Historical Perspectives: The Opera House “Size Myth” Part III, Orchestra Versus Voice

This is the third entry in a series from Edward Foreman’s Authentic Singing.

Here are links to Part I and Part II.


We can add one more factor here: The frequent description of the leading female voices as “mezzo sopranos” – into this category we can assuredly put Colbran, Grisi, Pasta and Malibran, and probably several others. We must, on the grounds of the variations she did, exclude Catalani from the medium voices, and her successor in the agility repertoire, Henriette Sontag (1), has sometimes been characterized as the first of the “nightingale” sopranos, the light, airy voices familiar to us now as “coloratura” sopranos. Her repertoire, on the other hand, suggests a somewhat heavier voice than the modern coloratura usually boasts, since it included Donna Anna in Don Giovanni and Semiramide.

The medium voices – based on the evidence of ornaments and cadenzas – seem to have had no fear of the heights, often rising to “High C” or “D,” and this cannot have been easy on voices described as having an added upper range. We know Pasta struggled with vocal difficulties all through her career; Grisi seems not to have; and Malibran died before the voice had a chance to deteriorate. Pauline Viardot, on the other hand, made no bones about her register problems, and learned to negotiate them. But when she sang the “modern” repertoire, it was in the lower range, and she made the happiest effect as Orfeo (2) or Fidès in Le prophète.

The orchestral textures had already begun to thicken with Gluck’s Paris operas. It is not a matter of how many instruments there are to a part – although, if they’re not playing strictly in tune, this poses an additional acoustic problem (3) – it is a matter of how many parts there are, and how they are arranged and doubled. (4)

The Teatro San Carlo in Naples boasted 18 each 1st and 2nd violins in Rossini’s day, while the average German opera house could muster no more than 8 each. (5) Mozart’s orchestra already had two each flutes, clarinets, oboes, bassoons, often trumpets and horns, and sometimes trombones (Don Giovanni), in addition to the full complement of strings in four or sometimes five, parts.

Rossini, and after him Bellini and Donizetti, adopted some of the “German” orchestration techniques to their larger forces, which were also utilized by Weber. (6) The Weber line points directly to Wagner, who was a great admirer of both Weber and Gluck. The Italian line points directly to Verdi.

It is not inaccurate to say that composers had begun to move out beyond both singers and audiences. The period from about 1650 to 1800 was one of development, but not experimentation. We can describe the operatic form this way:

  • Vocal melody more or less “floating” over a minimal instrumental support in the form of figured bass; (7)
  • Ornamentation and phrasing in the voice part in a refined RUBATO;
  • Emotional expression through musical figurations – including ornamentation – in the voice, NOT the accompaniment. (8)
  • Detailed nuances of coloration in the expression, as indicated in the Velluti aria in Garcia’s Traité;
  • Climactic moments arrived at through velocity and embellishment, i.e., increasingly rapid passage-work, trills, etc.;
  • Contrapuntal design – which is musically “cool” – in distinction to harmonic design – which is “hot”;
  • The independence of the voice from reliance on the accompaniment, which is a feature of both the contrapuntal nature of the music and the training of the singers.



  1. Sontag [Sonntag] Henriette (Gertrud Walpurgis) (1806-54), German soprano. The child of actors, she made her first stage appearance at the age of 5. In 1815, she was admitted to the Conservatory in Prague. Weber took an interest in her, and she sang successfully in Vienna under Barbaja’s management. She married in 1830, and was forced to give up the stage because her husband was a diplomat. In 1849, circumstances brought her back to the stage, with great success, her powers undiminished by time. She died of cholera in Mexico while on tour.
  2. She did insert a “High C” in the cadenza, however.
  3. It is said that Alessandro Scarlatti in his early operas accompanied the voice only with continuo, saving the instruments for interludes so that their questionable intonation would not interfere with the singers.
  4. Some instruments playing in unison with the voice – a cello and a baritone, for instance – simply absorb the vocal sound into the orchestral fabric when the overtone structure is the same.
  5. Carse, Adam: The History of Orchestration. London, 1925. NY reprint, 1964, p. 221, and Appendix A, p. 338.
  6. Weber, Carl Maria (Friederich Ernst) von (1786-1826), German composer. It is in Weber’s operas that the spirit of German Romanticism comes to full flower for the first time. A sometimes student of Michael Haydn and the Abbé Vogler, he took his first conductorial post at 17. He was in Prague from 1813-16, and then in Dresden. His most famous opera, and the flagship of the German Romantic movement, Der Freischütz, was premiered in Berlin, 1821. Weber died of tuberculosis while in London overseeing the production of Oberon. 
  7. Many of Scarlatti’s arias, for instance, have strings playing interludes (ritornelli) between vocal phrases, in part because string intonation was not as good as vocal intonation, and in part to avoid restricting the embellishments in the voice, or confusing the textures.
  8. Instrumental expression might happen in the recitativo stromento between vocal phrases.

Foreman, Edward. Authentic Singing: The history of singing. Vol. 10. Pro Musica Press, 2001.

In Part IV, we’ll explore musical examples of the changing vocal demands in singing at the beginning of the early 19th century.

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