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In search of the soprano sfogato.

prov-e-nance (prov'[??]-nans) n. Place of origin, source. [Lat. Provenire, to originate.]

Of all terms applied to operatic voices, perhaps none has generated more controversy than soprano sfogato. Once a very common term, in the nineteenth century it was used to describe many leading sopranos including Giulia Grisi, Adelina Patti, Giuditta Pasta, and Henriette Sontag. In the twentieth century it has been used to describe Maria Callas, Renata Scotto, and Shirley Verrett, and is still occasionally applied to singers today.


An Italian-English dictionary from 1816 (around the time the term soprano sfogato was first being used) translates the word as follows:

SFOGATO, adj. exhaled, evaporated, vented, allayed, v. Sfogare. Luogo sfogato (aperto) an open air. Stanza sfogata, a large room. Aria sfogata, open air. (1)

Sfogato is the past participle of the verb sfogare, which is most commonly translated as "to vent." While the implication is that of venting as in smoke from a room, it is also used (as in English) as in "to vent one's anger."

As a musical expression marking sfogato has been used only rarely in instrumental music, most notably in Chopin's Barcarolle, op. 60, and the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 14 by Liszt. These two famous passages could hardly be more different. In the Chopin, the marking is dolce sfogato for a cadenza-like passage in the right hand, while in the Liszt, the phrase Sfogato con bravura is applied to a thickly textured fortissimo section.

Music dictionaries usually translate the word as "light" or "airy in style." (2) While sfogato may indeed mean "airy," it is not in the sense of an "airy tone," but rather of an "airy room." (Una stanza sfogata, which is to say a spacious, well ventilated space.) When applied to singers, some have used the meaning "unlimited." (3) This is most likely because of the meaning senza impedimento or "without impediment." In this case the implication is of an open outdoor area, as in un luogo sfogato, not an "unlimited range."

The expression voce sfogata has led to further confusion. The late Richard Miller describes it as a " ... timbre produced with freedom and passion." He goes on to comment, "I personally avoid using sfogata as a descriptive term." (4)

The only definition that makes sense in all of these contexts is the primary definition of "vented" (or perhaps "poured out"). Despite the confusion about the term, it is easy to see how it could be applied to the singing voice, especially that of the great bel canto sopranos.


The term soprano sfogato appears in the early decades of the nineteenth century to describe many of the sopranos who performed leading roles in operas of Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti, and their contemporaries. While the term was also applied to other voices (e.g., tenore sfogato), like the term coloratura today, it was most frequently applied to sopranos. The sopranos thus described were invariably the great singers of the day who possessed voices of extraordinary range and power.

An article describing soprano Matilde Kyntherland (Cascelli) gives a description typical of the soprani sfogati.

... la Kyntherland ad una straordinaria voce di soprano sfogato, chiara, agile, vibrata ed estesa dal re sovracuto al si bemolle sotto le righe, unisce tant'anima nel canto, e nel gesto ... [ ... Kyntherland has an extraordinary soprano sfogato voice, clear, supple, vibrant and extending from high D to B flat below the staff, uniting the whole soul in song, and gesture ... ] (5)

A French source contrasts the soprano sfogato with the contralto.

Le soprano sfogato parcourt les deux octaves, et sa puissance reside d'ordinaire entre l'ut et le mi suraigu, tandis que le contralto, qui va du sol au mi, trouve sa force veritable entre le si et le la. [The soprano sfogato traverses (the) two octaves, and her power ordinarily resides between the C and the high B, whereas the contralto, who goes from G to E, finds her true strength between B and A.] (6)

By mid century there were serious differences of opinion about what the term meant. Witness the following passage from The Fine Art's Journal responding to an article in the Times of London in 1846 regarding soprano Anna Bishop:

We will take the trouble of following the writer through this obfuscation caused by his own spray:--"Madame Bishop's is one of those voices rare now-a-days, which, in Italy, are known as the soprano sfogato; it is of the delicately-veiled quality of which Rossini has expressed himself to be an admirer." The term sfogato is misapplied; in speaking of the voice, it means sopracuto ["extremely high"]; which Madame Bishop's certainly is not; the veiled quality has been caused by practicing on false principles, so that all power of vibration is lost. (7)

Sopracuto, a portmanteau of sopra (above) and acuto (high), is only rarely used to describe a soprano voice. Neither "veiled" nor sopracuto is supported by Italian sources as a synonym of sfogato.

