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Talk Like An Opera Geek: Sizing Up Sopranos

From stratospheric coloraturas to jet-powered Wagnerians, learn to love our highest-flying singers. (iStock)

(Talk Like An Opera Geek attempts to decode the intriguing and intimidating lexicon of the opera house.)

Voices are as individual as the people they belong to, yet the opera world has created convenient pigeonholes for categorizing them. You've got your main groupings — sopranos, mezzos, tenors, baritones and basses — but there's more to it than that. In the next few installments of this series, we'll divide and subdivide within those groups so you'll be able to tell your basso buffo from your basso profondo.

Let's start with the sopranos, the highest singers, who in general have a range from around the A below middle C and up a couple of octaves. These days we think of the soprano as the star, the temperamental diva who inspires countless jokes like: How many sopranos does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: One. She holds the bulb and the world revolves around her.

But sopranos weren't always the prima donnas of the vocal world. There was a time when composers didn't write much music for women to sing. The highest notes were sung by either high tenors or men singing in falsetto. And females were, for a long stretch, not allowed to sing in church. But women from noble families began taking up music, and by the time opera was invented — around 1600 — women singers, sopranos especially, were already attaining diva-like status.

Below you can hear five types of sopranos — coloratura, light lyric, lyric, lyrico-spinto and dramatic. The Germans, naturally, have this whole classification thing down to a science, as if they were designing parts for BMWs. Their system, called fach, subdivides the soprano range into at least seven major categories, some of which can be broken down even further. In any case, it's important to remember that some sopranos can cross over into different categories.

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