Photo credit: Heather Bobeck

Are Operatic Voice Types Inherently Gendered?

If a mezzo-soprano and a countertenor share the same range and often the same roles, then why are they separate types? And why is there an obvious gender difference?

Written By

Aiden Feltkamp

Operatic Voice Classification for the 21st Century is a multi-part series exploring the ever-changing system of voice type in classical singing through a transgender lens. The first installment delved into why opera needs ungendered voice types to move forward, and later installments will discuss possibilities for the continual adaptation of voice classification systems.

A quick reminder that all experiences expressed here are mine and do not reflect those of transgender and/or nonbinary people in general. Everyone has their own story to tell, and this is mine.

Imagine, for a moment, a mezzo-soprano. Who do you see? If you’re having trouble, this is what Google came up with:

A screenshot of a Google Image search on "mezzo-soprano"

You’ll notice that they’re all women. I can’t make assumptions for those I don’t know, but of those I do know, many of the women shown here are cisgender, not transgender or gender non-conforming, women. (They’re also mostly white. But that’s another topic for another article.)

Now, imagine a countertenor. Who do you see? Here’s what Google sees:

A screenshot of a Google Image search on "countertenor"

It’s also interesting that both the mezzo-soprano and the countertenor are newer voice types. Countertenors are a contemporary version of the Baroque and Classical era castrati. Mezzo-sopranos didn’t exist as their own voice type until the 19th century.

If a mezzo-soprano and a countertenor share the same range and often the same roles, then why are they separate types? And why is there an obvious gender difference?

Of course, the obvious answer is that timbre and ability are different between mezzo-sopranos and countertenors. And that timbre/ability difference, on the most basic and overly generalized level, is due to the physical differences of the vocal cords.

As much as I love science, I don’t think it’s beneficial to go into it here. Instead, I’d like to speak about my own experience transitioning from average “female” vocal cords to testosterone-affected vocal cords that more closely resemble average “male” vocal cords. I’m using quotation marks here, because the gendering of body parts is as useless as the gendering of articles of clothing. A body part or an article of clothing may have societal or traditional associations with a specific gender, but that isn’t enough to gender it; instead, these things take on the gender of the person they belong to.  Since I’m a transmasculine nonbinary person, my vocal cords are transmasculine and nonbinary as well.

All of this aside, the mechanism that I’ve spent years training as a mezzo-soprano feels and operates completely differently since hormone replacement therapy caused it to change. Not only has the timbre and range fluctuated, but the overall sensation of singing with these changed vocal cords is now foreign to me.

That said, am I still a mezzo-soprano if I have the range, the roles, the experience, and the training? Or am I a countertenor now, since my vocal cords more closely resemble “male” vocal cords? Or, perhaps, I’m neither. This is where the inherent gendering of the voice types becomes more apparent and far less useful.

  • Both the mezzo-soprano and the countertenor are newer voice types.

    Aiden Feltkamp, vocalist and librettist
  • The gendering of body parts is as useless as the gendering of articles of clothing.

    Aiden Feltkamp, vocalist and librettist
  • Critics continue to make women’s bodies a big deal (generally, but especially) when they’re performing trouser roles.

    Aiden Feltkamp, vocalist and librettist

Perhaps I’m being a bit flippant about decoupling gender from voice, since it’s still a topic of hot debate when it comes to operatic casting as well as recital repertoire. There’s still the question of who’s “allowed” to sing Winterreise (spoiler alert: the answer is “everyone”) and critics continue to make women’s bodies a big deal (generally, but especially) when they’re performing trouser roles. Perhaps my own concept and experience of gender is too opaquely coloring the conversation here. I just can’t move past the fact that boy sopranos are boy sopranos and I don’t personally know any female operatic tenors. To me, this seems too constrictive to be adaptable.

As I mentioned in the last part of this series, I believe that adaptability is crucial to an art form’s success and relevancy into the future. I’m thinking we could go about solving this with one of two major shifts: we could remove the gender implications of our current voice type system (as the German Fach system has attempted to do, especially in regard to transgender singers) or we could create a new system that has a lack of gendered implications. Or, perhaps, it’s as easy as normalizing gender as part of the voice type. Then, female tenor will be as much a voice type as dramatic tenor. I’ll dive into these possibilities in the next part.

Too often, it seems that the answer to “Has society gendered this?” is “Yes.” It’s no different with operatic voice types.