A passage that provides an interesting insight comes from an unlikely source: pianist Louis Gottschalks memoir. He recounts an appearance with an aging soprano: "Madame Busati, a soprano sfogato passed to the state of soprano sfiatato, sang nevertheless in good style the cavatina of 'Attila' and of 'Semiramide.'" (8)

Sfiatato is the past participle of sfiatare, which means "to emit" (as in a gas). An imperfect translation, but one that maintains the humor of the original would be, " ... a vented soprano passed to the state of a leaky soprano ... " Translations of sfogato such as "light," "airy," "high," or "unlimited," simply make no sense in this context. Indeed, had Italian authors meant for any of those meanings to define these sopranos, they could have (and ultimately did) use other terms such as acuto or leggiero.

It is important to remember that during this same period the term mezzo soprano began to be widely used for a female voice between soprano and contralto. The only other Italian term applied to the soprano voice with any frequency during the first half of the nineteenth century is soprano acuto, or "high soprano." (Acuto, of course, means "sharp" but may also mean "high pitched" when applied to sound.)

While some authors considered the terms acuto and sfogato to be synonymous by mid century, others continued to maintain a distinction between the two. (9) Sieber (composer of vocalises still in use today) defines the notes in the Brustregister (chest register) (Example 1). (10)


By the end of the century, the term soprano sfogato was often used pejoratively, as in this excerpt:

It is not long ago that I got a letter from an old-time opera-goer, who could still remember the Rossini operas in their heyday, and the great singers who sang in them. My correspondent called my attention, among other things, to the fact that Semiramide was written, and generally rated, as a "grand dramatic part"; it was not meant for a light, florid soprano sfogato, for one of the "canarybirds" of the lyric stage, but for a heavy dramatic soprano--a singer like Tietjens or Lilli Lehmann, for instance. All those florid roulades, which we now regard as the most unmitigated sort of vocal fire-works, fit only for the rapid warbling of a light, agile voice, were originally sung more slowly, with full vibrato, and the most grandiose dramatic expression. It takes something of a stretch of the imagination for us to conceive nowadays of such things being sung dramatically and in the grand style; but that they were so sung is indubitable. The old "dramatic" coloratura, sung with the full voice and at a moderate rate of speed, is now pretty much a thing of the past; Semiramide's roulades are sung nowadays by light voices, in mezza voce, and at a break-neck pace; the old grand style and dramatic stress have passed away from music of this sort, and made place for a sheer display of vocal agility. (11)

By the early twentieth century, the terms acuto and sfogato were conjoined to define the very highest soprano voice. (12) The term acuto sfogato continues to be used to this day, even though it has little, if any, authority from the nineteenth century. Since the mid twentieth century some authors have considered the soprano sfogato to be essentially a mezzo soprano voice with an extended top range. An article about African American opera stars Grace Bumbry and Shirley Verrett (each of whom sang both mezzo soprano and soprano roles) describes their voices.

To Edgar Vincent, an artists' representative and singing connoisseur, black voices have a sfogato--smoky--quality ... Italians describe the sfogato voice as one with a mezzo timbre and a big extension on top, which is exactly what Miss Bumbry and Miss Verrett have. (13)

Of course "smoky" is not a translation of sfogato, and the idea of the soprano sfogato as having a "mezzo timbre and a big extension" is certainly a change from the "high, light" definitions of the late nineteenth century.

As the terms soprano leggiero, soprano lirico, soprano drammatico, etc. came into prominence in the mid to late nineteenth century, the term soprano sfogato gradually fell out of use. Some authors feel the expression soprano drammatico dagilita ("dramatic soprano with agility") is essentially equivalent to soprano sfogato. (14) Since the mid twentieth century the term has been revived from time to time, especially to describe singers specializing in the bel canto heroines.


