Characterization of the Voice: Depictions of Femininity Within the Soprano/Alto Dichotomy

Here is the link to my Prezi, and beneath is my artist’s statement, which elaborates a bit on the ideas in the presentation.


Artist’s Statement:

Characterization of the Voice:

Depictions of Femininity Within the Soprano/Alto Dichotomy


In Clement’s article, Through Voices, history, Clement lays out the different voice types that are used in opera and their relation to the characters assigned to them. Each voice is attached to a particular archetype: the soprano as the persecuted victim, the tenor as the brave and rebellious hero, the baritone as organized opposition, and the mezzo-soprano (also known as the alto) as resistance, witchcraft and treason. To me it seemed that these archetypes exist not only in opera, but across many genres in western music and are quite prevalent in pop culture as well as art music. My goal with this project is to explore the depictions of women with high and low voices in musical theatre, Disney movies, and in general popular understanding.

In describing the role of the soprano, Clement states  that “In the operas of the nineteenth century, almost all heroines are victims, persecuted by men, baritone or bass. …Humiliated, haunted, driven mad, burnt alive, buried alive, stabbed, committing suicide – Violetta, Sieglinde, Lucia, Brunhilde, Aida, Norma…Butterfly, Isolde, Lulu, and so many others…All sopranos, and all victims” (Clement 22). The soprano represents the traditional western ideals of femininity: youth, beauty, purity, obedience, and domesticity. In fulfilling these ideals she also becomes helpless and a victim. Clearly not all sopranos meet such sorry ends as those in the tragedies that Clement describe, but still they remain largely passive and dependant on male saviors. Many of the tragic ends for sopranos in opera such as those mentioned above are cautionary tales of the consequences of stepping outside of these values.

The mezzo-soprano or alto possesses “less desirable” and often masculine traits such as ambition and open sexuality. She has greater agency, but is often cast as an antagonistic character such as a witch, prostitute or betrayer. Clement states that “Like the Baritone, the mezzo is far from a fresh young voice. Like the baritone, the mezzo possesses active thought; she is articulate. And again like the baritone, she is capable of violent contestation. I insist on this similarity – “like the baritone” – for perceptions of the mezzo often focus on her “masculine” way of life. …Whether consciously or unconsciously, the mezzo often betrays” (Clement 23). The words “rebellion” and “resistance” in Clement’s descriptions are similar in meaning, the main differences being that one is applied to a man and the other to a woman, and one is seen as a point of pride and the other as a sinister trait.

These depictions are clearly problematic, and yet they remain extremely prevalent, and can be mapped largely unchanged onto many of the female characters of modern musicals like Wicked, Les Miserable and Sweeney Todd, and in children’s movies such as The Little Mermaid, Tangled, Aladdin, Frozen, and many others. In storylines such as that of The Little Mermaid, the heroine longs for a more exciting life outside of her restricting environment, a life full of romance and adventure, she escapes her situation only to ultimately willingly return to it in the form of marriage to her prince charming. In these stories, if the villain is a woman, she is invariably an alto. The alto witch in particular appears over and over in popular culture in characters like Elsa, Gothel, Ursula, Elphaba, Mrs. Lovett, and many more. The virgin vs. witch plot is one that appears constantly in the Disney cannon, and while these witches do not always have singing parts, they do almost always have low speaking voices that contrast with the heroine’s high, clear tones.

The Little Mermaid is an especially interesting and useful example because the physical voices of Ariel and Ursula are so important. Ursula literally takes Ariel’s voice from her in order to impersonate her and seduce the prince. Despite the fact hat she is a powerful witch with the ability to change her shape at will and take on the form of a beautiful young woman, she is unable to change her own voice. This establishes the soprano voice in this film as an ultimate symbol of ideal femininity and innocence that cannot be imitated.

