Cast Change for Upcoming Wagner Operas at the Met

The Metropolitan Opera’s new “Ring” cycle has lost its Siegfried. Ben Heppner, one of the best Wagnerian tenors around, withdrew from performances of the last two installments of the cycle, “Siegfried” and “Gotterdammerung,” next season.

Heppner is a Heldentenor (heroic tenor) – as termed by the German Theatre Fach System –  and has the ability to sing the very taxing roles that Wagner composed for the tenor voice.  The German Fach System further categorizes the main voice classifications of soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone,  and bass by vocal and dramatic demands required by certain opera roles.  In determining a singer’s fach one must consider the orchestral writing of the opera,  how sustained or florid the singer’s part is, and the morphology/physical appearance of the singer.

The Met likely had few options when it came to Heppner’s replacement for its Ring Cycle.  The singer who is able to sing arduous roles like Wagner’s Tannhauser, Tristan, or Siegfried has a powerful voice and great stamina.  The most famous Heldentenor of the 20th century was Lauritz Melchior (1890-1973), but he also balanced his singing of Wagner roles with roles such as Verdi’s Otello, Beethoven’s Florestan, and Leoncavallo’s Canio.

Sopranos, Mezzos, Tenors, Baritones, and Basses – Oh My!

An opera neophyte is most likely curious about voice classification. What distinguishes a soprano from a mezzo-soprano, for example?  This is significant in the world of opera because operas are typically cast using voice type as a basis.  After a singer first meets the vocal qualifications though, he must look and act the part, catching the artistic director’s interest enough to get hired. 

Bizet’s siren Carmen –  the title role in his most popular exotic opera – is a mezzo-soprano.  Mezzos are identified by their vocal range (the collection of pitches that they can sing from lowest to highest), vocal timbre (color of the voice), transition points (notes in the voice that many people call “breaks”), and tessitura (collection of notes) in which they find the most vocal comfort. 

Mezzos have rich-sounding, chocolate voices and are rarer birds than sopranos.  I recently wrote an article for Classical Singer titled, “The Scoop on Young Artist Program Fees”  and within it I described one high-profile artist training program that revealed the breakdown of applicants for its current year:  226 sopranos, 78 mezzos, 50 tenors, 45 baritones, 9 bass-baritones, and 6 basses.   My informed assumption is that mezzos typically make up less than 20% of the applicant pool for young artist auditions and a lower percentage when it comes to working opera singers. 

Listen to this mezzo, Elina Garanča singing “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” from the opera Carmen.  It’s a distinctive and very beautiful sound.