Without exception, the sopranos referred to as sfogati were specialists in the bel canto heroines of Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti, and their contemporaries. Giuditta Pasta, for example, created many of the most famous roles in this repertoire, including "Amina" in Bellini's La sonnambula, as well as the title roles in his Norma and Beatrice di Tenda, and in Donizetti's Anna Bolena.

Henriette Meric-Lalande, also referred to as a soprano sfogato, created the title role in Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, as well as the leading soprano roles in Bellini's Il pirata and La straniera. If one were to name a "definitive" soprano sfogato role (i.e., one that was sung by many, if not most of the singers so described), it would most likely be the title role of Rossini's Semiramide. This role requires great flexibility, a wide vocal range, and an imposing dramatic presence. (Isabella Colbran, Rossini's wife and creator of the role, was rarely called a soprano sfogato, however.) Although the opera is rarely revived today, Semirade's great aria "Bel raggio lusinghier" has been recorded numerous times by sopranos such as Joan Sutherland, Maria Callas, Renee Fleming, and Anna Moffo, as well as mezzo sopranos Teresa Berganza and Marilyn Horne.

The soprani sfogati were almost universally regarded in their time as prima donna assoluta. The aspects of the so-called "assoluta voice" are very thoroughly described in The Assoluta Voice in Opera, 1797-1847 by Geoffrey Riggs. (It should be noted that Riggs does not use the term soprano sfogato.) He describes in detail the following soprano assoluta roles (all title roles, unless otherwise indicated):



Weber--Oberon (Reiza)

Donizetti--Anna Bolena


Donizetti--Gemma di Vergy

Donizetti--Roberto Devereux (Elizabetta)

Verdi--Nabucco (Abigaille)

Verdi--Macbeth (Lady Macbeth)

In all, he lists sixty-five roles as soprano assoluta roles, ranging chronologically from Gluck's Alceste through Berg's Lulu. (15)


Of course, the original soprani sfogati lived before the recording era, so the only evidence is from first-hand reports. One such account, in a British journal from the 1830s, describes Adelaide Tosi (creator of several roles in operas by Bellini and Donizetti) and Giulia Grisi (creator of Elvira in Bellini's Ipuritani, and Norina in Donizetti's Don Pasquale among many other roles):

[Tosi and Grisi] boast the possession of the soprano-sfogato voice, which, by the way, is of little advantage to them with the million here, who are not familiar with it; for it is a voice that can only be properly appreciated by those who are used to it. It is a refined, and consequently attenuated, treble, which approaches the voice of the musico [a euphemism for castrato], and partakes of its peculiar beauties and defects exactly in the ratio of its approximation. This relation in Italy procures it all favour. The principal female parts in the serious operas are invariably written for a soprano-sfogato; and it must be admitted, that it is the voice peculiarly adapted to the prevailing character of the music; for its extreme purity and delicacy enables it at one time to wend its way deftly and unerringly through the most fluttering passage, and at another to breathe forth meaning tones which sink upon the heart with the gentle burden of that voluptuous, yet spiritual, langour, which seems an influence shed from above upon all the natives of the Saturnian land. (16)

An anonymous "Italian in Italy" in a letter to the editor of The Musical World describes the legendary Adelina Patti.

Mdlle. Patti's voice is a soprano of the kind denominated in theatrical parlance: sfogato. It goes up, with extraordinary ease, to the highest compass of the human voice, and descends with equal clearness of sound and facile execution to the fine contralto notes--a precious gift, bestowed only on the favoured daughters of Heaven. (17)

One of the most thorough descriptions comes from a novel, The Three Louisas by Henry Sutherland Edwards. In the story, The Morning Mail newspaper gives the following account of a fictitious soprano making her debut in Meyerbeer's Dinorah:

Mademoiselle Luigia Menotti's voice is a true soprano sfogato. The middle part is to a certain extent velata [veiled], but the upper notes are clear to limpidity and at the same time bright, resonant and penetrating as the song of the nightingale. Although Mademoiselle Menotti can sing easily from C below to E above the lines the most available part of her voice lies between the low and high D flat. Throughout these two octaves the voice is all of the same quality with the exception of the slight, almost imperceptible, defect already mentioned, which is incidental to Mademoiselle Menotti's extreme youth, and which an able professor will know how to remedy. (18)

It is important to remember that this is a work of fiction, especially considering the obviously well researched detail!

