When I was little, contralto was the normal classification for the woman singer delivering alto solos in oratorio or opera. This changed in the late 20th century to mezzo-soprano, even for eighteenth and nineteenth-century oratorio performances. Many people have commented on this; recently I enjoyed Richard Morrison’s piece in The Times of 28 May 2010. His piece mourns the rarity of the contralto,‘the bosomy bulwark of every choral society’, claiming that ‘the infinite variety of woman is much diminished without her.


In this time of great mass-media influence, we are all encouraged to play the ingénue in life, making the mother earth, bawd or bosomy bulwark figure a less attractive rôle. Some professional solo singers perform under the contralto label sometimes, but then revert to mezzo-soprano for bigger, more prestigious performances. I can well understand this, as the operatic world, where a successful professional will find a good half of their work,  offers a much wider range of opportunities under the mezzo-soprano label. Contralto has come to denote particular cameo rôles such as Wagner’s Erda, when it used to embrace such variety as Prince Orlofsky (Die Fledermaus), Bellini’s Romeo, Rosina (Rossini’s Barbiere), Azucena, Amneris and Ortrud. 

At the same time, I know of many mixed choirs who are short of every type except (female) alto. Lots of women sing comfortably in the alto range - I would love to hear more solo performers combining that crucial contralto strength in the lower middle register with starry charisma on stage.

April 2020