For someone with a career that lasted barely five years, Cornélie Falcon (1814-97) is an important figure for opera singers. She sang Alice in Robert le diable, but also created roles such as Valentin in Les Huguenots and Rachel in La Juive – important roles in developing what we’d now call Zwischenfach repertoire, namely roles that lie between the traditional soprano and mezzo ranges. Corinne Winters is fascinated by these roles. She recently made her debut as Rachel at Opera Vlaanderen and, after opening night in Antwerp, we met up to discuss this “in-between” repertoire.
In her heyday, Falcon was earning 50,000 francs a year at the Paris Opéra, twice what star tenor Adolphe Nourrit was receiving. “She definitely sparked a positive uproar,” Winters explains. “She had an incredible range – that for Rachel lies between a low A flat up to a high D – I love the way that her voice is described as being a soprano but with a rich timbre. Rachel is definitely a soprano role – even with cuts our version has seven high Cs – so a proper mezzo wouldn’t necessarily want to take that on, but I see what people mean about Falcon creating her own Fach with this repertoire, whose tessitura lies between the higher soprano bel cantorange and the mezzo Tancredi range.”
Perhaps the only other singer until then who straddled such a wide range was Rossini’s muse, Isabella Colbran. I suggest that Colbran was a mezzo with a high extension. “Falcon was exactly the same thing,” explains Winters, “but flipped towards the soprano. They’re like two sides of the same coin.”
Winters started out her career as a mezzo, but switched to soprano. What triggered the change? “I think, when you’re one side of the fence of a Fach, a lot of it has to do with temperament,” she begins. “I’d have been a straight-up lyric mezzo, which means pants roles, comic characters. The range would not have been dissimilar to what I sing now but the temperament is completely different. I think nowadays of a singer like Isabel Leonard who sang Blanche in Dialogues des Carmélites at The Met, where I understudied her. Isabel and I had not dissimilar colours. Based on what she sings, her voice sits more in the mezzo territory with a foray into the soprano now and again, whereas I would say I’m a soprano who can do some of the mezzo range now and again. Isabel shines so beautifully in those lyric mezzo parts and takes them on so well, but I never connected to those roles. Doing pants roles like Cherubino never felt right.
“One day a teacher vocalized me a bit higher and saw I had an extension and said, ‘Ah, the colour in your voice was deceptive. We never knew you had those notes.’ Inever knew I had those notes! And then I started exploring characters whose arias sit in exactly the same range as Cherubino but whose temperament was completely different. It changed the activation of my sound because it was coming from the gut rather than from the head. The whole Fach system is a good tool of direction but I don’t think it should be the be-all-end-all. You can’t put voices in boxes like that.”
Most of the singers I think of as Zwischen – Frederica von Stade, Magdalena Kozena, Cecilia Bartoli, Joyce DiDonato, Grace Bumbry – tend to be mezzos who’ve ‘pushed up’. Are there sopranos who moved down? “Mirella Freni starting as a light lyric and moved into a full spinto,” Winters replies. “That was the natural progression for her and by the end she was singing The Maid of Orleans. Renata Tebaldi had a clear soprano colour but with a mezzo range.” I tell her that Tebaldi even recorded “O don fatale” (Eboli’s aria from Don Carlo). “There you go!” Winters laughs. “People don’t tend to think of Callas as Zwischen but she sang everything. She recorded things like Dalila. People are less understanding about singers now – obviously, we wouldn’t sing Puritani and Dalila – but there is leeway in what specifically fits what I do well as an artist and what shines the most in my voice rather than ‘I’m a full lyric soprano so my roles are in that Fach’. I find that a bit limiting. Back then, people sang all sorts of roles. Falcon sang Donna Anna, which most people whose voices sit a bit lower would find difficult. I certainly wouldn’t sing it again. For people that don’t feel comfortable sitting above the staff all night, it’s very challenging.”
Callas also recorded Carmen, traditionally a mezzo role today, but one Winters has in her sights, although not in the near future. “It would play up what I do well, which is virile acting, sitting in the middle voice and chest voice. I’d obviously want to try it in a smaller theatre first. In big halls, it’s probably necessary to have the depth of a Rachvelishvili or a Garanča, but in European halls, it would be great to try a lighter voice.”
