THE FACH SYSTEM: The traditional German system of voice classification

When auditioning for a position in a German-speaking theater, the normal audition, either for an agent or an opera house, consists of one to three arias depending on how interested the auditors are and how much time they have. In this short amount of time, you must show both your vocal abilities and how the opera house might best put your special talent to use.

The Germans are lovers of classification. Through years of observation and practice, they have developed a process of categorizing operatic voices by vocal range, size, color, fullness of tone, acting ability, and physical appearance and have come up with no less than 26 different voice categories or Fächer.

This system of vocal classification known as the Fach system was originally developed to facilitate casting in the permanent ensemble. The use of a set ensemble made it necessary to know the capabilities of each singer before the repertoire could be chosen. For example, an attractive soprano with a mellow but moveable voice, good diction and acting abilities, and a basic range of two octaves from C to C is not the lyric soprano but a Deutsche Soubrette (German ingénue). She is responsible for all the roles in opera and operetta that belong to her specific Fach. If the theater is considering an opera or operetta containing one of these roles, this soprano is required to sing it, regardless of whether it is one of her better roles or not.

The ideal opera house would have at least one of each of the most commonly used Fächer. In practice, this is seldom the case. As most operas have more male than female roles, most ensembles are heavy on the men. Also, many singers are asked to cover roles that do not belong to their Fach. Our Deutsche Soubrette may have a clause in her contract (Partien nach Individualität = roles according to individual abilities) requiring her to sing the roles of the higher Koloratursopran (Koloratur Soubrette) assuming her voice has the requisite high notes and clear coloratura.

Although the fest (permanent) ensemble has shrunk in the past 25 years and there is more reliance on the Gast (guest) singer, the Fach system still remains a valuable tool for both the singer and the opera house in all questions of casting. After all, a great deal of time and money will be placed on your ability to sing and act convincingly and fit in with the rest of their ensemble.

As singers, we tend to think of the word Fach as only meaning vocal classification. However, another definition of Fach is a box or cubby-hole—this will give you the idea of how rigid the vocal classification can be once it has been made. Rather than a restriction, this can be a good thing. Nothing can be as detrimental to a voice as being forced to consistently change gears from Rossini to Verdi on consecutive nights. With an average of three to four performances a week of repertoire ranging from Baroque to Contemporary, without the safeguards of Fach, a voice would soon tire, putting your career at jeopardy as well as the entire season.

Even if you never intend to sing in a German-speaking opera house, knowing your Fach is an important tool for the singer. By applying the set standards of Fach to your own voice, you will be able to identify those roles for which you are best suited, and by extension, discover other roles that should be part of your repertoire—roles that you can perform with conviction and, most importantly, will be healthy for the continued development of your voice.

In the following installments, we will look at the different characteristics of the operatic voice and then drill down in detail in how they apply to all 26 voice types. I will provide dozens of examples of audition arias for each voice type and a list of possible roles—large and small.

(This article is first in the series on the German Fach System and is based in part on information derived from Rudolf Kloiber’s “Handbuch der Oper”, 9th edition, Deutschen Taschenbuch Verlag. Read part two of this series here.)