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Here are some of my basic ideas about Bel Canto style, from what I have learned from conductors and coaches such as Bruno Campanella and the late Maestro Tonini. This should be a beginning of your journey into this style, not a written-in-stone guidebook or anything. These are some ideas I’ve come up with from trying to take apart what exactly it is that makes the style for me. These are not steadfast rules, but SOME ideas of how to create this beautiful style to pick and choose with your own ideas. Here goes:

1. RUBATO — means «robbed» — LEAN on one note, and make up the time it’s robbed with the notes afterwards so that you stay within the entire framework of a phrase or the «big beats» (1 in 3/4, 1 and 3 in 4/4, 1 and 4 in 6/8, etc…) without sounding like a metronome. Usually the notes to emphasize are the notes that are OUT of the tonality — the «off-color» notes, the dissonant notes that can tug at your heartstrings. They are the most communicative notes, and thus should be emphasized merely by leaning on them within the framework of a line. Leaning on it means starting it on time, and making it just a touch longer than it should be, compensating to make up for literally lost time in the next few notes. Or, conversely, you can rush up to the «blue note» and arrive up to it early. For extra, extra emphasis, you can do BOTH — rush up to, hold a bit longer, rush down from it.

2. Go through the text and underline the most important syllables of the most important words in the arias. It should go without saying, but this means you need to know word for word what you are singing, and how they fit together grammatically. See if your important syllables match up with the way the poetry is composed in the music, and if not, WHY NOT? What was the composer trying to accomplish? Either use the effect of emphasizing an «off» word that seems emphasized in the music to create an unexpected emotional impact, or make your own emphasis by use of rubato on the syllable that SHOULD have the emphasis in your mind.

Use the composer’s markings — find out what that marking can say to you emotionally, what you can communicate with it, and underline it with your voice that way.

Play with dynamics on your special words. Sudden dynamic changes can be very dramatic, but should be used sparingly and with enough contrast within a piece so that you don’t lose the effect by doing the same «surprise» move all the time. If you use the effect twice (as in a da capo aria), do the OPPOSITE dynamic sudden change the second time around. A double surprise there!

Do NOT keep dynamics and the way you do similar phrases symmetric. You WANT similar phrases to sound different each time, and to have repeated text phrases have a different emotional content every time you sing them.

Play with the articulation of lines, acording to what the words mean — break up a line into sustained marcato for the first half of a sentence, then legato, etc… to contrast the two phrases.

3. If there’s a long held note, you must make a dynamic change on it, usually crescendo, but can be a messa di voce. Do not just hang out on it and be impressed you can hold it that long! It needs to have emotional content.
trick of the trade: start your crescendo only mid-way through or even towards the end of a long held note, so that you have enough gas to really make it to the end and really sustain the crescendo at the end, but give the overall impression of a crescendo… I almost make it a rule to start written crescendos in long notes a measure later than they’re written. (don’t tell!!)

4. If there’s a long held note with little or no accompaniment under it, there must be a messa di voce
starting with a good attack pianissimo (not airy, but not grabbed or glottal), crescendo to forte (keeping it beautiful, not going too forte and turning it ugly!), then decrescendo to pianissimo the same number of beats as you spent getting to the forte; finish by sending out the voice into the hall at the very end of the pianissimo (not glottaling off the end!)

Usually a messa di voce — «placement of the voice» (not mezza di voce, as most people incorrectly say, which means «half voice») should last a little longer than you feel comfortable mentally singing it; we usually make them too short for fear they’ll sound «too long.» If too short, they lose their intended effect, which is to show the perfect placement of the voice and convey a profoundly deep emotion at the same time. Beauty of tone can touch people as much as a cry or a scream, remember. Always give your own personal subtext! The placement of the voice from piano to forte and back should not change — the timbre and quality should remain even throughout a messa di voce.

5. If there’s a fermata, there is either a messa di voce or a cadenza, preferably both!

Unlike Classical and baroque cadenzas, you can take a breath somewhere in the cadenza if you want to, but make it meaningful.

6. ALWAYS keep a feeling of legato under the line: the cushion of air is always under the sound. Even in a rest, the breath is still there under it…

7. Find an emotional reason for the markings!!

8. Trills start from the base note, not from above, unless approached from above. Trick of the trade: for a long-held trill, articulate the first few notes of it before actually starting the trill — about 5 notes or so.

9. Most long-held notes start with a piano attack and grow from there, unless otherwise specified.

10. Triplets should be used for effect: this usually means to emphasize beat 1 of the first line of a lot of triplets, or at least to lean on the first note of one triplet figure on a word that you want to emphasize. Remember, this could be a word in the middle of a lot of triplet figures — not necessarily the FIRST note of the FIRST triplet in a series!

