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) or the second B♭ above middle C (B♭5). 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". 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. 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.
Contralto vocal range (F3-F5) notated on the treblestaff (left) and on piano keyboard in green with dot marking middle C (C4).
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 and are often erroneously referred to as "female tenors", "female baritones", or "female basses". Formal terminology might logically be contralto profundo (tenor) and contralto basso or oktavistka (baritone), but these are not traditional.
Within the contralto voice type category are three generally recognized subcategories: coloratura contralto, an agile voice specializing in florid passages; lyric contralto, a voice lighter in timbre; and dramatic contralto, the deepest, darkest, and most powerful contralto voice. 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.
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."
Examples of contralto roles in the standard operatic repertoire include the following:
^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).