him. They don't have the the high-wire "will he make it" taughtness and pinpoint ring that characterizes a tenor's (or soprano's) high C, for instance.

Also, the highest notes of my singing voice are attainable by just about anyone - they may not sing them well, or in a way that they could do over and over or sustain, but they can produce those pitches. We're talking about F or F# above middle C, for instance.

But that's not true for tenors. A genuine high C, for instance, is not a pitch most men can produce at all without resorting to falsetto. Even tenors struggle with it. That counts for a lot when it comes to impressing people - and impressing people has a lot to do with what's popular in opera.

Also, a tenor's high notes are outside of the normal speaking range for the male voice. No one talks up there unless they are speaking in falsetto or impersonating a woman. Not true for lower voices like mine - there are plenty of men who talk quite high in their voices, even up to F or F# above middle C, which is about where operatic music tops out for the Bass voice.

Because of that, a bass's high notes still sound somewhat familiar to listeners - more like a spoken voice. They can identify with the sound.

But once the tenor gets up into the A, B-flat, C (above middle C) range, it's an entirely unfamiliar sound to most people - one they can't identify with making.
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  #13  
Old 03-09-2006, 11:13 AM
Beware of Doug Beware of Doug is offline
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The higher voices were easiest to hear and understand. They had to take the lead.
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  #14  
Old 03-09-2006, 01:47 PM
Kizarvexius Kizarvexius is offline
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lissener and Figaro nailed it.

The male romantic lead is usually the tenor because it is the voice of youth and passion. Remember that when opera was invented, people had to grow up a lot faster, and getting married at age 16 was pretty common. So a vocal range that is high, but not high enough to sound feminine (counter-tenor or castrato) or childish (treble) became the norm for composers setting the lines to be sung by a young man. Sometimes in the operatic canon you'll come across male characters whose puberty seems to have been delayed a bit, and these are the so-called "trouser" roles usually played by mezzos or altos (Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, for example).

That's the historic origins. As to the popularity of the tenor voice, it's what Figaro said. The great tenor roles are risky, and to the opera aficionado, listening to Placido Domingo effortlessly nailing that high note in Che gelida manina has the same visceral thrill that a sports fan might feel when watching a gymnist execute a perfect double-somersault landing off the high bar. If you don't think it's risky, then you are probably not aware that for a professional tenor, missing that note could be the end of his career. Altos, basses and baritones may be under pressure to put on a great performance, but they generally don't face that kind of make-it-or-break-it moment.
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  #15  
Old 03-09-2006, 03:47 PM
Figaro Figaro is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Beware of Doug
The higher voices were easiest to hear and understand. They had to take the lead.
nitpick....it's true that high voices are often easier to hear, but they are usually much harder to understand. The higher the pitch, and the farther above normal speaking range, the more distorted vowel sounds become. If you listen to the same set of songs sung by a soprano and a baritone, for instance, you will almost always understand the baritone more clearly. (unless he has poor diction....)

Quote:
Originally Posted by Kizarvexius
[...snip]listening to Placido Domingo effortlessly nailing that high note in Che gelida manina[snip...]
of course, that's never happened... [I'm a big Domingo fan, by the way...don't get me wrong]

Great point about men maturing much earlier in life, too. I hadn't thought about the fact that young "men" in the 18th and 19th centuries were what we now consider older boys.
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  #16  
Old 03-09-2006, 07:28 PM
Kizarvexius Kizarvexius is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Figaro
of course, that's never happened... [I'm a big Domingo fan, by the way...don't get me wrong]
You got me there. But he sure made it sound effortless. Not bad for a renegade baritone.
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  #17  
Old 03-09-2006, 07:35 PM
ouryL ouryL is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Figaro
Operatic bass, here...

The short answer to this question (and the parallel question of why sopranos are far more popular than mezzo-sopranos and contraltos in the opera world) is pretty simple: the visceral thrill of high notes.

Disregarding it's many other aspects for the moment (drama, beautiful music, etc.), opera is first and foremost a spectacle, and people appreciate most what they deem to be most impressive (i.e. least attainable or familliar to them).

