My identity as a singer has a lot (i.e. almost everything) to do with my voice type.
That means that all of my repertoire choices and the roles I’m able to sing, and thus my chances of getting hired, are based on what my voice sounds like: how high or low I can sing, as well as the “color” or “timbre” of my voice. Does it sound bright and shimmery? Is it dark and rich? Are my high notes stronger than my low notes, or vice versa? Can I move my voice very quickly to fit a lot of notes into a short amount of time, or am I better at singing long, drawn-out phrases?
In case you forgot what you learned in elementary school music (and who can blame you), there are four basic voice types out there: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, in order from highest to lowest. Within each of those very broad categories, there are many, many subcategories. For example, a woman who fits into the “soprano” category could be a lyric soprano, a dramatic soprano, a spinto soprano, a coloratura soprano, a lyric coloratura soprano, a dramatic coloratura soprano, a “lyric soprano with an extension,” a soubrette… the list goes on and on, and there are similar subcategories for the other large types as well. Each just means that a singer can do something slightly different with his or her voice, and the system (invented in Germany and called the fach system) is an attempt to simplify life for singers and casting directors.
What’s my voice type, you ask? Right now I consider myself a soubrette soprano. This means that I have a light, agile voice and can sing quite high, but I haven’t quite grown into a full-blown coloratura soprano yet. After all, 26 is just a baby in the world of opera.
Being a soubrette, the roles available to me are fairly limited and are all of a similar ilk. I sing a lot of Mozart, whose music I absolutely adore, and many of the roles I can do are maids and young ladies. Sadly, even once my voice has reached its full size, I will probably never sing some of the great heroines of opera, like Mimì in Puccini’s La bohème or Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata. And because of my teeny tiny physical size, I will never be formidable enough to sing a role like the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. These things matter in casting.
Luckily for me, some of the best roles out there, such as Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro (which I’ve already had the pleasure of performing twice), were written for someone with exactly my voice. Until my voice is ready for bigger repertoire, I’m happy to be singing what I can.