A bit of gender parity

It occurs to me that I’ve been posting about male voices rather a lot. This post is an attempt to rectify that by linking to several performances by my favorite female voices — four contraltos and four sopranos.

Beverly Sills
Beverly Sills
Inger Dam-Jensen
Inger Dam-Jensen
Tuva Semmingsen
Tuva Semmingsen
Cass Elliot
Cass Elliot
Sopranos:
Beverly Sills: Una voce poco fa — what else? This aria showcases everything wonderful about her, as a coloratura soprano without a trace of shrillness, whose voice was always sweet and gentle on the ear, but still possessed of enormous power.
Inger Dam-Jensen: Piangero la solte mia — from “Giulio Cesare.” Yes, she’s wearing black leather, fur, and a skullcap. Ignore it, or better yet, buy the opera on DVD and watch the whole thing. Her voice is perfection, as nimble as a gymnast and clear as a bell.
Tuva Semmingsen: Non piu mesta from “La Cenerentola.” She specializes in pants roles and indeed possesses a very gamine beauty, but this is a woman’s part. Her voice is the clearest, best mezzo I’ve ever heard.
Cass Elliot: New World Coming — the best woman’s high voice in pop, absolutely effortless-sounding and smooth as glass.

Marian Anderson
Marian Anderson
Annie Lennox
Annie Lennox
Cher
Cher
Carly Simon
Carly Simon
Contraltos:
Marian Anderson: Ave Maria — German lyrics, far more moving than the Latin prayer or the Italian ones. Not of this Earth.
Annie Lennox: Stay By Me — another magnificent voice, one of the most revered voices in pop, and unsurprisingly, a contralto.
Cher: I Found Someone — Yes, it’s 80s. Another smooth, rich and dark contralto, with none of the muddiness of the low male voice — a low voice with the vibrato of a female one.
Carly Simon: That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be — another of the most effortlessly perfect voices in pop, and a brilliant songwriter.

Duets:
Tuva Semmingsen (mezzo) and Randi Stene (occasional contralto): Son nata a lagrimar — also from “Giulio Cesare.” Magnificent. A mother and son mourn their murdered husband and father.
Semmingsen and Dam-Jensen: Sous le dôme épais — from “Lakmé.” A recognizable duet, sampled frequently. A more beautiful version you won’t find.

Again, I understand the difficulties involved in using (specialized) classical labels instead of the standard four choral labels (soprano, alto, tenor, basso) to define popular singers, but there really isn’t any other way to define the last three women other than as contraltos. The relative popularity of counter-tenors and contr-altos in popular music compared to classical/operatic indicates (in my opinion) that these terms cannot be avoided, and that they should indeed be used to highlight the very clear difference between the types of voices preferred in the genres.

In other words, there is such a predictable and marked difference, well outside of just pure chance, of the types of voices that are highly praised in both genres. With limited exceptions (Barry White and Luther Vandross being two, and some various bubble-gum female popstars being more), the most prized male voices in popular music are uniformly higher than the most prized voices in classical and operatic music, and considerably so. Prized female voices are similarly lower in almost all cases, with limited exceptions (Pat Benatar being the one that springs to mind). Classifying all of the men as “tenor” and all of the women as “alto” would miss this predictable, near-uniform distinction.

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