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An Explanation of the German Fach System a Classification of Opera Singers

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The German Fach System

"No two opera singersare alike in voice. Each voice has its own timbre, its own range, its own good features, and its own limitations (Hamm 1-2). Historically, classifying voices in opera has been a process that has occurred over time due to the ever changing needs of operatic productions. The fach system, the German opera companies' way of classifying voices, was an attempt to make casting easier. However, the fact that many singers can transcend their assigned fach makes the system rather fallible.
The idea of separating voice categories for opera singers wasn't all that new by the time the Germans created the fach system. As opera developed as a genre, composers began to be more specific about what sort of voices they wished for within the main categories of soprano, tenor, baritone, and bass. In the beginnings of opera, the only real subsection of the basic four voice parts was the castrati. The castrati sang in the soprano's range and often sang the lower soprano roles. However, castrati disappeared with the rise of Romantic opera (Dent 178). But even before Romantic opera, castrati were used less and less. In the operas of the classical period, such as operas by Mozart, roles we classify today as mezzo-sopranos like Cherubino would have could have been sung by the same females who might also be cast as the Countess or Susanna. The only differentiation in sopranos at the time was the prima donna versus the seconda donna, who sung the smaller female roles. There were no differentiations in any of the other voice parts either. In fact, the score for Mozart's Die Zauberflte had only three clefsone for soprano, one for tenor, and one for bass (Hamm 5). This would mean that as long as the singers were capable of the written vocal range, Pamina could sound the same as the Queen and Papageno could sound like Sarastro. However, composers did write for specific singers as a way of achieving the particular vocal sounds they desired. The composer could then hope that the subsequent casts would be modeled after the original. Orpheus in Orfeo ed Euridice by Gluck, for example, was written for Gaetano Guadagni (Hamm 3).
The first separation from the basic vocal categories didn't occur until Rossini's Il Barbieri di Siviglia when the lead female, Rosina, was classified as a mezzo-soprano. One would have to assume that Rossini desired to assure that females cast as Rosina would have strength in their lower range; therefore, he used a separate classification from soprano. Another reason for the separation of sopranos and mezzos probably had to do with the type of roles mezzos became known for playing. For example, mezzos are usually the witches, mothers/motherly figures, gypsies, or old women in operas ("Voice Types in Opera" 1). Thus if you think of a sound associated with an old woman, you probably wouldn't hear a pretty, flute-like, high soprano; you'd most likely hear a lower female voice.
Beyond mezzos, a change in audience taste in opera is further responsible for continuing classification of voices. In the 1820s and 30s, tragic and forcefully expressive subjects began to become popular in opera (Parker 429). These operas of the Romantic period had large orchestras, and these orchestras played a greater role. As a result, the demand for singers with more vocal stamina and power was required. For example, the virtuosic yet more delicate sound of the tenors of Rossini became inadequate for the tenor roles in operas like those by Wagner (Parker 429). In all the operas prior to 1840, a lyric tenor was all that was necessary. But with the Romantic period, tenors who had more of the baritone-like qualities of sound became necessary to project over the orchestra. The tenors were not the only voice category to be affected by the new style of opera; in all categories, stronger singers were required for Wagner operas and German opera in general. For example, the singers who are often cast as Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro would not be heard and wouldn't capture the essence of a character like Brunnehilde in the Ring cycle. It was for these reasons the fach system came into existence to classify singers.
The fach (German term for voice-category) system was created by German opera companies to classify singers by their range, tone color, and depth of their voices in order to facilitate casting (Steane 1). The system allowed the companies to keep a list of which singers were in each fach so they would not contact singers who would not be well suited for a part ("Fach" 1). Once a performer is labeled as a particular fach, they would most likely only be assigned roles within that fach. Also once a singer joined a German opera company under a specific fach, they would then be responsible for all the roles within that fach (Steane 1). The fach system is comprised of five main categories that are then broken down in a number of subcategories. These five main categories are soprano, contralto, tenor, baritone, and bass.
The first category of singers in the fach system is the soprano. The sopranos are broken down into three subcategories: the coloratura fach, the soprano fach, and the mezzo-soprano fach. The coloratura fach is then broken down into two separate fachs which are called Koloratursopran or Koloratursoubrette and the Dramtischer Koloratursopran. The Koloratursopran or Koloratur soubrette is known in English as the coloratura soprano. She is the highest soprano voice but is fairly light in color. It is not necessary for them to have deep rich voices, but they must be agile as their repertoire often has a great deal of melismas. The other singer in the Coloratura fach is the Dramatischer Koloratursopran (also known as the dramatic coloratura). While similar to the koloratursopran, she must have a heavier voice. This fach is also quite rare because the thicker vocal cords needed to produce the heavier sound often have difficulty with the still necessary flexibility ("Fach" 2).
The soprano fach is broken down into five subcategories: Deutsche Soubrette, Lyrischer Sopran, Jugendlich Dramatischer Sopran, Dramatischer Sopran, and Hochdramatischer Sopran ("Fach" 1). The deutsche soubrette has a lovely yet light voice. The lyrischer sopran has the same range as the soubrette but is capable of a richer sound and has more agility than the soubrette. The jugendlich dramatischer sopran is also known as the light dramatic soprano. Her range is the same as the other two sopranos but they have heavier, larger voices to carry over the orchestra of dramatic operas (Hamm 7). The dramatischer sopran (also known as the dramatic soprano) has a full, rich voice, but is not as heavy as a Wagnerian soprano. And finally the Hochdramatischer Sopran (also known as the Wagnerian soprano) has the heaviest, most powerful voice of all sopranos. This soprano meets the demands of the Wagner operas, but these Wagnerian sopranos are quite rare.
