By: Caitlin Vincent
To the operatic layman, “fach” is nothing more than a German word that sounds slightly inappropriate. At best, after a quick search on Wikipedia, one might identify “fach” as a collection of incoherent German adjectives, possibly belonging to a recipe for strudel. (Combine 1 cup Lyrischer Koloratursopran with 2 cups Jugendlicher Heldentenor and sprinkle lightly with 1 tsp Deutsche Soubrette. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.)
Yet, to young opera singers, fach is far more important than a mere ingredient for strudel: it’s one of the most significant and challenging aspects of the music business.
The term “fach,” meaning “compartment or box,” was first used as a way to categorize voice types by German opera houses in the middle of the 19th century. Voices would be quantified based on a series of factors— weight, range, color, timbre, flexibility, and more—and then assigned a specific set of operatic roles. For example, a singer with a light, bright voice would be identified as a “soubrette” and assigned flirtatious comedic roles (Despina, Zerlina, Serpina), while a singer with a large, dark voice would be categorized as a “Jugendlich Dramatischer Sopran” and assigned more dramatic roles (Mimi, Madame Butterfly, Marschallin).
Efficient and logical, this process allowed opera houses to maintain a roster of categorized vocalists and then select the season’s repertoire based on available voices. Plus, it ensured that singers would never perform roles that might be inappropriate for their instruments.
The fach system never achieved the same prominence in opera houses outside of Germany and Austria. In fact, it’s almost impossible to imagine the Metropolitan Opera barring Anna Netrebko from singing Susanna in “Le nozze di Figaro” just because she isn’t technically a “soubrette.”
At the same time, however, fach has become ingrained in the pedagogical side of the opera world. Young singers view their fach classification as a one of the most crucial technical discoveries that they will make over the course of their studies. After all, how can any young vocalist hope to reach the professional stage without first knowing his or her operatic identity?
Some young singers are able to determine their fach in the early stages of their vocal training. Although their voices will continue to grow in size and color as they mature, the basic fach will remain the same. All that’s left to do is work on technique, stock up on aria anthologies, and memorize all of the roles listed in their category of opera repertoire.
Unfortunately, the majority of singers have to undergo a more convoluted process to identify their voices, a process that I call “the quest for fach.” This quest can go on for a year, a decade, even indefinitely. Along the way, a singer has no option but to study with different teachers, experiment with different arias, and ask anyone and everyone to give their opinion…all in an effort to determine that elusive identity, once and for all.
For some, it turns into a twisted version of a high-school cafeteria at lunchtime. Yet, this time, instead of choosing between the table with a clique of jocks or the one with the slouchy, angsty badboys, a singer has to bounce from fach to fach to fach, all the while hoping not to end up eating with the janitor.
Ironically, the fach system has become so fixed in the singer mentality that even singers without a fach are still categorized in a sort of fach system: a no-fach fach (also known as the “X-Fächer”).
One of the most common entries of the X- Fächer is the Soprano/Mezzo Zwischenfach, a vocalist who possesses the weight and color of a dramatic soprano but the range of a dramatic mezzo-soprano (and is thus doomed always to sing alto at her church gig). Another popular entry is the Bari-Tenor-Tone, who divides his time between “Dalla sua pace” and “Deh vieni alla finestra,” usually depending on the inclination of his voice teacher and the height of his larynx.
Less common but even more problematic is the BVLB (Big Voice, Little Body) and its counterpart, the LVBB (Little Voice, Big Body), both of which describe an instrument that doesn’t match the singer’s physical appearance. In theory, the voice should speak for itself, but most opera companies will still be hard-pressed to cast a Mimi who doesn’t hit the 5-foot mark or a Zerlina who fits into Brünnhilde’s battle armor.
In the end, the issue of fach comes down to control. In a business where so many careers are decided by politics or chance, identifying fach seems to be the only opportunity for a singer to have a say in their future.
Yet, I’m still not convinced that this emphasis on fach is helpful or even healthy for young singers. I spent four years on my own quest for fach and ended up with nothing more than a hefty collection of aria anthologies and an inferiority complex about the fach heading on my resume.
The fact is, being a singer is not about fitting into a box or learning the “right” repertoire. Each of us has a unique instrument that develops in its own time, and this individuality is what gives us our true identity as singers, not where we decide to sit at the operatic lunch table.
Instead of spending energy trying to figure out “what” they are, young singers should focus on perfecting their technique and artistry. After a singer has sifted through all of the bad habits and established a secure, tension-free technique, their real voice will finally begin to emerge.
This real voice may fit perfectly into a little compartment on the roster of a German opera house, or it may not. And if the fach doesn’t fit? Don’t wear it.