Singing the alto part in a grand piece of choral music (think Handel’s Messiah, Brahm’s Requiem) is to know the wealth of glorious harmony from the inside, to know the strength of a pillar supporting the roof of a temple, to be the moderation for which everyone purportedly strives. An alto is the viola, the brunette, the soothing voice of reason. The question remains: are altos born or bred, and, can a soprano ever really be an alto?
Every soprano with brown hair is still a blonde. She flirts, she flits, she flies, and never apologizes. She touches the sky while soaring over the lumbering voices of foundation and pillar (basses and altos- a real soprano can’t bear to think of that precious rarity, the tenor). Some may find her flight frivolous, but when the conductor and audience gaze at her with helpless adoration, she knows her work to be sublime. Moderation is anathema to the soprano. She cries, she trills, she strives, and knows above all, she is heard. She is the melody.
Listeners leave the sacred hall of the performance with music ringing in their ears. It is never the alto part. The richest harmonies that make music worthy are simply a supportive framework for the easiest part of all, the soprano. Altos must be content to be the hardy verdant greens beneath sweet rose and mauve blossoms in a much loved tapestry. For every time the alto sings alone, she supplies the dominant merely to provide a suitable entry to the tonic, a resolution inevitably gifted to the soprano. Having her momentary spotlight snatched from her again and again, she returns steadfastly to her best supporting role: the middle range, the tones that never trouble, always soothe; rarely excite, always appease.
The alto knows her audience. While the majority of listeners focus on the soprano’s melody, connoisseurs and master musicians resonate to the alto’s resolute vibrato. While the soprano prances for the masses, the alto sings to the few.
Among altos, it is generally agreed that she is born to her part, that she loves the ease on the ears of the lower range. Most particularly, she maintains the pre-eminence of harmony to melody. To her, a melody without its diverging line lies flat and empty. She is born to hear a multi-layered symphony of sound withheld from mere melody singers. That sopranos do not even feel their lack provides the basis of an alto’s superiority. She knows and doesn’t flaunt it.
To slide down the bench from the soprano section in order to become an alto is to run the gauntlet, join an elite sorority, and withstand aloof disdain until the test is passed. A sisterhood exists in this corner of the choir, miles from the competing prima donnas a few feet away. Altos may at first seem haughty and arrogant toward a lapsed soprano, but if so, she is misinterpreting their strength of character for a supercilious nature. If she allows enough time and demonstrates strict dedication to perfect harmony, the circle of altos will open to accept the newcomer.
And although she may occasionally feel a slight shiver of woe as the sopranos shimmer in the limelight, the altos around her stand firmly, feet planted, no regrets.