The Singer's Spirit
One question I’m often asked by non-singers is, “what is the difference between a mezzo and soprano?” A simple question, that sometimes even for singers isn’t all that simple. The questioner often assumes it’s only a matter of the range.
“A soprano can sing higher than a mezzo, right?”
Well, not necessarily. Many mezzos, in fact most I know, have no trouble singing a high C.
So, I usually answer something like: “It’s really not a matter of range so much, but how much of the time you stay in each part of the range.” Then, I try to add some explanation of the concept of tessitura, at which time the questioner’s eyes glaze over and the subject is conveniently changed to something other than singing.
Tessitura, from the Italian word meaning texture, is defined as the range in which most of a certain piece of music lies. A piece written for soprano may have the exact same range of notes as one written for mezzo, but it will have a higher tessitura.
This photo of pencils provides a visual for the concept.
I recently studied a soprano role in its entirety, and decided to use different colors to highlight different parts of the range, with the highest notes going to violet end of the spectrum, and the lowest notes going to the red end of the spectrum. (I left out the yellow and red pencils from this photo, because I use those pencils for general highlights, and correcting.) What you see here is orange, green, blue, indigo and violet. And voila! The violet is the shortest, because I used it the most for the highest part of the range. The pencils get longer, the lower you go on my voice “spectrum,” which reflects the fact that the role has fewer notes in those ranges.
Singers use language like, “lies in the upper register,” “remains longer above the upper passagio,” or, referring to the page, “frequently stays above the staff.”
Put simply, the soprano role I highlighted stayed mostly in the higher range, with an even gradation downwards. But even within voice types, there is variation of tessituras, and I’m sure some sopranoroleswould have the indigo predominating. I haven’t tried my highlighting technique on a mezzo role, and my guess is that it wouldn’t be an inverse of this, but more likely the green winning out. Any mezzos out there who want to give it a try, please let me know what you find. FYI, I found this exercise extremely helpful, refining my approach to different parts of the voice.
Like most lovers of Broadway musicals, I was introduced to the word Tessitura from the lyrics of the great Stephen Sondheim. In the song, “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” a stripper named Tessie (short for Tessitura) sings,
Dressie Tessie Tura
Is so much demurer
Than all the other ladies because…
You gotta get a gimmick
If you wanna get applause!
You might not need a gimmick, but you do need to understand which music best suits your voice, and that of your students, and Tessitura is one of the largest determinants of voice type, (though not the only one). Next time you’re looking for a way to explain the concept, assuming you don’t have a copy of my wonderful pencil photo handy, maybe modify the old saying:
For a mezzo, a high C is a nice place to visit, but she wouldn’t want to live there.
Here’s the song from Gypsy, with the fabulous Bernadette Peters et al.
Gotta Get A Gimmick!
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©Lisa Houston 2022