Soubrette is wonderful word I was introduced to last year from the world of opera. A term associated with stock characters in the performing arts/theater world, a soubrette is a minor female role in comedy, often that of a pert or flirtacious lady’s maid [from the French for maidservant, from Provençal soubreto]. A soubrette can also be a country maid or a character with beguiling country innocence, as illustrated in the accompanying painting. Soubrettish is the adjective form.
When I first heard soubrette, it reminded me of coquette, another word for a flirtatious girl or woman, that I was introduced to through the literary world–perhaps from reading Regency romance, but I’ve since forgotten.
The difference is that soubrette is more of a character type, just like an ingenue, the cad, or a romantic lead.
Famous soubrette roles in opera include Papagena from The Magic Flute, Adina in The Elixer of Love, Susanna from The Marriage of Figaro, and Zerlina, in Don Giovanni, which happen to be some of the most popular and entertaining soprano roles around and certainly have to be fun to play.
In my opera book, the character who wants the role of Zerlina is a soubrette herself–the pert, yet virginal type. This character, Oriane, who is twenty-nine when the story begins, whines that if she doesn’t get to sing Zerlina, she’ll be too old to play it when the next role comes around, which could be five years later. Many companies don’t repeat productions inside five years.
There is some truth to her complaint. A young singer may begin her career as a soubrette, but as she ages and her voice matures she may be reclassified as another voice type, such as a light lyric soprano. A singer rarely remains a soubrette for an entire career. Although in watching video productions of stage performances of Don Giovanni, I noticed a few Zerlinas who were too long in the tooth and wide in the waist to portray a pert country maid. More like madams, they were, IMHO.
So, Oriane is being mostly truthful when she claims that if she doesn’t get the role at twenty-nine, her voice might never be suited to the role of the soubrette again. What she neglects to mention is that she’ll now be eligible for different roles because of the mature timbre of her voice.
Here’s a You-Tube clip of the very famous seduction duet between Giovanni and Zerlina, “La ci darem la mano.” While the Giovanni is in fine (if heavy) voice, for my taste, he’s too old and oily to be very convincing as a seducer of woman of all ages–strictly my opinion. Zerlina is capably sung. Even though she’s clearly middle aged, her voice retains the proper timbre for a soubrette. By contrast, their are many, many YouTube clips of Zerlinas who need to put themselves out to pasture because their voices and bodies are too mature. I also chose this version of “La si darem la mano,” because it skips the recitative and gets right into the song. Let me know what you think of Angelika Kirchschlager as Zerlina. Is she a proper Zerlina, IYHO?