Miguel Barrosa: on the definition of the registers and tessiture of the human voice

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Second excerpt from Bel canto in theory and practice, a compendium on the mastery of the art of singing by tenor Miguel Barrosa published in 1951.


Voices are not defined by their range but by their color. A soprano leggero may not have upper high notes and that wouldn’t make her a lyric soprano but a short soprano leggero. Even if she is ill-equipped to sing Rigoletto, she would neither shine adequately in a lyric opera, that asks for a soprano with a color of voice appropriate to the genre. There are very short tenors that are not able to go beyond an A natural and that doesn’t mean they are baritones. As there are baritones able to emit a B natural and that doesn’t mean they are tenors. Color, only color, is what points to different types of voices, no matter their extension.

On the other hand, being able to reach a high note doesn’t mean being able to sing in a whole high tessitura. It is not one note alone what you have to sing when you perform a complete score, you have to be able to sustain the tessitura constantly, a difficult thing to do if you are singing in an inappropriate tesitura. The tessitura is heavy on the voice and very often a tenor gets to sing a high note with difficulty if the tessitura is high and makes him tired or weary. It’s not the same to sing a C natural after some comfortable singing than to sing it after being strained, even if the C is always the same note, produced by the 512 vibrations of the moving cords…

If this is what happens to a tenor, singing in the right tessitura, let’s not say what would happen to a baritone, no matter how light he would be, if he tried to sing in a tenor’s tessitura. It is easier to turn a sparrow into a nightingale than to turn a baritone into a tenor.

However; if the baritone has sung as such during some time and then he studied and sang as a tenor, it means he has always been a tenor, even if in the beginning he sang, mistakenly, as a baritone, possibly because he had an undefined timbre, easy to be confused. The very famous soprano Arangi-Lombardi sang as a mezzo-soprano in the beginning of her career, only to be then celebrated as a dramatic soprano. I heard her say: “As a mezzo I felt a heaviness in my voice that then, as a dramatic soprano, I didn’t feel; on the contrary, I sing with great easiness.” That is to say, she had always been a soprano, even If she had sing as a mezzo for many years successfully. Time can make the voice go through modifications, and it’s not strange the case of a lyric tenor that ended singing as a dramatic, but always as a tenor and not as a baritone.

It is very necessary not to lose sight of the fact that singing is not a sport of strongmen, in which, therefore, any violence is of no use. There is no benefit to be gained, in singing, by force, neither artistically nor physically. Each voice gives of itself what nature has granted and what the teacher can develop. But nature has limits one should never try to trespass.

Text excerpted and translated from El Bel canto en la teoría y la práctica, Miguel Barrosa, Madrid, 1951.