< Cathy Pope Singing and Voice Teacher - What the Fach is that?.

What the Fach is that? A lighthearted title for a serious subject

Singers are sometimes confused as to what Fach should mean to them. I will talk about how the system works and how a singer can find their Fach. A singer who knows their true Fach will understand what roles they are capable of singing well.


The word Fach is a German word meaning category or compartment. It is a German categorisation of voices and assigns roles to each voice type.

'Handbuch der Oper' (opera handbook) by Rudolph Kloiber has generally been considered the standard reference in all matters concerning Fach in Europe. In Kloiber even Children's voices are categorized. There is also information on Fach on the internet, the Kloiber categories are on Wiki http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fach. Please look at these in conjunction with this article if you need to. You will see there are also the Italian and English as well as the German names for each Fach.

In Kloiber voices are categorised according to their tessitura, weight of voice, 'squillo' (ring which cuts through the orchestra), flexibility and colour. There are more than 30 categories. The whole system was designed to make casting roles easier. This system allowed opera houses to maintain a roster of categorized vocalists, select the season's repertoire and cast based on available voices. This helps to ensure that mistakes don't happen, for example casting a lyric soprano as Aida. There are a large number of opera houses in Germany, divided into categories A and B and C and D houses according to the size of their orchestral budget. Being under contract to a German house does not guarantee a singer will only sing things in their Fach. Because of the shortage of money a house singer may be asked to cover roles that are not ideal.

In Germany the Fach system is in common use and most opera singers sign a Fest contract with an opera house, a Fest contract means you are tied to one opera house for a year or more. The contracts are hard to come by as singers move between opera houses and openings do not come up that often. For someone looking for a Fest contract for sure you must have vocal stamina and be able to learn music quickly. You may well be asked to perform outside of your Fach. For those looking for work in Germany there are books on how the system works and it would be best to read one before auditioning.

Everywhere competition for agents and theatres has never been fiercer and to succeed singers must know what roles suit their voice.

It is universally agreed that more than one voice type can sing a role. For example the lyric soubrette role of Susanna can be sung by a lyric soprano or soubtrette. Waltraute can be sung by a dramatic mezzo or a dramatic alto/contralto. So, it is not set in stone, nor can it be.

Voices mature and the Fach of a voice can change and at the end of the day people will cast who they want to cast. It is then up to the singer to say Yes or No.

Difficulties experience in finding your Fach

Whether a singer is dramatic or lyric should be obvious by the sound.

Of course shape of the body and neck can help to give clues as to voice type but many mistakes have been made using this alone as a judge.

There are of many examples of singers who sing lower late in their careers. A prime example is Domingo singing the baritone repertoire. Dramatic sopranos often do the same.

It is not unusual for a young singer not to know what repertoire suits them and to know what their voice type is. It is not always easy for the singer to figure out what voice type they are. A Helden Tenor singing as a baritone or a Dramatic soprano singing as a mezzo are examples of singing in a Fach that is too low and, of course, it is also possible to be singing repertory that is too high.

In this case they need another set of ears and not only that. Skilled help is needed to gently show the singer how to open the throat sufficiently for the acoustical shifts and true colour of the voice to be heard. All voices have two major acoustic shifts which are well known shifting from the chest voice to middle voice then a shift into full voice in head. These fall at different places depending on the voice type. There are also more subtle shifts for example in the middle voice where the larynx start to tip to allow the voice to open up into full head voice. I prefer the name acoustical shifts rather than register changes. These and other less obvious acoustical subtleties reveal a voice type.

It is not enough to go on the colour of the sound. This is because singers can make false colour by holding their larynx in one way or another and can even make something of a career on this for maybe the first few years. At first this singer, most probably, has no idea that they are singing in the wrong Fach and neither does the person casting them or teaching them. Usually they are singing in the wrong Fach because they are perceived to physically look right for it. For instance I teach a dramatic contralto who sang professionally for a few years as a soubrette soprano. People thought she looked like one, she sang the music prettily and apparently no one thought she was anything else. It is difficult for high baritones too because they can sometimes be trained wrongly as tenors.