Soprano Eugenia Tadolini (creator of the title roles in Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix and Maria di Rohan) received a mixed review.

That it has been a magnificent soprano--a real soprano sfogato--there cannot be a doubt ... The most prominent characteristic of Made. Tadolini's singing is facility; we never heard any one vocalise with more fluency; there is also a brilliancy about her execution which in a great degree conceals the weaknesses of her voice. Her style is cold and unadorned by any vestige of the graceful or expressive. She sings with a nonchalance that has quite an air of originality about it. She dashes off a cabaletta as though she were humming an air for mere listlessnes [ sic] sat her drawing-room window. To use a rough metaphor, she throws it at your head. (19)

Elisa Taccani (who created the secondary soprano role of "Lisa" in Bellini's La sonnambula) was praised for many of the same qualities as other soprani sfogati.

La tua voce e uno sfogato soprano, piena di dolcezza, e la sua esecuzione, caratterizzata dalle piu alte qualita della musicale eccellenza, ricorda agli uditori la squisita vocalizzazione di madamigella Sontag.

[Her voice is a soprano sfogato, full of sweetness, characterized by the highest quality of musical excellence, causing listeners to recall the exquisite vocalizations of Mademoiselle Sontag.] (20) [German soprano Henriette Sontag created the title role in Weber's Euryanthe as well as the soprano solos in Beethoven's Missa Solemnis and Ninth Symphony.]

Clearly the soprani sfogati were exceptional singers with a rare combination of beautiful tone, a wide range, dramatic ability, and flexibility.


There is no doubt that Maria Callas remains the most often written about operatic singer of all time. She is also the only singer from the twentieth century consistently called a soprano sfogato. One such reference relates to her study with Spanish soprano Elvira De Hidalgo.

De Hidalgo realized that Mary [Maria Callas] had the sort of raw material that would be receptive to training as a soprano sfogato or soprano assoluta, whose voice makes full use of the whole range from mezzo to high soprano. This calls for natural strength in the lower register, as was the case with Malibran and Pasta, both of whom started as contraltos. To achieve the desired result, each register of the voice is trained separately and the three registers are then joined together into a more or less unified whole, though the transition from one to another is never completely seamless. (21)

As most opera fans are aware, Callas sang a wide range of roles, from Rossini's Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia to Wagner's Brunhilde in Die Walkure. It has been reported that her own favorite repertoire was that of the bel canto heroines such as Norma and Lucia di Lammermoor, and she is widely credited with reviving interest in the operas of that period. Obviously, drawing any real conclusions about the soprano sfogato voice from the recordings of Maria Callas would be speculative at best.

Italian soprano Renato Scotto has also been described as a soprano sfogato. Earlier in her career she sang many of the bel canto heroines before focusing on more dramatic roles. (22) One still finds the term (along with the dubious acuto sfogato) used by some of today's sopranos in what appears to be an effort to link them with the great singers of the past.


With the late nineteenth century decline in interest in most of the operas of the bel canto era, the usage of the term soprano sfogato fell out of favor. Even though many of these operas have been revived since the second half of the twentieth century, with many now part the "standard repertoire," it seems best to leave the expression soprano sfogato to the historical records, and use more currently accepted voice type designations.


(1.) Giuseppe Baretti, Dizionario italiano, ed inglese di Giuseppe Baretti (Firenze: Giovanni Marenighi, 1816), 447.

(2.) Michael Kennedy and Joyce Bourne Kennedy, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 668.

