soprano paloma friedhoff

Choral Players: Soprano

“I have a soprano voice.” You only have to say this to gain people’s admiration, although the voice’s owner sings just like Florence Foster Jenkins.

Before we go forward, please let me clear (my throat) first since I need to make clear (indeed) a couple of things:

  1. People say that a woman has a soprano tessitura when she can reach certain high pitches. A different story will be to elucidate if these pitches are tuned or the sound sent out pleases the human ear.
  2. Florence Foster Jenkins was a soprano capable of scaling up to the highest pitches without getting dizzy. She performed as a soloist in some renowned stages; however, she always sang the wrong notes. That means her way of singing was awful.

Thus, if someone has a soprano voice, it implies that their vocal tract will allow them to go from middle C (placed centrally on the piano keyboard) to C7. By definition, the soprano voice tessitura means the range of vocal registers it includes, thanks to congenital physiology or continued practice. What makes a difference is the aim to get higher. Hence the Italian etymology of the word ‘soprano,’ whose Latin root relates to what is supra. Not that sure is the source of the word “tiplist,” although it has referred to high-pitched voices, first men’s and then women’s.

There are also subclasses apart from conventional tessitura, including:

  • The light soprano, who reaches the highs easily,
  • The lyrical soprano, who plays better in the central area of her sound spectrum,
  • The soprano coloratura, which makes her capable of singing trills and ornaments effortless.

Also, the group of soprano voices that make up a choir, a group that, when including mixed voices (men and women), is usually distributed with the so-called SATB: soprano, alto (or contralto), tenor and bass. The presence of mezzo-sopranos is not rare, either. Their register places them between the sopranos and the contraltos, even if it is a sort that has been seen hidden among the latter.

Caricatura coro SATB Sinclair

Identify here who is a soprano, a contralto, a tenor or a bass (claiming for the image: Sinclair) 

Anyway, and to make life easier for high-pitched voices within a choir, composers of polyphonic works often write the line of sopranos covering between E5 and the G6. That means, the tessitura narrows and goes a couple of tones up the lower part of the register, and reduces two and a half tones on the top). You can see some good examples of well-bound voices here.

There are other types of alterations that come from the vocal technique: a male sopranist could impersonate a soprano and let not (his) mustache shake. It does not mean he is a castrato, but that he has improved his impersonation skills based upon a refined musical learning.

Finally, another way to change your voice is through technology. In the composition lab, you can find the samplers and MIDI formats, which treat the tone as another parameter in the sound wave. The sound wave can be modified without affecting the timbre (which allows, for example, to synthesize how a 110-feet-high double bass would play… assuming it was audible to our eardrums). Furthermore, in the recording studios and on stages, you can find those programs that tune the voice in real-time or make it go up and down to pitches that are usually unattainable to those artists.

Poor (poor?) Florence Foster Jenkins was born before these tech aids existed. Instead, she had a wealthy and pampering husband. He paid orchestras, concert halls, record labels, and even the audience. Everything for his wife to become what she had always dreamt of being (and somehow it was): a solo soprano, a famous diva, whom we still remember.

Here you have a sample of a presumed soprano (Jenkins) and the contrast with a peculiar Montserrat Figueras, who had that voice but did not show off vacuous virtuosity.

Cover image: Paloma Friedhoff. Soprano at Singerhood.

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