11. Duples over a slow triplet accompaniment should be milked for all they’re worth — they’re trying to tug at your heartstrings. Make sure you feel the tug between the two times, and have it mean something. It is a dissonance of time, as «off-color» notes give dissonance to the tonal vocal line.

12. An exercise to do: sing the line all on EE or AY vowels to get the right forward placement, then go back and sing it on the original vowel (no consonants yet), keeping as legato as possible while not losing your voice’s natural vibrato — — feel a tiny crescendo from one note to the next; then go back and add in the consonants so that they differentiate the words, but so they don’t interrupt the legato and breath line.

13. Even staccati and rests have a feeling of legato going through them to the next phrase or note — it keeps the support of the the breath under them and keep the phrase going forward.

14. Allow top notes in a cadenza and even in runs to have a touch of rubato in them, so they have the room to bloom a little bit and speak — without getting off the beat. Get there a little bit early, and leave a little bit late, that’s all. Make up the time in the notes before and after, and try to land on the next big beat on time. Be careful to keep your placement, vibrato and support under the note that comes right AFTER the high note on the way back down — this is normally where we let everything drop and ruin the rest of the run.

15. Portamento : where there are slur lines between two notes on different syllables, usually there should be a discreet portamento. This means that you keep the legato feel, and very quickly and lightly catch just a few of the first notes in the scale on the way down or up — about two and a half notes on the way… It is not a SLIDE up or down. It is not a scale up or down. It is somewhere in between, and more of just a connection between the two notes.

If there is no slur line between one note and the next, DO NOT ADD A PORTAMENTO. These guys knew what they were doing and (depending on the dependability of your edition) usually wrote in what they wanted, phrasing-wise. Bellini, especially, was very persnickety about what and how he wanted the singers to sing.

A portamento is almost ike starting a few notes of the scale, then sliding, if I’m going to be VERY crass about it. You have to carry along the intention of connecting the notes. There is usually a sudden decrescendo involved once the «sliding» part of the portamento comes into play. «Portamento» means «bearing» or «carriage» — so you are «carrying» the voice down (or up) to the next note.

My favorite «Portamentess» is Maria Callas. Listen to some of her recordings. Usually she will reiterate the last note of the portamento, as well, which is not my favorite (i.e. a portamento from 5 to 1 becomes 5-4-3andahalf-1-1, if that makes any sense). I think it is much more elegant to portamento directly into the last note, rather than reiterate it (which for me feels like cheating…) Listen to the lovely Patricia Racette, a more recent soprano who also has a beautiful portamento.

16. Italian diction notes — my pet peeves for Italian belcanto sung by English speakers (there is French bel canto, as well, you know!):

  • No dipthongs — one vowel at a time, please.
  • Know if o’s and e’s are closed or open vowels. Make sure you use those double consonants, otherwise you change the meaning of the word («anno» = year, «ano» = asshole)
  • TT should really stop the sound, even though the voice is still held back behind it. T’s should not be aspirated in Italian!! Please, English speakers, T is for TONGUE not teeth — make the T with your tongue, not your TEETH. («tutto»)
  • D is a little more «wet» than we say in English, too, not so «bitten.»
  • LL should be milked for all it’s worth — very sexy and still voiced. («bello!») Do not double the L in between two vowels. («velo,» «palo») (
  • Do NOT double (roll) single R’s where they are not doubled in between vowels. («vero,» «caro») However, ALWAYS roll R’s before or after a consonant. («servo,» «treno»)
  • When you have one word that finishes with N followed by an M, always give a double M in between the two of them instead of singing N then M (i.e. «non m’ami» becomes «nommami») The Italians do it instinctively.
  • If you have an explosive unvoiced consonant (S, T, C, Ci, P, etc) starting a new word after a word that ends in a vowel, you can double the beginning letter of the second word if you need to emphasize it. (i.e. «sei tu» can become «seittu.»)

More soon, if I can think of any more guidelines…Meanwhile, some books to read:
The Bel Canto Composers: Vincenzo Bellini and His Major Contemporaries by Tom Kaufman

A History of Bel Canto by Rodolfo Celletti, Frederick Fuller

Bel Canto Operas of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellin by Charles Osborne (Composer)

Josephine and Emilie: Stars of the Bel Canto in Europe and America 1823-1889 by Dudley Cheke, Richard Bonynge

Manuel Garcia (1775-1832): Chronicle of the Life of a Bel Canto Tenor at the Dawn of Romanticism by James Radomski

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