The mezzo-soprano fach is broken down into 5 subcategories which are Lyrischer Mezzosoprano/Spielalt, Koloratur-Mezzosopran, Dramatischer Mezzosopran, Dramatischer Alt, and Tiefer Alt ("Fach" 1). The lyrischer mezzosopran or spielalt is also known as the lyric mezzo-soprano. She is responsible for many of the common trouser roles such as Cherubino.The koloratur-mezzosopran (also known as the coloratura mezzo-sopran), which has the same range as the other mezzo-sopran, is more like the lyric soprano but lower in range. The dramatischer mezzosopran or the dramatic mezzo soprano again has the same range as the other mezzo sopranos, but they are largest, richest voices within the mezzo sopranos most suited for Wagner, Strauss, and Beethoven operas. The dramatischer alt (also known as the contralto) has the same range as the mezzos. The tiefer alt is also known as contralto. They are the lowest and deepest of female voices and as such are very rare. Both contraltos have a tendency to sound muffled due to their low range, especially if they are backed by strong orchestration (Hamm 8).
The tenor fach is broken down into five categories and these include the Spieltenor, Charaktertenor, Lyrischer tenor, jugendlich heldentenor, and heldentenor/tenorbariton ("Fach" 6). The Spieltenor fach is also known as the lyric comic tenor and he tends to sing the more comedic tenor roles. The Charaktertenor (also known dramatic comic tenor) is similar to the spieltenor but requires a heavier voice. The third category is the lyrischer tenor (lyric tenor). He is the most common of the tenors. The jugendlich heldentenor (also known as the light dramatic tenor) the same range as the lyrischer tenor, but he has a slightly deeper sound. And finally the Heldentenor (also known as the full dramatic tenor) is the richest of the tenor voices, and he is commonly used in Wagnerian operas.
The Baritone fach is composed of 5 subcategories: Bariton-Martin, Lyrischer Bariton, Charakterbariton, Kavalierbariton, and the Heldenbariton/Hoherbass ("Fach" 1). The Bariton-Martin is generally only used in French repertoire and was named for the French singer Jean-Blaise Martin, who was known for his use of falsetto (Fach 7). The lyrischer baritone (also known as the lyric baritone) is the milder sounding, common baritone voice, but it lacks the harshness of some of the other baritone fachs. The charakterbariton or the comic baritone is associated with the more comedic baritone roles. The Kavalierbariton (also known as the dramatic or Verdi baritone) is known for his harsher sound as compared to the lyric baritone. Finally the Heldenbariton/Hoherbass, while he has a smaller range than the Kavalierbariton, has a deeper, harsher sound. Heldenbariton roles however are most often sung by the bass baritones and require significant vocal endurance due to extensive periods where they sing in the higher end of their range (Hamm 9).
The bass fachs consist of 5 subcategories: the Charakterbass/Bassbariton, the Spielbass/Bassbuffo, the Hoher bass, the Schwerer Spielbass, and the Seriser bass ("Fach" 1). The charakterbass (also known as the bass baritone) has a heavier voice than the baritone, and can sing more forcefully in the lower end of his range (Hamm 10). However depending on the role, the bass baritone's range can vary. The Spielbass or bassbuffo is also known as the lyric comic bass. His roles are more comedic in nature and his voice is somewhat more lyrical than the bass-baritone. The hoher bass is also known as the lyric bass. His range is also the same as the other two bass fcher, but he plays more serious roles than the spielbass and is more lyrical than the bassbariton. The schwerer spielbass (also known as the dramatic comic bass) is another example where there aren't singers famous solely for this genre. Other types of basses will often sing these roles. Finally the seriser bass (also known as the dramatic bass) is similar to the schwerer spielbass, but his roles are more serious in nature.
The main problems with the German fach system are the fact that the system is more a guideline than the definite structure that I think the Germans hoped it would be. First several of the roles assigned to particular fachs do not entirely fit or can transcend to other fachs. For example, the role of Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro is labeled as a lyric soprano role, however, her role is written down to an A below middle C. However, lyric sopranos are supposed to only have a range from middle C to the C two octaves above. Also the role of the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflte is listed for Dramatischer Koloratursopran, but it is also commonly sung by the lighter coloratura soprano. Also many artists have been vocally able to fit into more than one category. In fact because so many of the ranges within each larger category are the same, the difference lies mostly in the attitude necessary for the role, either comic or serious, and the richness or depth of the voice. The system is troublesome for those singers who can fit into more than one category; the German companies, once they assigned a singer a fach, would only cast the singer in that one fach. Maria Callas, for example, despised the fach system, because she was capable of singing more of the soprano repertoire than just what was assigned to the dramatic coloratura. She believed a soprano was a soprano. Other singers transcend the boundaries as well. For example, George London, a bass baritone, famously sung Scarpia in Tosca, a role that is labeled for a heldenbaritone. This cross-casting often occurs with the role of Scarpia. Also Renata Tebaldi and Angela Gheorghiu, who are labeled as lyric sopranos, have been known to sing the role of Tosca which is supposedly outside of their fach. One must remember that voices aren't at their prime until thirties for women and forties for men, so the potential for the voice to change fach is always there. The Germans seemed not to take account of this.
In conclusion, while the German fach system was based on the idea of making casting convenient for the German opera companies, it is not an unbendable system. Many singers transcend the boundaries of their specific fcher, and thus it should not be held as the deciding factor on which roles they are able to or should sing.

