Soprano

fdb

Senior Member
French (France)
Why is soprano masculine in Italian? Presumably it is originally an adjective (“upper”) with some masculine noun understood, but which one?
 
  • bearded

    Senior Member
    Italian
    In past centuries, women were not allowed to sing in operas, and castrated men sang in feminine roles. (Cantore)soprano was the male singer with the 'highest' voice, and the name remained unchanged even after women had been allowed to sing. See this interesting discussion: il pilota/la guardia/il soprano where you find the explanation of 'soprano' in #2.
    In a sphere other than operas, from the Latin adjective superaneus > late Latin superanus, supranus, in Italian we have sovrano for the highest authority (= king), English 'sovereign' (through French 'souverain').
     
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    symposium

    Senior Member
    Italian - Italy
    The voice which is on top, the highest.
    As fdb rightly pointed out, "voce" (voice) is femenine, so I suppose the word we are looking for is most likely "ruolo" (role): ruolo di soprano. If you think of it, all opera roles are male in Italian: "contralto" is male, too. So a woman can be "un celebre contralto". I don't think it's necessarily related to women being or not being allowed to sing: I believe that women sang on stage in the 17th and 18th century, when opera lexicon was standardized. Still they would sing roles: di soprano, mezzosoprano, contralto... And they would become famous soprani, contralti etc. because that was the role (the key) they were singing.
     

    fdb

    Senior Member
    French (France)
    As fdb rightly pointed out, "voce" (voice) is femenine, so I suppose the word we are looking for is most likely "ruolo" (role): ruolo di soprano. If you think of it, all opera roles are male in Italian: "contralto" is male, too. So a woman can be "un celebre contralto". I don't think it's necessarily related to women being or not being allowed to sing: I believe that women sang on stage in the 17th and 18th century, when opera lexicon was standardized. Still they would sing roles: di soprano, mezzosoprano, contralto... And they would become famous soprani, contralti etc. because that was the role (the key) they were singing.
    That is an interesting suggestion. Are there any early references for "ruolo soprano"?
     

    bearded

    Senior Member
    Italian
    I'm sorry I must disagree with symposium. ''Ruolo soprano'' is an odd - I would say non-existing - phrase in Italian, therefore I don't think that 'ruolo' is the noun fdb is looking for. On the contrary, ''cantore soprano'' was/is widely used to indicate the castrated singers I mentioned in my #4 (I originally wrote 'cantante', but this is a modern word, and 'cantore' was the correct old-Italian title of a 'male singer').
    Google Ngram Viewer
    We do have the expression ''ruolo di soprano'' (role of a soprano), but here 'soprano' is a modern substantive.
     
    The next voice down in pitch, (contr)alto, is also masculine, although it is now far more usual for women to sign those lines.

    I suspect the four main singing voices - soprano, alto, tenore and basso - originated as a description of the singer. In all formal situations (ecclesiastical music, public concerts etc.) the high voices would always have been male at the time when the terms originated.
     

    symposium

    Senior Member
    Italian - Italy
    I'm not at all an expert, and I might be getting this totally wrong, but we all know that in the past castrated male singers would be singing, obviously with high-pitched voices, on stage, but that doesn't mean that women weren't singing, or were not allowed to sing, with them on the very same stage. Did castrati also sing female roles in operas? Is there any record of it? Why would women not be allowed to sing in theatres? Again, men used to sing with voices that we now associate with women, that we would call "woman-like", but I don't think that the word "soprano" has anything to do with the gender of the singer, as in "male" cantante/cantore soprano or "female" cantante/cantatrice soprana.
     

    fdb

    Senior Member
    French (France)
    My understanding is that in Baroque opera (Vivaldi, Haendel, etc.) the female roles were sung by women (soprano or alto), while the male roles could be scored for a castrato, a tenor, a bass or for a woman en travesti. It is church music that was performed by an all-male chorus, the upper voices being taken (usually) by pre-pubescent boys, or (less commonly) castrati. However this may be, it is probably correct to say that the masculine adjectives soprano, alto, basso, and the masculine noun tenore originally designated the male persons who sang these parts in the church, and were later transferred to female singers, while retaining their grammatical gender.
     
    I do not quite see the relevance of this fact to the question under discussion.
    Its relevance is to show how widespread in time and geography the prohibition against female performers was.

    The use of castrated men and boys for women's roles in both singing and theatre started in the early Renaissance and continued variously until the 19th century. The last know performing castrato singer died in about 1930.

    Italian has been the technical language of classical music for hundreds of years. The names for the various voices had been coined and universally adopted while males were the principal performers.
     
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