(3.) John Ardoin, Callas: The Art and the Life (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974), 5.

(4.) Richard Miller, Solutions for Singers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 92.

(5.) "Spettacoli del Carnevale" Teatri, arti e letteratura 10 (February 5, 1829): 218.

(6.) Mademoiselle Sophie Loewe, Revue des deux mondes XXV (1841): 603.

(7.) Madame Bishop, The Fine Arts' Journal 1, no. 1 (November 7, 1846): 15.

(8.) Louis Gottschalk, Notes of a Pianist (London: Lippencott, 1881), 114.

(9.) James Franklin Warner, A Universal Dictionary of Musical Terms (Boston: J. H. Wilkins & R. B. Carter, 1842), lxxviii.

(10.) Ferdinand Sieber, Vollstandiges Lehrbuch der Gesangskunst zum Gebrauche fur Lehrer und Schuler des Sologesanges (Magdeburg: Heinrichshofen, 1858), 246.

(11.) William Foster Apthorp, By the Way(Boston: Copeland and Day, 1898), 20.

(12.) Blanche Marchesi, The Singer's Catechism & Creed (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1932), 48.

(13.) Harold Schonberg, "A Bravo for Opera's Black Voices" New York Times Magazine (January 17, 1982): 24.

(14.) Cesare Questa, L'Aquila a due Teste: Immagini di Roma e dei Romani (Urbino: QuattroVenti, 1998), 182.

(15.) Geoffrey Riggs, The Assoluta Voice in Opera, 1797-1847 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003).

(16.) "On the Opera: Italian Opera," Fraser's Magazine of Town and Country (July 1832): 727-730.

(17.) "Adelina Patti at Florence," The Musical World 43, no. 48 (December 2, 1865): 749.

(18.) Henry Sutherland, The Three Louisas (London: Tinsley Brothers, 1866), 206-207.

(19.) "Her Majesty's Theatre" The Musical World 23, no. 22 (May 27, 1848): 332.

(20.) "Prime notizie date dal Galignani tulla comparsa della Taccani al Teatro Italiano a Parigi," La Moda, no. 91 (November 10, 1836), 364.

(21.) Nicholas Petsalis-Diomidis, The Unknown Callas: The Greek Years (Portland: Amadeus Press, 2001), 167.

(22.) "Renata Scotto," Current Biography 37 (1978), 370-373.

Jeffrey Snider is a native of Buffalo, New York, and received both bachelor's and master's degrees from Indiana University. He received the Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of North Texas in 1996. In 1998 he returned to the UNT as an Associate Professor in the College of Music and now serves as chair of the Division of Vocal Studies.

Recent operatic roles include the Count di Luna in Verdi's // trovatore in El Paso, Germont in La traviata with the Masterworks Festival in Winona Lake, Indiana, and the Father in Hansel and Gretel with The Living Opera in Richardson, Texas. In May 2005 he placed second in Opera New York's inaugural Chester Ludgin American Verdi Baritone Competition, singing before a panel that included opera stars Placido Domingo, James Morris, and Regina Resnick.

Dr. Snider's recent concert appearances include the title role in Handel's oratorio Saul under the direction of Dallas Opera music director Graeme Jenkin, the solos in Handel's Messiah and Bach's St. Matthew Passion at the Messiah Festival in Lindsborg, Kansas, the baritone solo in Orff's Carmina Burana with the Knoxville, Tennessee and Corpus Christi Symphony Orchestras, the baritone solos in Vaughan Williams's Hodie with the South Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, and the Durufle Requiem and Mendelssohn's Die erste Walpurgisnachtwith the Tulsa Oratorio Society.

He is the baritone soloist on the Klavier recording of Orff's Carmina Burana with the University of North Texas Wind Symphony and Grand Chorus under the direction of Eugene Corporon. Of this performance J. F. Weber of Fanfare magazine writes, "this is one of the finest ... male soloists I have ever heard in this work."
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Title Annotation:PROVENANCE
Author:Snider, Jeffrey
Publication:Journal of Singing
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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