There were Sojourner Truth and W.E.B Du Bois; then there was Marian Anderson. Marian Anderson was living proof that music can open many doors and shatter barriers that stand between one and equality. As in Sojourner Truth's case, she often calmed the seeming giants that are prejudice and animosity with her voice alone, a dark and glittering voice that had an almost baritonal chest register. Generations of African Americans after her continue to shout her praises since she became the first African American to perform a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., a concert arranged by the President and First Lady, themselves. Her musical interpretations of African American spirituals made her a unique quantity among fame-baiting artists in Europe, making her one of the most important artistic American icons of any race or gender. She only once performed a complete operatic role, as she never took an acting class and, therefore, figured she could best represent her art on the concert stage. Her performance as Ulrica in Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera" has become legendary, as it was the first performance that any person of African descent in the world ever gave at the Metropolitan Opera. She won the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996, at the age of 94.
Dame Clara Butt
This British belle was, like Marian Anderson, devoted to the concert stage, performing in a complete opera production only twice in her life, twice as the same character. In his review of her first performance in Gluck's Orfeo's sandals, Bernard Shaw wrote that she "far surpassed the utmost expectations that could reasonably be entertained." Her voice had a rather wide range, one that won the admiration of every English monarch that reigned during her lifetime. Edward Elgar wrote a song cycle, "Sea Pictures," for voice and orchestra with her stylings in mind, and she sang its world premiere with Elgar conducting, sweeping the score with vocal colors that are still admired by video sharing site users all over the world. She continued to perform and to record into her late years, mourning with music the loss of her eldest son to meningitis and her younger to suicide. She died in 1936 at the age of 63.
Marian Anderson said of this deep-voiced talent, "What a voice, and what a face!" The exquisite Kathleen Ferrier's name sits in company with several that owe their legendary status in part to Benjamin Britten, who wrote music specifically for them. Britten composed the lead role of a now widely admired chamber opera, "The Rape of Lucretia," just for her, and he wanted none but Ferrier to premiere his "Spring Symphony." Both works are examples of the relatively rare contralto-oriented writing in classical music. Ferrier's voice was of such a smooth and rich quality that she was lauded even when she sang several mezzo soprano parts in masses and oratorios a tone lower. Like Marian Anderson, she brought some less familiar material to the attention of audiences all over the world, most famously the Northumbrian folk tune, "Blow the Wind Southerly," which she sang without instrumental accompaniment. She succumbed to breast cancer in 1953 to the world's shock, having concealed her condition for years.
Ernestine Schumann-Heink's very wide range enabled her to sing both low contralto music and dramatic mezzo soprano Wagner and Richard Strauss roles. One of her few public detractors was Richard Strauss, himself, for whom she first sang the role of Klytaemnestra in his hard-edged one-Act opera, "Elektra." She apparently didn't like the music, and he showed his distaste for her style (Strauss liked sopranos in his operas, and lots of them) in rehearsal by telling the enormous orchestra he'd assembled, during one of Klytaemnestra's scenes, "Louder! I can still hear Madame Schumann-Heink!" Most of us opera fans are a little more open-minded, even a little disappointed at the fact that the artists who train in contralto have become rarer than ever, and we still celebrate Shumann-Heink for her incredible vocal control, full sound, and emotional involvement. She was acclaimed as much in her late years as in her prime. Forced to use her talents for support after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, she got herself a radio show and retired with a boom, singing her last complete opera performance in 1932 at age 71. Lukemia finally claimed her life and career in 1936.
Ewa Podles is one of the few world-famous contraltos active today. Like Ernestine Schumann-Heink, she can easily clear the hurdle between the contralto and dramatic-mezzo octaves, prompting critics to applaud while standing on their toes. Just as impressive is her ability to bounce between the elegant and note-heavy music of the great Baroque Era composers, the overpowering, almost modernist monster ballads of Modest Mussorgsky, the actual modernist sounds of Shostakovich, and the lyrical fun stuff of Bizet. She started her international career with Rosina in Rossini's "The Barber of Seville." I know. My right cheek is stinging after a quick consciousness-check. If there's an artist who shows that the contralto voice deserves more respect than it gets in the opera world today, it's her.
Forrester was a singer who knew where to go. She famously said, "You're never out of work as an alto." The haunting beauty of her work in oratorios, masses, folk music, and song cycles made her one of the world's most beloved contraltos in her time. She was championed by the great conductor, Bruno Walter, who was taught by Gustav Mahler, himself, and thought her even, smooth sound to be the perfect fit for the celebrated composer's symphony, "Resurrection," which he taught her to interpret Mahler's way. She took character parts in operas and found a niche on the concert stage, never giving in to the frustration of others with her range, who envied the attention-hog E's and F's of sopranos. She sang in the famous 1966 "Cleopatra" opposite Beverly Sills and didn't brood for a minute over the subsequent stardom of the legendary coloratura soprano.
Yet another one of the classical stars who continue to show that the contralto voice is happenin' and sweet, Nathalie Stutzmann has been showered with accolades for her performances of Shubert and Mahler lieder, Baroque opera, and French songs. Her voice tightly controlled and Debussy dreamy, she impresses her audiences with her seeming effortlessness of delivery, which to her is important to the career of any great singer of classical music. Nellie Melba would approve. Like any true contralto, she has refused to budge when given the suggestion of training in mezzo repertoire, instead working to perfect her already spellbinding messa di voce. Her frequent collaboration with countertenor Philippe Jaroussky has given her name a set of shoe lifts in recent seasons, but she's quite fine on her own.
I hope you've enjoyed this list of great contraltos, buds! Feel free to leave a comment below telling me whether you think there are quite enough names on it! I thank you all for your feedback, and I hope you'll come back next week for a list of the greatest bass singers in operatic history! I've also begun work on a series of operatic humor articles, each of which I hope you'll be happy to spend five or ten minutes on, the first of which will be released next Wednesday. Happy opera loving, everyone!