Main Fach Sub Fach English Equivalent Range Common Roles Famous Singers
Coloratura Koloratursopran or Koloratursoubrette Coloratura Soprano Middle C to F two octaves above middle C Norina (Don Pasquale)
Lucia (Lucia di Lammermoor)
Gilda (Rigoletto)
(Queen of the Night from Magic Flute) -Lily Pons
-Beverly Sills
-Erna Berger

Dramatischer Koloratursopran Dramatic Coloratura Soprano Middle C to F two octaves above middle C Queen of the Night (Magic Flute)
Semiramide (Semiramide)
Violetta (La Traviata) -Joan Sutherland
-Maria Callas
-June Anderson

Soprano Deutsche Soubrette Soubrette Middle C to C two octaves above Middle C Susanna (Le Nozze di Figaro)
Zerlina (Don Giovanni) -Kathleen Battle
-Barbara Bonney

Lyrischer Sopran Lyric Soprano Middle C to C two octaves above Middle C Mimi (La Boheme)
Micaela (Carmen) -Angela Gheorghiu
-Renee Fleming
-Renata Tebaldi

Jugendlich Dramatischer Sopran Light Dramatic Soprano Middle C to C to octaves above Middle C Cio-Cio San (Madama Butterfly)
Floria Tosca (Tosca)
Manon (Manon Lescaut) -Lotte Lehmann
-Leotyne Price

Dramatischer Sopran Dramatic Soprano B below Middle C to C two octaves above Middle C Elsa (Lohegrin)
Lady Macbeth (Macbeth)
Leonore (Fidelio) -Helga Dernesch
-Jessye Norman

Hochdramatischer Sopran Wagnerian Soprano G below Middle C to C two octaves above Middle C Turandot (Turandot)
Brunnhilde (Der Ring de Nibelungen)
Isolde (Tristan und Isolde) -Birgit Nilsson
-Kirsten Flagstad
-Frida Leider