A singer can sometimes go on singing in a Fach that is too high for them for quite a while before the tightness becomes completely vocally debilitating. These are always lower voice singers who have strong vocal folds singing lighter than their true vocal weight. They can manage by pushing up the larynx to sing in a Fach that is too high for them, for a bit anyway!

The lyric singer

It is generally easier for the lighter, more lyrical, voices to start out in the profession as there are more small roles and less demanding larger roles for them to sing. Lyric voices especially lyric sopranos and lyric mezzos generally need to get going in their mid twenties. Lyric tenors and lyric baritones have a bit more time. There are plenty of lyric singers who may sound lovely to the listener but have not yet found a comfortable technique for their voice in the music demanded of them. Most lyric singers in their twenties need to be looking towards their next decade when they will need to find more depth in their voice as it matures. It is thus important to think where you are going to go with your repertoire when you are in your thirties and try to find some technical work that will help you make the transition in to heavier repertoire. Voices change again in a singer's forties, and this is when any singer should be at their peak. Knowing about your voice type and where it is likely to take you in the next decade is all part of being a student of classical voice. A long career depends on consistently keeping on top of your vocal development accurately and successfully.

Jugendlischer Dramatisch/Spinto

Jugendlischer Dramatisch is the same as the Italian term Spinto, both terms may be unfamiliar to you. This category has no adequate translation in English. Jugendlischer Dramatisch means a dramatic singer with a youthful sound with a lot of ring. Spinto is an Italian term which literally means pushed. Although it does not actually mean that the voice is pushed. It is a lyric voice with more ring/squillo/excitement in the sound that can sing heavier repertoire because it cuts through the orchestra. They usually start out as lyrics.

Well known Spintos are Renata Scotto and Aprile Millo. Well known Jugendlischer sopranos are Emma Bell and Karita Mattila.. Bergonzi and Pavarotti are examples of Spinto tenors. Kaufmann and Florian Vogt are examples of Jugendlischer Helden Tenors.

The path for Dramatic voices

There are very, very few singers who have the physical build, vocal maturity and charisma to sing the great dramatic roles in their early 20's. Most singers of this type sing more lyrically first and take character roles till they mature. In his early career Bryn Terfyl sang the character Bass Baritone role of Figaro everywhere. Bryn has sung roles from several Fachs - Helden Baritone/Wotan; Spielbass/Falstaff. Gerald Finley, a Kavalier Baritone, and Bryn have both sung Hans Sachs and yet their voices are completely different. Finley sang Sachs at Glyndebourne which is a small venue.

The pattern is usually, the heavier the voice the later the development. The 'Dramatischer seriöser' Bass (otherwise known as Basso Profundo or dramatic Bass) whose roles are larger than life characters, will not acquire the vocal gravitas to get really going until their forties. Most of the great dramatic roles are statesmen, demons, gods, goddesses and queens and kings and require vocal stamina and great singing. Helden Tenors ,which are tenors who have a baritonal quality in the sound and yet have ring, also usually mature late.

It is very difficult for the great dramatic voices to get started because there are not so many starter roles for them. Wonderful young voices are too often picked to sing heavy roles without adequate training. This is bad for the audience and bad for the singer, the audience because they do not get a rounded and exciting performance, the singer because their vocal health and artistic development is compromised.

Tastes change according to who is casting, what singers are available and fashion. When I was singing Zerlina, Jane Eaglen, a young dramatic Soprano was the Donna Anna. It is generally territory for dramatic coloratura voices but Donna Anna is also a great schooling for the young dramatic soprano with a long voice. Jane went on to sing Brünnhilde at the Met. I used to have a record with Birgit Nielsen singing Donna Anna! German houses are inclined to cast the more dramatic voice for roles that others might cast more lyrically or at least it used to be that way.

Some dramatic sopranos start out as Mezzos. Gwyneth Jones for instance started as a mezzo and changed to dramatic soprano.

