Talk Like An Opera Geek: Breaking Down Baritones
(Talk Like An Opera Geek attempts to decode the intriguing and intimidating lexicon of the opera house.)
Over the past few weeks in this series of posts, we've been descending down the vocal ranges from soprano to mezzo-soprano to tenor and now, the baritone — which lies below the tenor but above the bass. Baritones sing from roughly the second A below middle C to the G above middle C.
Pity the poor baritones. In opera at least, the word (from the Greek barytonos, meaning deep-sounding) was not even used until the 19th century. All the low-lying roles — be they in the baritone or bass range — seemed to be pigeonholed together. Another complaint is that baritones rarely get to play the hero — that's left up to the tenor — which means they almost never get the girl at the end. Instead, they're typecast as villains (Scarpia in Puccini's Tosca), buffoons (Papageno in Mozart's Magic Flute) fathers (the title character of Verdi's Rigoletto) or afflicted authority figures (Wotan in Wagner's Ring cycle).
But that doesn't mean these roles weren't plum, and that few others were available. Mozart, Rossini and Donizetti wrote meaty roles for baritones. Yet Verdi expanded the dramatic scope of the baritone role. With complex title roles in Macbeth, Simon Boccanegra, Rigoletto and Falstaff, among other characters, Verdi breathed new life into the vocal range, demanding better acting and pushing voices higher and louder to match the enlarging orchestras. And the 20th century produced more meaty characters for baritones to inhabit, such as the lead roles of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, Bernstein's Mass and John Adams' Nixon in China.
Baritones may be the toughest singers to classify. There seem to be so many great ones from every era. Is it because the typical male speaking voice, turned to song, produces a baritone? In any case, baritones routinely cross over a broad range of boundaries with labels like lyric, character, cantabile, Verdi, dramatic and the several subdivisions of the bass-baritone.