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Bel Canto, Bella Lingua: The Italian Connection
Part 1: Operatic Singing Style
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by Simi K. Valley

The term bel canto (beautiful singing), has probably meant different things at different periods in music history, but its origins are shrouded in the past.

The vocal works of Mozart, as well as such Italian composers as Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini and the early works of Verdi, are considered to fall under the rubric of bel canto. These composers crafted vocal works with long, often florid, phrases that showcased the singer's vocal prowess and pyrotechnic capabilities. Both long, sustained legato phrases (sostenuto) and rapid passages requiring agility (fioritura) characterize the bel canto vocal line.

Thus, beautiful vocal lines were characteristic of this music; the other half of the bel canto equation is that the art of vocal production or vocal technique had been elevated to such a high level of skill and refinement, that bel canto was actually a marriage of consummate vocal technique and the beauty of composition. So both the singing itself and the music written for the voice were "bellissimi."

Who were the bel canto singers? The vocal music composed throughout the seventeenth century placed ever increasing demands on the singer, and by the eighteenth century such demands were considerable. By this time, the famed castrati sang both soprano and mezzo soprano parts in both church music and opera. These castrated Italian males were groomed from childhood for their musical careers. Their breath capacity and vocal agility are legendary.

As the castrati were dying out, women began to sing the parts which naturally fit their higher vocal registers. In more recent times, several women have become celebrated for their interpretation of bel canto heroines. These operas typically feature female roles requiring a coloratura soprano range—one who can sing florid arias with passages that display the singer's high notes and ease in singing runs, trills and other vocal ornaments. Several fairly recent champions of the bel canto style of singing include the late Maria Callas, Anna Moffo, and Dame Joan Sutherland, who was molded into a famed exponent of the bel canto school by her husband and conductor, Richard Bonynge.

I am indebted to Richard Miller, a former professor of singing at Oberlin College Conservatory of Music and the author of numerous books on singing technique and vocal pedagogy, and Carole Blum, opera singer and first–class voice instructor in the Southern California area, for much of this information on Italian language and vocal production. Professor Miller has noted in his book, National Schools of Singing, that several countries have developed their particular vocal styles or "schools" of singing—the French, the Italian, the German, and the English. He then goes on to show that in each case, the spoken language influenced and shaped its particular vocal school. The Italian school of singing has produced singers with a characteristic noble posture which encourages proper breathing to produce the most beautiful sound—so beautiful, in fact, that the Italian school of singing is now the international standard for opera superstars.

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