Supposing I cannot find my Fach

Finding your way to your correct repertoire can be such a difficult journey and it can be that the singer is struggling along in the wrong Fach. I have found this to be quite common. Lyric sopranos who are now mezzos, High tenors who are now Helden tenors, high baritones who are now basses.... I could go on.

Unless the singer themselves can really feel comfortable and secure vocally it is impossible for them to move forward and feel happy and fully connected to what they are singing.

It is important to find out where the acoustic shifts are in a voice in order to find the voice type. Sometimes where the voice turns over can be disguised because the throat has been so shut.

It is helpful to find someone who can journey with you to help you figure out how your voice works.

The negative effects of being in the Wrong Fach

If a singer is singing in the wrong Fach it is damaging to them vocally and physically. Singers can suffer from back ache and neck ache and other problems just with the effort of trying to sing in a tessitura that is not for them. If a singer is stuck vocally they are often stuck personally. I have witnessed at first hand many instances of a singer's life moving on personally when they find vocal freedom as I am sure many others have.

Evolution of the voice

A voice gets heavier every 10 years. A lyric singer in their 30's should be filling out vocally, even changing Fach. It is a tricky time for them. If they do not manage it they can find themselves in precarious vocal form and being offered roles they do not want and short of work. The Fach a singer sings in can change with age. The same goes for voices heading towards their forties. Then there is menopause and andropause to work through. There are many documented cases of well known singers of the past who have taken time out to rework their technique. A busy performance schedule makes it more difficult to address these things, but it can be done if it is accurate and consistent work and a bit of room in the schedule is made for it. You are a very lucky singer if you are trained adequately in the beginning as it makes things easier later. What were small technical issues always turn into big scary ones so best to look for help without delay.

To a singer searching for the technical knowhow for their voice type, or a teacher wishing to know how voices work, it can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack. Technical knowledge does exist you just have to find it. In lessons a student should expect a teacher to be respectful and encouraging and have an individual approach to their talent. A one size fits all approach never makes a great singer. Be wary of a teacher who keeps telling you more or less the same every week and creates a situation whereby you feel you are at fault for not understanding. If you are told there is something wrong with your singing or if a technical concept does not work for you, then there should be another, better way on offer. Progress should be consistent.

Three examples of singers journeys to find their Fach

Example 1

I have been teaching a mezzo soprano in Berlin who had started her singing life as a soprano. Like most singers who don't feel quite happy vocally she has a large repertory. She had been working hard trying to sort out what she should be singing for several years and was not having the success she deserved. One of her favourite roles was Charlotte. But the voice really was not sitting where it should. It is difficult for these low voices not to push air pressure and to sort out their middle voice in relation to their head voice and chest voice. We worked on release of her ribs in the out breath combined with exercises to allow the larynx to tip. Gradually her coordination improved, her tongue released and she was more grounded. She is a actually a dramatic contralto and not a mezzo soprano at all.

Then I used an exercise to help her open the back of the throat. I think I had used it with her before, but this time, because other things were better coordinated, she was able to really feel it. She really understood how to keep her throat open all the way up and down and this finally helped her body 'hook up' completely. This helped her relationship with the middle voice and the need to push dropped away and stopped her over singing. Now she relied on acoustic resonance and not pushed air pressure. It dawned on her that before she had been shutting in and narrowing her throat. No amount of telling her to lift her palate would have helped her; more often than not singers given this instruction narrow the side of the throat. The lifting and widening of the palate is reflexive and cannot be forced but should always be the result of specific non reflexive action or release which involves muscles of the face, the tongue the jaw, the neck and body. All singing is powered by reflex actions. We singers have to learn what non reflexive actions allow these reflex actions to happen easily. Now this singer had easy access to her voice which now felt like one great column all the way up and down. I suggested that she bring Waltraute to the next lesson and Acerba Volutta.

