Talk Like An Opera Geek: In the Basement With The Basses
(Talk Like An Opera Geek attempts to decode the intriguing and intimidating lexicon of the opera house.)
We've been descending though the vocal ranges over the past few weeks, from soprano and mezzo down to tenor and baritone. We've finally landed in the basement of the singing structure — the bass. And like the other voices, the basses are divided into types based on size, tone color and repertoire that fits each one best.
As for the range itself, our subterranean serenaders can usually extend up to the F above middle C and sink as low as the second C below middle C.
Before the advent of opera in about 1600, it seems there was little use for the bass voice. The florid, polyphonic music of the 13th and early 14th centuries was fixated on the tenor range for the cantus firmus or "fixed melody." That slowly changed as composers like Johannes Ockeghem began beefing up their harmonies by writing multiple lines for the lowest voices. In the last quarter of the 16th century, basses were finally getting some respect, and by the time opera was born good basses were in demand.
Monteverdi, one of opera's originators, wrote for basses — not in lead roles, yet in such memorable ones such as Seneca in The Coronation of Poppea from 1643 (hear it below).
Operatic basses, from the start, were most often singing parts for imposing characters — kings, conquerors or villains. The voice was occasionally the butt of some musical humor, as comedic roles emphasized wide swings within the voice range and sometimes farcical stammering, usually ending with a phrase that plummeted to the very lowest possible note. These types of roles, and their singers, were eventually called basso buffo, and few composers were better at writing these parts than Rossini — although Mozart and Donizetti also provided a generous number of hilarious examples.
By the 19th century, the operatic baritone, as a voice type, split off from the bass and gave way to a new dramatic area for composers to explore, most significantly Verdi. He began to give musically and emotionally rich roles to baritones, saving the elderly priests, servants and royals for the basses. Wagner, on the other hand, relished his bottommost voices, composing key roles for basses in all of his major music dramas. The Russians, cherishing their tradition of subbasement basses in liturgical music, created lead roles for them in operas like Boris Godunov, Khovanshchina and A Life for the Tsar. Closer to our own time, the bass has found favor in operas by Benjamin Britten (Swallow in Peter Grimes, Claggart in Billy Budd) and John Adams (Groves in Doctor Atomic and Henry Kissinger in Nixon in China).