There seems to be a bit of "mezzo mania" in the Bay Area this week: Not one, but two world-class mezzo-sopranos are flying in to perform in concert. Both have received multiple honors and awards and are in great demand by opera companies throughout the world.

The first will feature the sublime voice and masterful sensitivity of Swedish-born Anne Sofie von Otter, who will be accompanied by Emanuel Ax, one of the world's greatest concert pianists. Their "Brahms and Beyond" concert, one of two in a series planned by Ax, is at 8 p.m. Thursday at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus.

Francophiles rejoice

The week's second mezzo is the highly acclaimed British-born Alice Coote, who performs in recital at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Music Concert Hall in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, accompanied by pianist Graham Johnson.

Coote's voice has been described as having "an especially powerful, bright tone and commanding range that can thrill you to the marrow." She has chosen to showcase a bevy of songs by French composers whose works often feature the mezzo-soprano voice. These include Poulenc, Hahn, Faure, Gounod, Chabrier, Chausson, Berlioz, Saint-Saens, Bachelet, Debussy, Satie and Koechlin, for a program certain to please Francophiles as well as aficionados of 19th- and early 20th-century art songs.


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So how is the mezzo-soprano voice different from that of a "plain" soprano? For one thing, a mezzo's vocal range lies a bit lower that a soprano's and higher than a contralto's. A mezzo's voice often has a lower, fuller timbre than that of the soprano. One witty mezzo has quipped that mezzo operatic roles (like those for contraltos) are very often reserved for "witches, bitchesand britches," which, in ordinary parlance translates into witches like Azucena in Verdi's "Il Trovatore"; seductresses like Bizet's Carmen; and young males like Cherubino in Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" or Octavian in Richard Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier."

Mezzo voices can be classed as "coloratura," which describes the lighter, higher and more agile voices epitomized by the role of Rosina in Rossini's "The Barber of Seville." The second classification is "lyric," which describes the voice type appropriate for Despina in Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte," and the third is called "dramatic," the voice type employed in roles like Lady Macbeth in Verdi's "Macbeth" and Kundry in Wagner's "Parsifal."

Memorable mezzos

Among the famous mezzo-sopranos today are Stephanie Blythe, Olga Borodina, Denyce Graves, Frederica von Stade, Joyce di Donato and Dolora Zajick.

Von Otter's Cal Performances recital with Ax will feature some of Brahms' greatest songs, selected from his folk song and lieder. Other works will be contemporary: premieres of "Bolts of Loving Thunder" by Missy Mazzoli, and "So Many Things" by Nico Muhly.

In program notes, Emanuel Ax writes that he has loved the music of Brahms since he was a teenager and has been studying and practicing it for 40 years. "I wish I had another 40 to understand it better," he says.

To enhance a the audience's musical experience with Brahms, Ax asked Mazzoli, Muhly and another contemporary composer, Brett Dean, to utilize a theme composed by Brahms as a starting point for their own new works. What an intriguing idea!

'Brahms and Beyond'

Next month, Ax returns to Zellerbach Hall with famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma for the second "Brahms and Beyond" concerts. Brahms's Cello Sonata No. 1 in E minor and the No. 2 in F major are on the program, as are an arrangement for cello by Paul Klengel of Brahms' Op. 78, No. 1 Violin Sonata and "Hommage a Brahms," a new composition by Australian composer Dean.

Details: Tickets for the Ax-von Otter concert, $30-$125, are at 510-642-9988, or www.calperformances.org. The Yo-Yo Ma-Ax concert is sold out, but those who would like to be added to a list that will receive emails regarding any ticket cancellations may do so on the website. Coote's recital tickets, $38-$65, are at 415-677-0326 or www.sfperformances.org.

Contact Cheryl North at cherylnorth@hotmail.com.