Voice Types
aka: The Soprano

In modern musical theatre, just as in Opera before it, certain types of roles are commonly associated with certain vocal ranges. While these vocal range cliches differ depending on the style of the show (more rock- or pop-oriented musicals lean toward tenors and alto/mezzo belters across the board), these generally seem to hold up pretty strong. Most of these associations do indeed stem from similar associations in opera, and especially in operetta, which is where American musicals developed from in the first place.

NOTE: Under notable roles, try to limit entries to roles that are generally agreed to be said voice parts. Roles with very contested ranges should be kept to a minimum.

Sopranos are almost always The Ingenue and/or Satellite Love Interest and/or Purity Personified (not characters from the series of the same name). When they're not, they're still more often than not the romantic lead, and commonly also a Defrosting Ice Queen like Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls or Marion Paroo in The Music Man. It should be noted that this does not apply to opera wherein most female roles, of any type, are written for sopranos. Sopranos are also much rarer in rock musicals, because most rock music is not written for soprano vocalists.

Other notable soprano roles:

Mezzo-sopranos, being in the most common vocal register for women, come in a wide variety of types. They can be a wide range of ages, although female characters over fifty tend to be altos more often than mezzos. The majority of mezzo singing, especially nowadays, is belting, and as such mezzos are especially common in pop- or rock-oriented musicals. Just as the leads in most operas are sopranos, the secondary female characters (commonly referred to as "witches, bitches and britches (cross-dressing roles)") are generally mezzos; this is not uncommon in modern musicals, where frequently the soprano will be the main love interest, and the mezzo her best friend or rival, a la Cosette and Eponine in Les MisÚrables. Also referred to in many productions as a "Belt" voice, for someone who can strongly sing passages in the middle and high register in her chest voice (rather than the soprano's lighter head voice.) Elphaba from Wicked is prime example of this.

Other famous mezzo-soprano roles:

Altos or Contraltos are the lowest female singers commonly heard. Unlike their male counterparts the basses, however, roles for altos are a bit more common, especially in rock musicals. In more traditional pieces, altos are frequently middle-aged leading women, though some of those are mezzos as well. The only role demographic altos have a firm hold over is for women over sixty - which in most shows means grandmothers like Mme. Armfeldt in A Little Night Music or Gran in Billy Elliot. In the rare case that there is a female villain in a show, she will probably be an alto.

Other famous alto roles:

Counter-Tenors, also known as falsettists, are men who sing in their falsetto register, allowing them to enter the rarefied pitch-sphere normally reserved for women singers. Counter-tenor roles are rare outside of gospel and classical European opera— most operatic counter-tenor roles were originally sung by castrati but are now performed by counter-tenors, women, or the very rare male sopranos, also known as sopranists (such as Michael Maniaci). Castrati were in fact not counter-tenors because they sang in the modal voice rather than the falsetto. For the same reason, prepubescent boys who sing in a high range are not called countertenors, but rather boy sopranos or trebles.

  • Annas from Jesus Christ Superstar is a supremely rare example of a countertenor role in musical theatre.
  • Friedrich from The Soundof Music was originally meant for a boy soprano,but how can a 14 year old with an unchanged voice be normal these days? Thus another rare example of a role now often played by a teenager with a strong falsetto, but could theoretically be by a countertenor assuming the boy still has a natural high voice, but whose voice has dropped a few notes. Of course it could be by a baritone singing down the octave from the original score, but theatres don't really like that these days.
Tenors are mostly good guys, and mostly leading men or ingenues—hence the Tenor Boy trope. There are a couple of villainous tenors, such as Pirelli in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and John Jasper in Drood. There are also a few character tenors, such as Sancho in Man of La Mancha and Nicely-Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls. Because most people's voices deepen as they age, there are few tenor roles for men over forty, although Jean Valjean from Les MisÚrables, one of the rangiest tenor roles in popular musical canon, is usually played by a middle-aged man.

Other famous tenor roles:

Baritones, like their female counterpart, the mezzos, come in all shapes and sizes. They are common for leading men, villains, and character parts. There are even a few ingenues, or at least roles for young men, in the baritone range, such as Arpad in She Loves Me, and Anthony in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Because it is range shared by many singers, there are many subtypes of baritone roles. Villains and leading men in heavier pieces are frequently dramatic baritones, whereas character types are comic baritones, and younger characters or characters in lighter shows are lyric baritones. Because it is the most common male vocal register, the voice can also have an "everyman" implication, and such roles are frequently baritones.

Other famous baritone roles:

Basses are very rare in modern musical theatre, chiefly because there are few vocalists who have sufficient volume at those low registers. Because of the unique qualities of the sound, most bass roles are villains and/or authority figures, and in either case older men. The most notable exceptions to this are Emile de Becque of South Pacific, who is the romantic lead (though still middle-aged), and Joe of Show Boat, who is the wise old black man. Otherwise, bass roles are few and far between, and it is more likely to find bass soloists from the ensemble rather than bass leads. Basso Profundo is when someone has a very low voice even when compared to other basses.

Other famous bass roles:

There are many who also use the term bass-baritone to describe a vocalist with a firm, resonant bass who can sing comfortably in a baritonal tessitura. Several of the roles listed above, such as Sweeney Todd, are frequently categorized as such. The phrase baritenor has come into less formal use to describe the high baritone roles that are increasingly common in modern musical theatre, such as Marius and Enjolras in Les MisÚrables, Bobby in Company, or The Phantom and Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera.

Usage outside standard musical theatre:

  • The opera sequence from Final Fantasy VI features two male characters: the heroic tenor Draco and the villainous bass Prince Ralse.
  • The four basic voices (sop, alt, ten, bas) are also used to organize and classify singers in any genre where singing happens, but rarely involve any personality associations ("How many tenors does it take to change a lightbulb" jokes notwithstanding). Also, this organization only matters when multiple singers will be singing at once; the tenor/bass division is important in a Boy Band, for instance, but Britney Spears' voice partnote  is irrelevant because she's a solo act.
  • The characters in The Decemberists album The Hazards of Love have voice types that match up very well to their roles in the story. Of the female parts, Margaret (Becky Stark), the sweet Love Interest, is a soprano; the villainous Queen (Shara Worden) has a much deeper alto. The parts of William and the Rake are both sung by Colin Meloy, but he tends to sing heroic William's parts higher than the Rake (most evident in "The Rake's Song," where Meloy's voice takes on a much rougher aspect than is featured in the rest of the album).
  • The song "Alto's Lament" is about an alto lamenting the fact that she always gets stuck singing the harmony in big, show-stopping musical numbers instead of the livelier and much more recognizable melody.
  • On Glee, Rachel is a mezzosoprano and Santana is an alto. Most of the boys are in the tenor range, with the exception of Kurt (Chris Colfer), who is a true countertenor and does not use falsetto.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fanfic Pagliacci has a group of characters known as the Choir Boys who are all named after different vocal types. But since they're all vicious killers, their songs shouldn't be listened to unless you have a deathwish!
  • The manga Shounen Note is about a middle school choir. The protagonist, Yutaka, is a prodigious boy soprano but recognizes soon his voice will crack. Yutaka fits The Ingenue stereotype, being a bright eyed and sensitive boy.
  • Katja from Missing Stars is said to be a soprano. She's reserved and a potential love interest.

Alternative Title(s): The Soprano