When she came to the next lessons the voice had shut again. It took about 15 minutes to work out the coordination to help her open the throat again. That is how it is for a bit till the singer owns her tools to be able to find their form themselves. She sang Höre mit sinn. There was no element of manufacturing sound. The sound was large and beautiful. These voices can go up to B flat even C. She had all the top notes easily for Acerba Volutta.

This singer had something of a career as a soubrette soprano in her first decade as a singer. I have come across dramatic contraltos trained wrongly as sopranos before now. Those thick cords will take a lot of punishment! This cannot last because this high laryngeal squeeze is not comfortable and the voice protests.

It takes a long time for these dramatic contralto voices to develop and balance their voices. It takes time to be able to withstand that sound. Their full chest register will go all the way up to F 4 sometimes even G from the low D. The middle register is short before it starts to gain head voice at A flat and they turn over on full head at E flat 5 usually. They need to be able to bring the cords along the thin edges and not push air pressure. This is a much neglected voice category. A dramatic contralto that is trained like a mezzo will have no chance to find their true sound, and will be thoroughly demoralized! We do not often hear the term dramatic contralto.

Example 2

I have been teaching a bass who, when he first came to me, was a light baritone. He had been singing for several years had been taught by some very well know teachers and he was not getting anywhere and was very frustrated. It is often a bad idea to make assumptions about body type, but there were certain things that rang alarm bells here. He was tall with a long neck. This means the resonator is long. Both these things suggested bass to me. Then I could see that his throat was very restricted even by looking at his neck. Well this singer had no notes below C3; a bit of problem if you are thinking of being a bass. By gradually opening the throat, changing even the way he breathed, the notes appeared all the way down. It is a very good instrument and he has done very well and has been performing as a bass.

Example 3

A young soprano who had been to university, where she sang a lot of early music, had trouble feeling comfortable vocally singing anything even though she had been doing quite a lot of performing. The voice sounded small at this point and was in a fragile state. It was never going to be a straight forward journey opening this voice. There are wonderful voices that take careful nurturing to flourish. We worked at coordinating the balance of the body and resonance, freeing the neck and guiding her on how to use her body and face muscles to help her sing well. This is now a most beautiful large dramatic coloratura voice. This is an example of a voice type that needs to be given dramatic long phrases. I gave her Donna Anna's Non mi dir early on in the process. If I had given her Handel or lighter Mozart she would have under sung and choked on it. Now she has sung more dramatic music she can sing Handel if she wants to but she can sing it her way with her own full free sound.

This is an example of a singer who might have given up without help in finding her true voice.

In conclusion

One of my pupils suggested I write this article as she thinks there are many singers who do not know much about Fach and their relationship to it. So if some of this information is news to you I hope it helps! She laughingly suggested this title for my article.

This is a very important point; although there are maybe some elements that are similar, it is a fact that each voice type cannot be trained the same way. Perhaps I should elaborate a little further. A lyric bass, a basso profundo, a light coloratura and a dramatic coloratura..... each variation of voice type has to be trained differently. Not all types of tenor, mezzo and soprano are the same. Then of course each voice, body and personality is individual in and of itself. That is what makes singing wonderful.

I would imagine there are many beautiful and large voices that never get to the profession because the cords never find the thin cord edge function because of lack of information and adequate training.

Young singers frequently start out singing in the wrong Fach. They can find success in the short term but sooner or later the stresses that this causes on the voice will cause vocal issues. As a singer gets older their voice will change and their voice will typically become heavier and their Fach will need to be reassessed. Finding a singer's true Fach can be difficult and requires patience. Correct vocal technique is essential to allow a voice to show its true nature and hearing where the acoustical shifts are is a key part of assessing a voice's correct Fach.

So this is it - if your top notes are not working joyfully, if your voice is wobbling, if your throat is not comfy, if you have no chest voice or easy middle voice, if you cannot sing loud and soft easily and if you cannot do all the things that the score requires of you and sing with artistic authority throughout your range then work will be hard to come by. You need to find out exactly what you should do about it.

Cathy Pope