Wednesday 16 November 2005

Musical Falconry

19th century French operatic repertory is littered with female roles which require a voice of a particularly distinctive type, hovering between soprano and mezzo-soprano. French composers seem to have had a fascination for betwixt and between voice types in roles such as Melisande and Didon; this sort of role is particularly common in French Grand Opera (think Auber and Meyerbeer). Nowadays there is a particular type of pushed up mezzo-soprano voice described as a falcon-soprano; a voice capable of going above the stave, but with the depth of a mezzo. Roles which are in this fach can encompass grand opera written for Paris, Pauline in Donizetti’s Les Martyrs, Valentine in Meyebeer’s Les Huguenots and Alice in Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable. But singers nowadays also might sing Lady Macbeth, Abigaille in Verdi’s Nabucco plus 20th century roles such as Kostelnicka.

The name derives from Cornelie Falcon who sang at the Paris Opera where she specialised in a particular type of role. In the 1830’s the new operas, the first of the 5 Act French Grand Opera type, developed 2 types of soprano role. The first, associated with virtuous, maidenly simplicity sang with commensurate vocal simplicity in a style which was considered French; these roles were often humble people. In contrast to this, providing a degree of virtuosity, were the more aristocratic roles who sang with a more Italianate bravura; such roles provided the audience with the element of show which they could get from Italian opera. These latter, showy roles were often decadent and rather unsympathetic.

So we have demure heroines such as Fenella (La Muette de Portici, in fact a mute role), Alice (Robert le Diable), Valentine (Les Huguenots), Rachel (La Juive); and the ‘other women’ such as Elvire (La Muette de Portici), Isabelle (Robert le Diable), Eudoxie (La Juive) and Marguerite de Valois (Les Huguenots). 3 of these 4 latter ‘other women’ were created by singers with Italian names which must have associated this type of role in the public mind with foreign characters.

The singer Cornelie Falcon (1812 – 1897) created the roles of Valentine and Rachel. Though she did not create Alice, she became Meyerbeer’s favourite in the role. In fact she became the Paris Opera’s favourite ingénue; because, of course, that is exactly the type of role she was singing. Falcon carried this impression of virtue into her private life. Just as nowadays celebrities can find that the characters they play infect the public’s perception of their persona, so Falcon came to embody virtue and modesty in both her public and private personas. She sang for only 5 years, but such was her reputation that such roles were associated with her for ever, hence the name falcon-soprano.

She had a voice of some 2 octaves compass from b to d. Described as silvery with a brilliant timbre sufficient to dominate over the chorus, but never losing its charm or purity. She was described as having a voice ‘full of soul’. Examining the roles written for her suggests that though she could sing delicate high notes she had trouble with smooth transitions over the break.

Her decline was swift and immediate, her voice simply suddenly stopped working. The cause could have been one of a number of things; she made her Paris Opera debut at the age of 18, singing in a large opera house doing too much too quickly. But Meyerbeer’s music was extremely taxing and there is also the sheer stress caused by her life in the public arena.

Reading the description of the voice type and the subject of her vocal decline, it is interesting to see some remarkable parallels with Maria Callas. But what is more remarkable is the way that, with the decline of French Grand Opera, the falcon-soprano voice has lost its association with the virtuous ingénue. Readers wanting to explore her repertoire will have to do some digging. Whereas Opera Rara have mined the rich vein of early 19th century Italian Opera, nobody seems to be doing the same from French Grand Opera.


  1. Hello!
    Indeed you are correct when you say that people wanting to find out more about 'falconry' will have their jobs cut out! I have been researching for a week now and it would appear that not much is known about this voice type... shame as I have been 'diagnosed' to be one!
    I have read articles on Mmme Falcon, studied arias in La Juive and Les Hugenots, followed every link on Wikipedia, compared voices on Youtube and read respective biographies to find out their 'classifications'...
    I have been lead to your site by Google, and I wish to thank you for talking about this voice type - I beleive that awareness of this voice type is important... I am forever being told "no you can't sing that it's for Mezzo" - exeedingly frustrating considering I have the both notes and the richness needed...
    If you have any more information or know of any site which might be useful, I would be very grateful if you could forward it to me!
    Many thanks again!

  2. There is an interesting amount of information about Mme Falcon in the Cambridge Guide to Grand Opera

  3. Many Thanks for this valuable information!!

  4. Anonymous12:55 am

    Wonderful insight into this fach! Thank you!


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