Ursula embodies almost every alto stereotype there is: she is the villainess of the story, she is old and fat with grey skin and white hair, and yet also extremely sexualized through her heavy makeup and suggestive body language. There is even one moment in her song Poor Unfortunate Souls in which the audience is treated to a zoom in shot of her jiggling breasts. Ursula possesses traditionally male traits such as ambition, unlimited agency and a great deal of power. Her “maleness” is further influenced by the fact that her character design was based of the famous drag queen Divine. Her motivation is power, not jealously, and her ultimate scheme is to take over the ocean using Ariel as leverage. This fits in with the “organized opposition” characteristic Clement associates with baritone characters (Clement 23).  In all these ways, Ursula is essentially a male character occupying a female body, a creature of terrifying power and thus labeled a villain and an outcast. To modern eyes, many of the characteristics of Ursula and other villainesses are powerful feminist traits, and yet they are still often reserved for evil women. By no means do all female characters fall into these set categories. Many more recent heroines of Disney films, alto or soprano, possess some of the feminist traits formerly reserved for villainesses. However even in more witch-positive stories such as Disney’s Frozen the musical Wicked, the divide is still clear.

Defying gravity

In Wicked, like so many other stories, Glinda, the soprano, acts as Elphaba’s foil, though in this case they are friends and not adversaries. She represents traditional femininity: blond, popular, sweet, and ultimately passive. She stands in contrast to Elphaba’s clear otherness, evidenced first and foremost by her green skin, as well as her ambition, outspokenness and powerful magical talent.

The song Defying Gravity is a great example of the rejection the alto faces even as the protagonist of a story. In this song, Elphaba is declaring her independence and determination to rise above (literally) the restrictions placed upon her. In doing this, she must separate herself from society and her best friend, Glinda. Glinda, a soprano, is unable to separate herself from the expectations of society and chooses to maintain her “perfect” image. Though we see it from Elphaba’s side, from the perspective of the other characters she has fulfilled the image of the classic alto: witch and betrayer, and is reviled for it. Although at the end of the musical she is somewhat successful, faking her own death and escaping with her lover Fiyaro, Elphaba must still live in secret as a fugitive, while Glinda, who did not attempt to leave the boundries of the passive role assigned to her, is seen as a hero. Indeed, as Michelle Boyd points out in Alto on a Broomstick: Voicing the Witch in the Musical Wicked, “…Elphaba even loses her agency in her own story: Wicked unfolds as Glinda’s flashback.” Even in her own musical she cannot have a true victory.

Singer Jokes and Popular Perception

In researching the popular perceptions of singers themselves I decided to focus on jokes, specifically singer jokes concerning sopranos and altos. I chose this as a source because jokes rely on pre-existing knowledge or understanding for their punch lines. For example, the joke “how many altos does it take to screw in a light bulb? None. They can’t reach that high” relies on the concept that altos are unable to sing high, and are essentially failed sopranos. By relying on these established conceptions, jokes reveal the most basic and widely held stereotypes about their subjects. What I at first expected to find when analyzing these jokes was something along the lines of “sopranos are stupid and altos are sluts” which seemed like the natural progression from the images of victim and witch. What I actually found was that the general stereotypes of female singers are basically, in vulgar terms: “all female singers are sluts, sopranos are self-absorbed and stupid, and altos are men, haha”. The strongest image of the soprano singer is certainly that of the diva, whose basic characteristics boil down to conceit, back-stabbing, stupidity, and desire for attention. The alto has evolved from a conniving prostitute or witch to caricature of a masculine woman. Although she is mocked for essentially “being a man” She is also awarded more competence and intelligence, courtesy of her “maleness”.

There is a clear relationship between these images of female singers as characters and as people. Media representations, especially those aimed at children, certainly have an effect on the way women and their voices are perceived in reality. Although the roles of sopranos and altos are beginning to become much less distinct in forms such as musicals and children’s movies, especially in the roles of heroines, the distinct differences is their portrayal are still present. These stereotypes still persist in archetypal characters such as the diva and the alto villainess, and in jokingly established “truths” which continue to affect perceptions of and attitudes toward female singers and women in general.





Clement, Catherine. “Through Voices, History.” Siren Songs: Representations of Gender and Sexuality in Opera. Ed. Mary Ann Smart. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000. 17-28. Print.


Boyd, Michelle. “Alto on a Broomstick:Voicing the Witch in the Musical Wicked.” American Music 28.1 (2010): 97-118. Project Muse. Web. 16 Nov. 2015. <>.


The Little Mermaid. Dir. H. C. Andersen. StarMaker Entertainment, 1989. Film.



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