Contralto Quest

I am at the beginning of a quest. Indeed, a mission to get the contralto back to centre stage. The contralto who sticks in people’s minds, of course, is the now legendary Kathleen Ferrier. But where are all the modern day contraltos? Although, admittedly, it is a rare voice type, I cannot believe that contraltos do not exist at all. To quote Rupert Christiansen in his article “Where have all the contraltos gone?” (Telegraph 25th February, 2010), he states; “No one wants to be a contralto these days”. However, doesn’t the appearance of the article along with one or two other such murmurings for example Jeanette Winterson (Gramophone, June 2010), quoted on page nine of the last Greeting newsletter, suggest that the time is right for the reappearance – and for most, the rediscovery of a voice which because of fashions has been pushed aside for far too long?

I simply do not believe that audiences don’t respond to and enjoy the rich dark vibrant colours of a good contralto - the sheer sound of which is capable of bringing such emotion and depth of expression to texts both sacred and secular. And it is interesting that more often than not in oratorio (a mainstay of the contralto since there are few operatic roles) the greatest composers have given the contralto the most poignant texts. “He was Despised” (Handel, Messiah), for instance, or “Schlafe mein Liebster” (JS Bach, Weinachts Oratorium). In secular music it is Brahms and Mahler who have written with such a depth of understanding of the sound. Mahler is always tricky. He wants the rich timbre of the contralto but gives her impossibly high notes to sing – some of which are definitely out of the contralto comfort zone. (Kathleen Ferrier was persuaded into Mahler quite late on, but in it she shows some of her most expressive singing). I was at a live performance of Das Lied von der Erde in Cologne once where Waltraud Meier sang the contralto part. She was wonderful at the top (as one would naturally expect) but to me, personally, disappointing in the lower register where she had to so obviously use a manufactured chest sound. A natural contralto does not have to do that.

So how does one define a contralto voice? For me, the first and foremost thing is the chocolaty colour which is natural and effortless. It is a voice which, yes, can go to very low notes (sometimes a bottom D or beyond), but is quite often dramatic in the upper part of the voice. Indeed, some contraltos have a naturally large range (this was exploited by Verdi, in particular) – even Clara Butt had a high B. The voice in a young singer is often unwieldy, and notes around and above D (an octave or so above middle C) are often difficult to control. This is why it is a long term voice, often taking some years to master technically. Unfortunately, this is quite often misunderstood and mishandled by teachers early on. This, coupled with the fact that in opera there is so little for the contralto to do, encourages singing teachers to produce mezzo-sopranos rather than working with the natural lie of the voice, which in a contralto is much lower. I myself, have been subject to this treatment, even having described myself on biographies as a mezzo in the hope of netting a big agent. A few months ago, at an opera consultation, I was perversely delighted in being told that even though my high notes were great (after twenty years of trying to achieve them, mind you!!), the beauty of the voice was in the bottom. Moreover, they wouldn’t cast such a dark voice in mezzo roles in this country. Hurrah, I thought, I’m still a contralto after all! Many voices that go through the process of rising to mezzo are not so lucky. They often lose that natural rich contralto sound which is needed for repertoire such as Kindertotenlieder (Mahler), Alto Rhapsody (Brahms) and Sea Pictures (Elgar). But one is always torn. Agents, who seem to control the “fashion” in singing, will always go for a mezzo who will be more lucrative to him because of castability in opera. But these are often the singers the wider public get to hear singing the contralto concert repertoire, simply because there are no real contraltos on the books. Moreover, on their books for oratorio there is a legion of counter-tenors – who even have the audacity to poach “Orfeo”- Kathleen’s greatest role. Surely it is time for a change?

I was fortunate enough to be able to listen to plenty of recordings of contraltos whilst a student at the Royal College of Music – Alfreda Hodgeson and Helen Watts were just two I admired, but today, I doubt if modern students would even recognise these names. This is such a pity. We have to work towards a change in attitude within the teaching and performing professions. There are contraltos out there – they must be prepared not only to stand their ground but also to stand up and be counted! I feel sure the public is waiting…

Bridget Budge (Contralto), M.A. (Cantab.), A.R.C.M.

If anyone wishes to exchange their thoughts on this subject, please feel free to contact me.

Bridget Budge (contralto) and Jonathan Ellis (pianoforte) can be seen in a concert entitled “A Tribute to Kathleen Ferrier” at the Square Chapel for the Arts in Halifax, West Yorkshire, at 7.30pm on Sunday 12
th September, 2010. Box Office tel. 01422 349422

An article written for "GREETING" the membership magazine of the Kathleen Ferrier Society.