Where Have All the Contraltos Gone?

Reporter: Kevin Catchpole

Dateline: 1st April, 2007

Time was when no oratorio English platform or operatic stage was complete without an artist singing with the lowest voice of the women’s choral repertoire: the contralto, described as the lowest female voice, usually possessed a range from F below middle C to D two octaves above.

But it was never simply the range which singled out the contralto – rather her darker, often richer tone which differentiated her from the mezzo-soprano, whose range was from A above middle C to A two octaves above, and the more familiar soprano, with a range from A below middle C to the A two octaves above.

The concert platform regularly offered performances of Messiah with, say, Isobel Baillie (soprano), Heddle Nash (tenor), Owen Branigan (bass-baritone) and Constance Shacklock (contralto).

Sunday night radio in the 1940s would present Grand Hotel with a piano, string ensemble (not forgetting the piano accordion) led by Albert Sandler or Tom Jenkins and featuring, if not soprano or romantic tenor, then certainly a contralto such as Shacklock whose encore to round off the programme would very likely be the aria Softly Awakes My Heart from Saint-Saens’ opera Sampson and Delilah.

In grand opera, the contralto voice is by no means as familiar as on the British concert platform. However, there is always Erda in Wagner’s Ring, Ulrica, the fortune-teller of Verdi’s A Masked Ball, and the gypsy Azucena in Verdi’s Il Travatore. Gilbert and Sullivan, too, ensured regular work for the contralto through their famous dramatic roles for Katisha (The Mikado), Dame Caruthers (Yeomen of the Guard), Blanche (Princess Ida), Lady Jane (Patience) and Inez (The Gondoliers) to name a few.

Nor did the light operatic stage neglect the rich, sombre tones of the contralto. Johann Strauss created strong – and contrasting – roles in The Gipsy Baron in which she is Czipra, the Gipsy Queen, and Die Fledermaus in which the contralto has a trouser part as the teenage ‘boy’ Count Orlofski.

In Merrie England, Edward German gives the key role of Queen Elizabeth (Good Queen Bess) to a contralto and Ivor Novello always remembered his favourite Olive Gilbert for whom he wrote such parts as Mrs Bridport (Perchance to Dream).

In America, the 1930s the contralto became immersed in political argument when the black artist Marian Anderson was refused permission to sing at the Lincoln Center on account of her colour. This ban ended spectacularly in 1955 when Anderson was invited to sing Ulrica at the New York Metropolitan in Verdi’s A Masked Ball.

Quite apart from the modern tendency to bill contraltos as “mezzo-sopranos”, presumably for some strange, if misguided commercial reasons, there have been distinguished soloists whose listing have altered simply through a real change in their vocal range as their voices developed during their career.

Among the more famous examples have been Maria Callas who was admitted to the Greek National Conservatoire as a contralto.Yvonne Minton, from Australia who later sang at Bayreuth and Salzburg as well as Covent Garden, was billed variously as soprano, mezzo-soprano and contralto.

In more recent times, too, Benjamin Britten created the role of Lucretia in The Rape of Lucretia specifically for the Lancashire contralto Kathleen Ferrier.

Many of these roles, of course require the creation of a mature persona - not least those of Gilbert and Sullivan, which are generally intended to be the object of ridicule, an exception being Dame Caruthers who is often played as a woman of great courage and strength of character.

In the post-war years, Doyly Carte were served by principal contralto Anne Drummond-Grant who was succeeded by Gilian Knight whose youth and pleasant features required copious make-up in order to assume the gravitas necessary for her severe roles. Knight later sang with English National Opera, Welsh National and at Covent Garden and was often to be seen as in Madam Butterfly.

In fact, contralto roles frequently require singers to appear as elderly, formidable characters and there can be no doubt that had Oscar Wilde written a score for, say, The Importance of Being Earnest, the role of Lady Bracknell would certainly have gone to a contralto.

Most famous of the early contraltos was Dame Clara Butt, (Mother of the Free) noted for her rendering of Land of Hope and Glory on the last night of Sir Henry Wood’s early Proms. The English concert platform, is renowned especially for performances of Elgar’s work for choirs, not laest of which remains The Dream of Gerontius. Such music ennobles the great talents of such as Kathleen Ferrier and Janet Baker, both of whom in their prime were recognised as great contraltos.

Perhaps, alas, the “unpleasing” aspects of many of their stage roles, together with the maturity associated with the deep female voice and, for that matter, with the male bass-baritone, too, is responsible for the reluctance of to-days’ young singers to list themselves as “contraltos”.

For the recent London revival of The Sound of Music, the role of Mother Abbess, so famously sung by Constance Shacklock at Drury Lane and by Patricia Neway on Broadway, is given to a soprano, Lesley Garrett.

And for the record, while the film version of The Sound of Music, has Peggy Wood on camera playing the role of Mother Abbess, the voice heard is that of Margery McKay.

Time alone will tell whether the contralto is to be heard on English stages and platforms of the future. In this respect, it will be interesting to see whether an attractive, personable and highly talented soloist such as Kathrine Jenkins, ever allows herself to be billed, for her eagerly awaited performances, presumably with Welsh National Opera, in Carmen, or other operatic roles, as “contralto”.