Talking about Falcon’s range, I ask Winters to take me through her own voice and its colours from the bottom to the top. What are the qualities and whereabouts does it change? “I’m a huge proponent of chest voice,” she explains, “not just for projection, but for vocal health. A lot of people would debate this, but I believe if you know how to place the voice correctly, it saves the throat rather than taxes it. If you’re stretching something, it’s more taut, so it’s then able to sustain, whereas if it’s flabby and you’re blowing air over it, it’s less stable. Chest voice is a much more taut way of singing because it uses less air. When you’re singing in the lower range and trying to use more head voice, there’s a place for that, especially when you don’t want to break a lyric line with different registers. However, I bring my chest voice higher because, in declamatory singing, it’s more like speech. You speak in chest voice. Mirella Freni sang most of her middle in chest voice and I love that; I think it’s a healthier way to go for a full lyric voice foraying into chest.
“The role of Rachel goes down to an A flat, so that would be chest. In some roles, I would sing chest up to D or E flat, but in this role I use it all the way up to G flat. Rachel’s aria “Il va venir” was the highest where I sang chest here, and with the orchestra sawing away, it’s really necessary. People often think of chest as being really ‘pushed down’ but it’s actually not. It’s as clear as speech.
“For the middle voice, up through about F natural to the top of the staff, I really narrow and there’s even a type of narrowing that happens just above that. The reason why is because the middle voice in any soprano is weaker than the chest voice and weaker than the top because there’s more air in it.” I make a comparison to a clarinettist ‘crossing the break’ where there are a few weak and windy notes. “Exactly,” she nods. “Those notes can have beautiful colour but they don’t have the volume, which is fine depending on the orchestration. But for a role like Rachel, when you’re trying to save where you can, the key is not using too much air, so it’s a narrowing of those notes to really be able to go into the top and the bottom. It’s that hourglass idea that a lot of sopranos talk about: opening at the top, opening at the bottom, narrowing through the middle. It’s about using resonance rather than heft.”
And that resonance comes through the mask? “Let’s take breath first. Breath is, of course, produced in the lungs, but the sympathetic vibrations and support that we give it lower down are because that is the base that the lungs are supported by – the pelvic floor. It’s so difficult to learn because so much of singing we think of as being from the rib-cage upwards but that grounding is what creates the stamina, it stabilises the whole mechanism.
“It’s the same with the actual production of sound – it’s in the throat, the voice-box, but if you’re only thinking of that, you’re missing the resonance. The resonance is a by-product of everything that came before it. You literally have to think from the ground up: pelvic floor engaged; rib-cage open; clean onset in the actual vocal cords; and then, with all that being free, allowing the sound to come to the resonators. It’s not about forcing the sound out, which creates a pinched, covered sound. When you hear a resonant ‘pingy’ sound, that’s because all the lower factors are in place and the sounds are hitting the sympathetic vibrations here in the cheek bones.
“One of the things singers like to say is that we sing on hard matter. Sound does not vibrate on soft matter – it’s like singing into a pillow – so if you’re singing back here in your pharynx, which is all muscle at the back of the throat, it can make beautiful sounds on a recording, but it wouldn’t be a sound you’d want to hear in a hall.”
In a Falcon role like Rachel, Winters tells me that the vocal challenges come in the sudden switches. “One minute you are singing full volume, pumping sound, and then the next you’re singing a bel canto lyric line where you’re so exposed. Switching back and forth is difficult because, in something like Traviata, it doesn’t switch so quickly and if it does, it’s only in short bursts, not whole numbers. With Rachel, it can switch on a dime.”
Would Winters count Mélisande (a role she sang in Zurich) as Zwischen? “Every Fach has its Zwischen counterpart. So the soubrette sopranos vs soubrette mezzos; the light soprano and the light mezzo. Mélisande falls into that category of light-to-lyric soprano and light-to-lyric mezzo who has a unique Debussian colour which is clear, but warm. Blanche is another although it needs more heft and is higher. I want to do Blanche again. In time, I would like to do all of the Falcon roles too. I wasn’t sure about French grand opera, but Valentine in Huguenots is now top of my list.
“As I get older, I’m open to anything that comes my way. There are a lot of roles that are clearly soprano and require a lot of chest voice and that’s what I’m starting to explore more. I know that my ultimate is Madama Butterfly, but I need to mature a bit more, and also have the mental confidence that I can sustain it through an evening. Rachel is dipping a toe in, but I think 40+ is the time for me to venture into that. Butterfly requires a substantial amount of chest voice and negotiation of the lower range, so doing Zwischen–Falcon roles will really help me lead into something like that.
“All sopranos benefit from studying that Zwischen repertoire and figuring out a way to approach the lower and middle notes that’s a bit juicier. Being a soprano isn’t just about the high notes.”