A mezzo-soprano or mezzo (meaning “half soprano”) is a type of classical female singing voice whose vocal range lies between the soprano and the contralto voice types. The mezzo-soprano’s vocal range usually extends from the A below middle C to the A two octaves above (i.e. A3–A5 in scientific pitch notation, where middle C = C4). In the lower and upper extremes, some mezzo-sopranos may extend down to the F below middle C (F3) and as high as “high C” (C6).
Marilyn Horne: Cara Sposa from “Rinaldo”
Mezzo-sopranos generally have a heavier, darker tone than sopranos. The mezzo-soprano voice resonates in a higher range than that of a contralto. The terms Dugazon and Galli-Marié are sometimes used to refer to light mezzo-sopranos, after the names of famous singers. A castrato with a vocal range equivalent to a mezzo-soprano’s range is referred to as a mezzo-soprano castrato or mezzista. Today, however, only women should be referred to as mezzo-sopranos; men singing within the female range are called countertenors. In current operatic practice, female singers with very low tessituras are often included among mezzo-sopranos, because singers in both ranges are able to cover the other, and true operatic contraltos are very rare.
Frederica von Stade: “E amore un ladroncello from “Così fan tutte”
While mezzo-sopranos typically sing secondary roles in operas, notable exceptions include the title role in Bizet‘s Carmen, Angelina (Cinderella) in Rossini‘s La Cenerentola, and Rosina in Rossini’s Barber of Seville (all of which are also sung by sopranos). Many 19th-century French-language operas give the leading female role to mezzos, including Béatrice et Bénédict, La damnation de Faust, Don Quichotte, La favorite, Mignon, Samson et Dalila, Les Troyens, and Werther, as well as Carmen.
Typical roles for mezzo-sopranos include the stereotypical triad associated with contraltos of “witches, bitches, and britches”: witches, nurses, and wise women, such as Azucena in Verdi’s Il trovatore; villains and seductresses such as Amneris in Verdi’s Aida; and “breeches roles” (male characters played by female singers) such as Cherubino in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. Mezzo-sopranos are well represented in baroque music, early music, and baroque opera. Some roles designated for lighter soubrette sopranos are sung by mezzo sopranos, who often provide a fuller, more dramatic quality. Such roles include Despina in Mozart’s Così fan tutte and Zerlina in his Don Giovanni. Mezzos sometimes play dramatic soprano roles such as Santuzza in Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s Macbeth, and Kundry in Wagner’s Parsifal.