Fach-isms & stereotypes for a reason Jonas Kaufmann and Eva-Maria Westbroek in The Met's Die Walküre, 2011. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Fach-isms & stereotypes for a reason

Jenna Simeonov

I saw this oldie-but-goodie making the rounds on Facebook today:

This comic says (implies, I suppose) a few things.

  1. Basses are basses because they’ve been singing forever; they’re also old dudes, and old dudes like fishing.

  2. Sopranos are thinking about themselves being onstage while they’re onstage. I suppose there’s a fine line between self-involvement and having your head in the game.

  3. Baritones are particularly concerned with voice placement. That’s funny to me, because there’s also a tenor in this comic strip.

  4. Mezzos are attracted to men who sing in manly tones. Can’t really argue with that.

  5. Tenors get paid a lot.

I do get the jokes. Stereotypes for a reason, and all that. It’s interesting to note that even if singers of different voice-types don’t align perfectly with the above cross-section, there are still a few fach-specific thought processes that I’ve noticed from my seat at the piano.

Basses: If they’re young, people are skeptical. “He’s a baritone, he just doesn’t have his passaggio figured out yet,”, or, “Vocal fry doesn’t equal low notes”. So they (like many young singers) are in the business of convincing their bosses about their fach, probably more than they’re thinking about after-work activities. If they’re experienced basses, they’re also used to roles that are crucial but forgettable (as one bass put it, “gods, villains, old men, and losers”. Sometimes they spend a whole rehearsal where the director rarely pays attention to them, and they’re left to their own devices. So eventually they get bored and think about things like motorcycles and fishing.

Sopranos: They’re pretty aware of the fact that they’re a dime a dozen, and so they’re rightly after that je ne sais quoi, that presence that sets them apart from the billions of lyrics or soubrettes. Often they’re a lead role, too, so the pressure is on. They get in their head, they get insecure, and they appear diva-esque. Or, they’re playing a role that takes a lot out of a girl. Singing Cio-Cio San has got to be exhausting. On the other hand, if it walks like a diva…

Baritones: Baritones tend to get either a) roles that have great music but precious little of it or b) roles that have lots of stage time but not much singing-singing. They’re either feathered up as Papageno, getting laughs while trying to avoid woofing a role written for a non-singer, or they sing big old scenes between awkwardly long waiting periods. So, they’re trying to get bang for their buck in terms of singing time, all while making sure they sound appropriately aged or mean. Cue the placement over-thinking.

Mezzos: Ah, mezzos. The young man, the old woman, the soprano’s friend, the evil stepmother, the maid, the whore, the bearded lady, it goes on and on. Plus, everyone’s always leaning in to hear how they negotiate the chest voice. (“She’s no Marilyn Horne,” and other unnecessities.) Mezzos are often in a similar boat as baritones; they have fewer chances to show everyone what they can do, and they’ve got to do in serious character. Really, put two singers in a room and ask them both to be slightly seductive and villainous, and sparks will probably fly. Plus, those low voices can be aphrodesiacs.

Tenors: Do they really worry about money? Not much more than any other singer. But high notes, yes. This is their identity. Crack too many high notes and experts from all walks of live appear out of nowhere. “Tenor without a top,” opera-types love to quip. They’ve got high Cs in Rossini, peer-pressure high-Cs in Puccini, the gamble-of-a-high-C in Verdi, nine of them elsewhere. So yeah, they’re worried what you’re going to say about their high notes. Because we don’t shut up about them.

There may be plenty of singers that merit these stereotypes, but there are many more who have fabulous senses of humour about “singer-isms” that pop up during rehearsal (I first saw this comic on a voice teacher’s studio door). So, readers, what have I missed? Leave your laughable stereotypes in the comments below.

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