Mezzo-Soprano Lyrischer Mezzosopran or Spielalt Lyric Mezzo-Soprano G below Middle C to B two octaves above middle C Carmen (Carmen)
Cherubino (Le Nozze di Figaro)
Dido (Dido and Aeneas) -Denyce Graves
-Anne-Sofia von Otter

Coloratura Mezzo-Soprano
G below Middle C to B two octaves above middle C
Rosina (Il Barbieri di Siviglia)
Angelina (La Cenerentola)
-Cecilia Bartoli

Dramatischer Mezzosopran Dramatic Mezzo- Soprano G below Middle C to B two octaves above middle C Amneris (Aida)
Eboli (Don Carlo)
Fricka (Das Rheingold and Die Walkre)
-Grace Bumbry
-Fiorenza Cossotto

Dramatischer Alt Contralto G below Middle C to B two octaves above middle C Erda (Der Ring des Nibelungen) n/a
Tiefer Alt Contralto F below Middle C to F two octaves above middle C Die Kranke (Moses und Aron)
Ulrica (Un Ballo en Maschera)
-Marian Anderson
-Clara Butt
-Kathleen Ferrier

Tenor Spieltenor Lyric Comic Tenor Low C to the B above Middle C Pedrillo (Die Enfhrung aus dem Serail) n/a
Charaktertenor Dramatic Comic Tenor B below Low C to C an octave above middle C Mime (Siegfried)
-Gerhard Stolze

Lyrischer Tenor Lyric Tenor Low C to C an octave above middle C Tamino (Magic Flute)
Rudoldo (La Boheme)
-Ian Bostridge
-Richard Tauber
Fritz Wunderlich

Jugendlicher Heldentenor Light Dramatic Tenor Low C to C an octave above middle C Don Jose (Carmen)
Lohegrin (Lohengrin)
Parsifal (Parsifal) -Plcido Domingo

Heldentenor or Tenorbariton Full Dramatic Tenor B below middle C to B above Middle C Siegfried (Der Ring des Nibelungen)
Tristan (Tristan und Isolde)
Otello (Otello) -Jon Vickers
-Mario del Monaco

Baritone Bariton-Martin n/a Low C to A flat above Middle C Pellas (Pellas et Mlisande)
-Pierre Bernac
-Camille Maurane

Lyrischer-Bariton Lyric Baritone A below Low C to G above middle C Conte Almaviva (Le Nozze di Figaro)
Marcello (La Boheme) -Hermann Prey

Charakterbariton Comic Baritone A below Low C to G# above Middle C Papageno (Magic Flute)
-Tito Gobbi
-Leo Nucci
-Leonard Warren

Kavalierbariton Dramatic or Verdi Baritone A below Low C to A flat above Middle C Don Giovanni (Don Giovanni)
Tonio (Il Pagliacci)
Iago (Otello) -Thomas Hampson
-Sherrill Milnes

Heldenbariton or Hoherbass Dramatic or Heroic
Baritone G below Low C to F# above middle C Rigoletto (Rigoletto)
Scarpia (Tosca) n/a often sung by bass-baritone

Bass Charakterbass or Bassbariton Bass Baritone F below Low C to F above Middle C Figaro (Le Nozze di Figaro)
Wotan (Der Ring des Nibelungen)
Don Pizzaro (Fidelio) -Bryn Terfel
-George London

Spielbass or Bassbuffo Lyric Comic Bass F below Low C to F above Middle C Don Pasquale (Don Pasquale) -Luigi Lablache
Hoher Bass Lyric Bass F below Low C to F above Middle C Zaccaria (Nabucco)
Mephistofeles (Faust) -Ezio Pinza
-Cesare Siepi

Schwerer Spielbass Dramatic Comic Bass C one octave below Low C to F above Middle C Baculus in Der Wildschtz n/a often sung by singers from other fachs
Seriser Bass Dramatic Bass C one octave below Low C to F above Middle C Sarastro (Magic Flute)
Knig Marke (Tristan und Isolde) -Boris Christoff
-Kurt Moll
-Nicholai Ghiarov


1) Dent, Edward J. The Rise of Romantic Opera. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976

2) Hamm, Charles. Opera. Boston: Allyn and Bacon Inc, 1966.

3) Parker, Roger. The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

4) Steane, J.B. "Fach". 2006. 2 December 2006.

5) "Fach". n.d. 2 December 2006.

6) "Voice Types in Opera". n.d. 7 December 2006.


More about this author: Kelly Nowik