I have great high notes. But I'm a bass, and because of the color and timbre of my voice, my high notes don't sound high in the same way that a tenor's high notes do for him. They don't have the the high-wire "will he make it" taughtness and pinpoint ring that characterizes a tenor's (or soprano's) high C, for instance.

Also, the highest notes of my singing voice are attainable by just about anyone - they may not sing them well, or in a way that they could do over and over or sustain, but they can produce those pitches. We're talking about F or F# above middle C, for instance.

But that's not true for tenors. A genuine high C, for instance, is not a pitch most men can produce at all without resorting to falsetto. Even tenors struggle with it. That counts for a lot when it comes to impressing people - and impressing people has a lot to do with what's popular in opera.

Also, a tenor's high notes are outside of the normal speaking range for the male voice. No one talks up there unless they are speaking in falsetto or impersonating a woman. Not true for lower voices like mine - there are plenty of men who talk quite high in their voices, even up to F or F# above middle C, which is about where operatic music tops out for the Bass voice.

Because of that, a bass's high notes still sound somewhat familiar to listeners - more like a spoken voice. They can identify with the sound.

But once the tenor gets up into the A, B-flat, C (above middle C) range, it's an entirely unfamiliar sound to most people - one they can't identify with making.

I can b-flat with the best of them!
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  #18  
Old 03-09-2006, 09:51 PM
Walloon Walloon is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Oy!
Pop, unfortunately, hasn't seen a serious bass since, maybe (it's a little iffy, he's on the high side for a baritone), Jim Morrison (unless you want to count Bowser of Sha Na Na).
Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam.
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  #19  
Old 03-09-2006, 09:58 PM
Walloon Walloon is offline
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Roger Waters of Pink Floyd. Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots. Warren Zevon.
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  #20  
Old 03-10-2006, 07:19 AM
WordMan WordMan is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Walloon
Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam.
He came to mind first. So did Billy Idol.

That guy from Crash Test Dummies is clearly a bass' bass.

Barry White, anyone?
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  #21  
Old 03-10-2006, 08:17 AM
Carnac the Magnificent! Carnac the Magnificent! is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Figaro
Operatic bass, here...

The short answer to this question (and the parallel question of why sopranos are far more popular than mezzo-sopranos and contraltos in the opera world) is pretty simple: the visceral thrill of high notes.

Great post. Micro-small quibble. Judging from CD sales, it seems that mezzo-sopranos are all the rage these days. Yes plenty of sopranos, but mezzos just have that golden radiance.

Few alto recording artists of note.
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  #22  
Old 03-10-2006, 09:03 AM
Figaro Figaro is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Carnac the Magnificent!
Great post. Micro-small quibble. Judging from CD sales, it seems that mezzo-sopranos are all the rage these days. Yes plenty of sopranos, but mezzos just have that golden radiance.

Few alto recording artists of note.
Good point about Mezzos. (although I don't think they've ever threatened to displace sopranos at the top of the diva heap).

They trade on their own brand of circus act impressiveness - namely, the ability to sing incredibly ornate, intricate music at speeds that most of us can't fathom. It's as much of a high-wire act as the high singing that tenors and sopranos do. That's why so many of Rossini's heroines are mezzo sopranos (because his music tends to be fast and ornate), and ditto why so many mezzo sopranos got famous singing Rossini's music: Cecilia Bartoli, Vivica Geneaux, Jennifer Larmore, etc. These days there's a big Vivaldi revival on, at least in recordings, and it has the same basic appeal.

The other thing, of course, is that any good mezzo has essentially the same high notes available to her as a good soprano. It's not uncommon to hear interpolated high Bs and Cs from Mezzos during arias that allow for that kind of impromptu decoration. So, they pack a double punch.

But back to the fast, ornate singing....hearing someone machine-gun their way through Rossini or Vivaldi is its own kind of viceral thrill - one that often makes me laugh because (unlike high notes, for instance, which I "get" on a level of physical understanding) I can't even project in my mind what it would feel like to sing that way. Kind of like imagining driving a delivery truck through a slalom course at breakneck speed. Not gonna happen.

