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 Tancrède 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).
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. Some of the rare singers who specialized in the tenor and baritone registers include film actress Zarah Leander, the Persian ?v?z singer Hayedeh, the child prodigy Ruby Helder (1890-1938), and Bavarian novelty singer Bally Prell.
Subtypes and roles in opera
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. The coloratura contralto was a favorite voice type of Rossini's. Many of his roles listed below were written with this type of voice in mind. Lyric contraltos are heavily utilized in both the French and English operatic repertoire. Many of the Gilbert and Sullivan contralto roles are best suited with a lyric contralto voice. Ma Moss in The Tender Land is a notable lyric contralto role. The dramatic contralto voice is heard in much of the German operatic repertoire. Erda in Der Ring des Nibelungen and Gaea in Daphne are both good examples of the dramatic contralto.
True operatic contraltos are rare, and the operatic literature contains few roles written specifically for them. Contraltos sometimes are assigned feminine roles like Teodata in Flavio, Angelina in La Cenerentola, Rosina in The Barber of Seville, 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: