5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Mezzo-Sopranos

In the past we’ve chosen the five minutes or so we would play to make our friends fall in love with classical music, piano, opera, cello, Mozart, 21st-century composers, violin, Baroque music, sopranos, Beethoven, flute, string quartets, tenors, Brahms, choral music, percussion, symphonies, Stravinsky, trumpet, Maria Callas, Bach and the organ.

Now we want to convince those curious friends to love mezzo-sopranos, the warm-toned bringers of humanity to opera. We hope you find lots here to discover and enjoy; leave your favorites in the comments.

Why should you love mezzos? We’re the opera world’s salt of the earth. We’re the mother, the boyfriend, the impish page. We’re the sister, the princess, sometimes the goddess. OK, we’re also occasionally the witch!

With apologies to my soprano sisters, our lower tessitura offers a warmer tone, as well as words that are more discernible in a range closer to speech. We’re slightly more relatable, if you will. We’re the viola, sometimes the cello, and we often strive for that richness and comfort. The following is an example of glorious vocalism by one of my idols and mentors: Christa Ludwig. She taught me Octavian, and her recordings taught me Mahler, Strauss, Schubert and Wagner. Here she is spinning out Brahms, accompanied by Leonard Bernstein.

I would play an aria almost everyone has heard many times: “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” — the “Habanera” from “Carmen.” The clarity and beauty of Grace Bumbry’s tone and the playfulness of her expression made me instantly fall in love, and I can imagine it would at the very least pique the interest of a newcomer. (The music is more than enough, but watching her sing it on film would truly leave anyone hooked.)

When I was in high school, my choir teacher played a Grace Bumbry CD. I loved it so much that I took it home with me. This piece was one of the few arias I had heard at that point that just sounded fun to sing. Her voice is so buoyant and light, yet also strong and fervent. And her breathing technique is so skilled at handling Handel’s long, melismatic lines. Her expression sounded so easy and free. It all spoke to me, so intensely, at a young age.

These five minutes changed my life. When I was about 10, I somehow got my hands on a CD of songs and arias featuring Marian Anderson. I played her “Ave Maria” again and again, with its halo of static hovering around her mellow tone, an emissary of beauty from long ago. It was how I fell in love with classical vocalism, and with opera. As always with Anderson, the singing is dignified, even decorous. But in her steady, intense swells of volume, you can’t help but feel the power of belief, breath, body. Sensuality is not absent from her artistry.

There were many singers who influenced me and whom I tried to emulate: Risë Stevens, Janet Baker, Renata Tebaldi, Rosa Ponselle, Victoria de los Ángeles, Conchita Supervía. But I think the one I really paid the most attention to when I was 18, 19, 20, was Ebe Stignani. I did a lot of research on her, and I played her records constantly. I adored her particular legato, which was just extraordinary in “Orfeo,” and the “Samson et Dalila” arias.

When I was a student, I used to listen to and admire a lot one of the very great Rossini specialists, Marilyn Horne. I especially appreciated and studied her legendary interpretations of male characters, such as Malcolm in “La Donna del Lago” and Arsace in “Semiramide.” In 1988 she recorded something different: Vivaldi’s “Orlando Furioso.” I was spellbound by the vocal fireworks, and Horne’s interpretation was the initial inspiration for my later Vivaldi projects. Thank you, dear Marilyn!

I can hear this performance in my head: It was the first cut on the album “Presenting Marilyn Horne,” which came out in 1965. And if there was a part that fully suited her, it was Isabella in “L’Italiana in Algeri.” She was still called a soprano in those days, and there was the combination of that very strong lower register, even from the start, with a lightness, especially in this early recording. She goes way up in the cadenza to the high C. There’s lightness and flexibility to the sound, and dynamic variation — her amazing use of soft dynamics. She sings with such sweetness but also so much strength.

When I think mezzo, the first name that comes to mind is Marilyn Horne. Her recordings of florid arias by Rossini, Vivaldi and Handel are widely known, but this gorgeous aria from Ambrose Thomas’s “Mignon” is well worth a trip off the beaten path. In under five minutes, you have a scena that is chock-full of beautiful long lines and gargantuan leaps that challenge the extremes of her seemingly limitless voice.

A classical mezzo-soprano who later defected to free jazz, I was a contrarian who avoided the most beloved repertoire. I gravitated to what was then considered niche, digging into zarzuela and Spanish and Latin American art song, which brought me into contact with the rich voice of Teresa Berganza. She is known for interpretations of Rossini and Mozart, but when I was knee-deep in Manuel de Falla’s “Siete Canciones Populares Españolas,” I studied Berganza’s recordings closely, mesmerized by her delicacy and sensitivity to the folkloric ornamentation. In this live performance from 1960, “Polo” showcases her brilliant coloratura, moving seamlessly in and out of brute-force chest voice.

Back to free jazz, when I met my musical hero Cecil Taylor, the virtuosic improvising pianist, I told him I was a vocalist. He took my hands in his and spoke low and close. Though I couldn’t grasp every word, he clearly repeated “Teresa Berganza” in a raspy whisper. I felt a cosmic vibration in our hands and shook my head vigorously, grinning in agreement.

It may be partly because I’m a huge Cecilia Bartoli fan, partly because it is just so heartbreakingly glorious, and partly because it’s a challenge to sing well. But I love this aria. It challenges your stamina in terms of breath control, line, trill and the ability to convey deep emotional sentiment. You need fire in your belly and a core of steel and calm to be successful.

Some mezzos specialize in so-called trouser roles, assuming the identity of young male characters. One of the best known trouser parts is Cherubino, the mischievous teenage page in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro.” In this recording, Frederica von Stade, a classic Cherubino, sings with luster and comedic flair.

Many mezzos can sound a little forced trying to bring chesty power to their low range. Not the great Shirley Verrett, as in this thrilling account of “O don fatale” from Verdi’s “Don Carlo.” Her deep, rich lower voice has smoldering natural power and textured beauty. Yet during soaring flights, she tosses off top notes that any soprano would covet. (It’s no surprise that she also took on major soprano roles.) Combining vocal magnificence with dramatic intensity, Verrett’s Princess Eboli sounds impassioned and remorseful in cursing the allure of her own beauty.

“I am lost to the world,” this song begins, even though the music can be relied upon to pull me back into it — consoling on the darkest of nights, or in the deepest of griefs. With its winding English horn and ethereal mezzo line, never more magically sung than by Janet Baker in 1967, Mahler’s shortest masterpiece is a love song, though a forlorn one. Our singer is lost to the world, and she insists that she is content with that, as her voice takes flight. But there are few simple joys here — rather a profound ambivalence. Suspensions linger everywhere, their exquisite agonies taking time to resolve. Is this the bliss of solitude? Heaven? Love? No, the final words reveal: It is the rapture of song.

For me, the beauty of the mezzo voice is synonymous with Mahler. And while I do have a soft spot for the “Rückert-Lieder” (“Um Mitternacht,” in particular), the piece that first moved me, introducing me to the warmth of mezzos, is his “Kindertotenlieder.” In “Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n,” the first song in the cycle, the sparseness of the orchestration allows the simplicity and purity of the voice to really shine. The beautiful legato of Janet Baker’s sound is colored by the emotion she wrings out of the text. It gets me every time.

Emmerich Kalman’s operetta “The Duchess of Chicago” was a hot ticket in Vienna in 1928. Kalman drew from his intimate knowledge of Hungarian dances and what he was able to learn of cutting-edge American styles like the Charleston. Among the numbers is this tune, which introduces Mary, the duchess of the title, who buys and sells European potentates at will. While the part was originally written for a soprano, a mezzo like Julia Bentley can emphasize the ironies of the libretto. Mary already seems to know that money isn’t everything — even as the dollar-fueled flexing of Americana is heard in the rhythm.

One of the joys of being a composer is exploring performers’ gifts before writing for them. Occasionally, I encounter a beauty and skill that takes my breath away, making me pause with wonder and admiration. Such performances become springboards of inspiration. I recently experienced this while listening to the mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, heard here in a lullaby and conveying the sound of effortless beauty and calm from a most artful voice.

In opera, the spotlight tends to gravitate toward sopranos. But there have been exceptions, mostly in France, of leading female roles for mezzo-sopranos: the Carmens and Dalilas of the repertory. Among my favorites are those written by Berlioz, like Didon of “Les Troyens” and Marguerite of “La Damnation de Faust.” His song cycle “Les Nuits d’Été,” which has been adapted for different voice types, also sounds best in the mezzo tessitura. Hear how the deeper, rich-bodied lyricism in “Le spectre de la rose” complements the orchestration — at its most delicate, with pattering winds and pizzicato strings — then blossoms into a beaming high note with a mezzo-soprano’s trademark versatility.

Some of the most intoxicating music in Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” is given not to the doomed lovers, but to Brangäne, Isolde’s hapless maid. Listen to Christa Ludwig sing her song of warning in the second act: standing watch over a tryst, her rich, otherworldly mezzo floats above the ethereal colors of the orchestra. Its spell is all the more powerful because of how it unfolds. The audience, which has just listened to an ecstatic, frenzied love duet, suddenly hears Brangäne’s distant warning as she tries in vain to pierce the rapturously beautiful music of their passion.

One of the great mysteries of classical music is how composers can craft the most achingly beautiful music from the most tragic of emotions, simultaneously evoking pure sadness and astonished tranquillity, and perhaps even inviting acceptance. It takes a special artist to channel music in such a mystical way, and there have been few better marriages than that of Franz Schubert and Janet Baker. In this song, written in 1816, a mother sings a simple lullaby to her baby son, who has just died. Listen as Janet’s voice comforts, cries, calms and loves.

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