Not surprisingly, the one genuine "super star" bass of the last 30 years, Samuel Ramey, first got attention for being able to go toe to toe with Mezzos in the intricate, fast Rossini operas. He had freakish agility for a low voice. And unusually ringing top notes.....go figure
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  #23  
Old 03-10-2006, 10:15 AM
WordMan WordMan is offline
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Figaro - just want to chime in (oh, sorry) and say how much I appreciate your perspective on this. Great thread overall - thanks for starting it, Carnac - I feel like my Ignorance is being combatted....
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  #24  
Old 03-10-2006, 01:05 PM
Figaro Figaro is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by WordMan
Figaro - just want to chime in (oh, sorry) and say how much I appreciate your perspective on this.
Thanks! Favorite subject, you know...
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  #25  
Old 03-10-2006, 01:13 PM
Kizarvexius Kizarvexius is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Figaro
nitpick....it's true that high voices are often easier to hear, but they are usually much harder to understand. The higher the pitch, and the farther above normal speaking range, the more distorted vowel sounds become. If you listen to the same set of songs sung by a soprano and a baritone, for instance, you will almost always understand the baritone more clearly. (unless he has poor diction....)
This point just came back to me, and Figaro is absolutely correct here.

While I have sung at the operatic level, most of my experience is in operetta...Gilbert & Sullivan, to be precise. The type of piece for which this team was most famous is the patter song. It's an awful lot of text, often sung at blinding speed (think of the famous "Figaro, Figaro, Figaro" song, also known as Largo al factotum from The Barber of Seville). A good performance of such a piece need not be remarkable in its tonal quality, but must exhibit excellent diction. The reason I bring this up is that it occurred to me just now (don't know why I never noticed before) that while each of Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas includes several patter songs, they are always sung by the lower voices. Tenors and sopranos may have solos or duets that also require good diction, but never a full-fledged patter song. I'm quite sure that this is due to the point Figaro makes about lower voices being more easily understood.
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Old 03-10-2006, 01:16 PM
Kizarvexius Kizarvexius is offline
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BTW, I am acutely aware of the fact that The Barber of Seville is by Rossini, and not by Gilbert & Sullivan. I used that example for the benefit of those who are not familiar with the works of Sirs William and Arthur.
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  #27  
Old 03-10-2006, 02:19 PM
Mister Rik Mister Rik is offline
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Speaking of really high singing voices ... I always thought it was interesting that some of the most powerful heavy metal singers of the 1980s, who had the highest ranges (examples: Rob Halford, Bruce Dickinson, David Coverdale) happened to have rich, deep, baritone or bass speaking voices.
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  #28  
Old 03-10-2006, 05:26 PM
Kizarvexius Kizarvexius is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Phase42
Speaking of really high singing voices ... I always thought it was interesting that some of the most powerful heavy metal singers of the 1980s, who had the highest ranges (examples: Rob Halford, Bruce Dickinson, David Coverdale) happened to have rich, deep, baritone or bass speaking voices.
I don't know if there's a general rule about the relationship between the pitch of one's "natural" (unsupported) voice and a trained speaking or singing voice. During casual conversation, my voice is fairly high. On stage, or when I sing, it drops significantly into a deep, booming, bass-baritone. Most people who have only heard me speak are somewhat surprised when I start singing, because it sounds like another person entirely.
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  #29  
Old 03-10-2006, 06:38 PM
Carnac the Magnificent! Carnac the Magnificent! is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Figaro

Not surprisingly, the one genuine "super star" bass of the last 30 years, Samuel Ramey, first got attention for being able to go toe to toe with Mezzos in the intricate, fast Rossini operas. He had freakish agility for a low voice. And unusually ringing top notes.....go figure


Ramey is a marvel. Is he considered at the high, middle or low end of bass? Is there such thing as a contrabass? Are there some bass parts reserved for men with exceptionally low voices?
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  #30  
Old 03-11-2006, 07:55 PM
Ukulele Ike Ukulele Ike is offline
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Mozart tended to write his heroes for baritones. Figaro, as has been previously noted.....Don Giovanni....Papageno (yeah, he is the HUMAN hero, as opposed to that wuss Tamino).
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  #31  
Old 03-11-2006, 09:40 PM
Carnac the Magnificent! Carnac the Magnificent! is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Carnac the Magnificent!
Ramey is a marvel. Is he considered at the high, middle or low end of bass? Is there such thing as a contrabass? Are there some bass parts reserved for men with exceptionally low voices?

http://www.fondazionecini.it/english...o/porta15.html
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  #32  
Old 03-11-2006, 09:43 PM
Carnac the Magnificent! Carnac the Magnificent! is offline
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[wrong link above]

Seems like there indeed are "contrabass singers." Read below about former Uruguary composer Francisco Canaro.


