Chanteuse: What the fach?
Contrary to how this four-letter word looks and sounds, it is not a curse (albeit some opera singers might feel otherwise). Literally, it is the German word for “compartment” or “shelf,” and it is how singers’ voice ranges and types get classified – think Bass, Tenor, Alto, Soprano. But that is just the beginning.
In the German Fach system, each vocal category is broken down into sub-categories. For example, I consider myself to be a mezzo-soprano, BUT I’m still at a loss as to which kind exactly. Maybe a Dramatic Mezzo? Maybe a Contralto? I’ve even been told that (one day…) I could blossom into a Wagnerian Soprano. Basically, I sing what feels good and what works in my voice. You can’t force Fach. What you can do is develop and train a solid, healthy vocal technique, and see where your voice likes to sit.
But training is not the only thing that goes into Fach. Body shape, age, and even hormones can play a part. Body shape and size has is increasing in focus in today’s opera world (a subject for another posting), but where Fach is concerned, it becomes important in such things as casting pants roles (a male character portrayed by a female singer). For example, take two singers with similar voices and ranges – but one is slender and the other grossly overweight – whom do you think more likely to get cast as the youthful boy Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro? Ninety-nine percent of the time, it will be the one more able to look and move as a youthful boy.
Age comes in to play with how the voice develops and matures. A young girl of 8 or 9 will probably be a light soprano or alto unless she is unhealthily forcing a more “adult” sound (see: Charlotte Church or Jackie Evancho). However, with age-appropriate training under a teacher who lets that voice mature, that same girl can discover her actual Fach might be a dramatic coloratura or lyric soprano, once she has a few more years under her belt. After puberty, men’s voices tend to fully mature a little earlier than women’s, and among women’s voices, the more dramatic voice-types won’t be fully mature until mid-life. Sometimes, it is a waiting game (more on that below).
As for hormones – I’ve not had this experience myself, but my singer friends with children tell me that they’ve often gained a note or two on either end of their singing range after pregnancy. Sometimes, that two-note difference was enough to push them from a dramatic mezzo to a soprano.
Personally, I feel it is absolutely ludicrous to force a young singer to pigeon-hole themselves into a Fach. Especially if their voice is a larger voice which takes more time to get “on the breath” and develop range, simply because it is a more unwieldy instrument. Unfortunately, many competitions, auditions and young artist programs are geared towards younger singers – and have an upper age limit of 30 – thus leaving singers with larger voices in a sort of limbo, as they might not reach full maturity until their 30s or even 40s (if we’re talking Wagner). So, what’s someone with a larger, hard-to-categorize voice supposed to do if not take the route of college-YAP-competitions-Metropolitan Opera Star?
Sing what you can! And sing what makes you happy! And sing what you love! Actually – I would recommend that for any singer, not just those of us folks are unsure about *where* we fit, exactly.
My personal Fach-experience has had its up-and-downs (pun…intended). As a kid, I sang soprano, but moved to alto in 10th grade when I started taking voice lessons. In college, I was firmly planted on the mezzo route, though my technique only took me so far and I couldn’t sing above an E (top space of the treble staff) without difficulty. In graduate school, my technique had a complete overhaul – in a good way – and my top finally become accessible (as my professor would say “You didn’t have a break; you had enough space for a semi-truck to get through”). Mid-way through my graduate studies, I tried – tried – to switch Fachs from mezzo to soprano. It was one of the most difficult times of my musical life.
Not only was I suddenly attempting new repertoire as a grad student (when I was supposed to have learned everything in undergrad already, and just be “polishing up”), but I was shedding part of my identity and attempting to become something else. Throw in an underlying health issue and the fact that my voice was terribly unhappy at that higher range, and you have the recipe for disaster. Ultimately, after a semester of tearful voice lessons, stressful opera studio classes and (live!) performances through which I could barely make it, I went back to my familiar territory. In retrospect, I am glad that I had that experience in school, because it made me realize how subjective singing is, and how important it is to base one’s identity on something other than singing. I am also thankful for the support I had from my colleagues and teachers at the time. For the most part, the pressure I felt to succeed in my new Fach was internal. Sure, my voice might one day blossom into a dramatic soprano. But, at that time, as a young 22 year old singer, I was not there.
So. What have I done in the past 10 years as a singer? I have embraced music that I love to sing, and that my voice is happy TO sing. Rep such as Gilbert & Sullivan (including my dream role of Ruth, in The Pirates of Penzance), which has been so much fun and taught me to act more than any class on the subject; works by Handel, and other Baroque and Classical era composers; wonderful Lieder by Mahler and Schumann; and a mish-mash of operatic nursemaids, mean old aunties and crazy people along the way.
My advice to singers: yes, Fach is important, but what’s more important is singing what feels good and what you feel you are best at performing.
More articles or information on Fach:
Katy Daniel, our resident opera columnist for la vie en route, is a mezzo-soprano, depending on the day and the role. When she’s not playing a swash-buckling pirate, she’s an avid outdoor explorer and writes the blog Hikers Do It for the View. For more about her professional work, visit Katy Daniel.com.