Canaro reached the next level of his career, in 1912, composing his first tune, "Pinta Brava," and conducting an orchestra for the first time. He continued to introduce new innovations to the tango tradition, becoming the first tango bandleader to feature a vocalist singing the "estrabillo" (bridge) and a contrabass singer providing harmony.


http://www.fondazionecini.it/english...o/porta15.html
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  #33  
Old 03-12-2006, 12:40 PM
Figaro Figaro is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Kizarvexius
I don't know if there's a general rule about the relationship between the pitch of one's "natural" (unsupported) voice and a trained speaking or singing voice. During casual conversation, my voice is fairly high. On stage, or when I sing, it drops significantly into a deep, booming, bass-baritone. Most people who have only heard me speak are somewhat surprised when I start singing, because it sounds like another person entirely.
It happens that way a lot, in my experience. In the case of a bass singer like yourself, it's probably a healthy sign that your speaking voice isn't stuck in the basement all the time. If you think about it, you probably speak in the same range that you often sing in (somewhere from C below middle C to A below middle C???) - all that changes when you start to sing is the color, which comes more from resonance and energy than it does from fundamental pitch. For your actual speaking voice to sound "low" to other people, you'd have to talk below the bass staff most of the time - not good for your voice over time.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Phase42
Speaking of really high singing voices ... I always thought it was interesting that some of the most powerful heavy metal singers of the 1980s, who had the highest ranges (examples: Rob Halford, Bruce Dickinson, David Coverdale) happened to have rich, deep, baritone or bass speaking voices.
A lot of that singing is done in a reinforced falsetto, or what you could think of as a supported scream. Oddly enough, the most accomplished falsettists tend to have natural baritone or bass voices. In English church choirs (pretty far removed from the metal you were talking about....), the guys recruited to be male altos usually come from the ranks of the less accomplished basses and baritones. Not always, but it's a trend.
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  #34  
Old 03-12-2006, 01:01 PM
Figaro Figaro is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Carnac the Magnificent!
Ramey is a marvel. Is he considered at the high, middle or low end of bass? Is there such thing as a contrabass? Are there some bass parts reserved for men with exceptionally low voices?
Sure, but not many. For example, the role of Sarastro in Mozart's Magic Flute rarely (only once in the whole role if I recall) extends above C# (middle C#), and so it's usually cast with the lowest and heaviest voice around to keep it from sounding too easy.

To your Ramey question, about high, middle, or low....the characterization of voices has as much if not more to do with tone color and what's called tessitura as it does with absolute range. Tessitura is the part of a person's singing range where they are comfortable singing most of the time - where they can sing all night and not get tired or overtaxed. From that comfort zone, the voice then branches out to its highest and lowest ranges, which are only used sparingly. The surest way to kill a singer is to write for the voice as if it were a piano, where all pitches within the singer's range are treated equally.... These two factors are usually what make a person one kind of voice or another. I know tenors with decent low notes, and baritones with great high notes in the tenor range. But because of where each is most comfortable, and the color (darkness, lightness, brilliance, etc.) of their voices, they are easy to categorize when you hear them.

Ramey's voice has the color of a bass - it's dark, somewhat rough around the edges, and not something you'd mistake for a baritone. He also has the range associated with the bass voice - good solid low notes (F#, E below the bass clef). But his comfortable tessitura is wider, and arguably higher, than many basses, so he often sings things written for bass-baritone or even baritone. That's a big part of his appeal - the dark color in conjunction with higher singing and ringing top notes is very exciting.

The contrabass question is interesting. Some people argue that real "contrabass" singing (that extends below C below the bass clef - think Russian Choral music) is just the integration of the vocal "growl" register, sometimes called Straw Bass, strohbass, or even vocal "fry." A gimmick, essentially, and not the sign of a naturally lower voice. It's an open question.
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