“BEL CANTO – A style or a technique?

The term “Bel Canto” is  heard over and over again in articles, books, voice studios, critiques, etc But do we really know what we mean when we use it?

Is it a style ?  Is it a Technique?

It is, of course, a style.  And  it is also a technique.

The term “Bel Canto Style” historically pertains to a long line of Italian vocal literature that spans 400 years , ( i.e. Caccini, Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Handel, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti  ending with Verdi).   However, this term (translation: “Beautiful Singing”) was coined only in the mid 19th century.

Over the course of these 400 years, singers of the classical and romantic bel canto operas slowly and steadily developed a  Technique that fulfilled this evolving Style of vocal writing.

The “Bel Canto Technique”  is, therefore   a set of tools to achieve the inherent characteristics of the Style.

Today the term Bel Canto Technique encompasses  a  broad panorama of  vocal writing. As well as the rich repertoire of the Bel Canto Style, it embraces many languages, many composers of many styles:    Verismo, Wagner, European Operetta, Classical American Musical Theatre,  Lieder, Melodie, Canzone as well as Art Songs &  popular American songs of the 20th century.

The Bel Canto Style embraces a specific set of characteristics.   The Bel Canto Technique is based on these very characteristics.  What are these characteristics ?  Let’s take a look:

      1. Smooth blending of the registers:  An ability to smoothly join the head, mid and chest resonances into one unbroken line

2Clear diction:        pure, harmonized  vowels, well articulated consonants

3.  Dynamic Control:   an ability to modulate the tone throughout the voice (messa di voce)

      4. Clean onset  and offset of tone:   noiseless,  smooth, immediate beginning and ending of each phrase.

  5.  Long phrases sung on one breath:   a mastery over breath management and support of the tone.     

 6. Flexibility:     an ability to sing agile, accurate coloratura passages throughout the range

7.”Chiara/Scura tone:  – a balance  of bright and warm tone in every note in the vocal range.

.  Expressivity:  The convening of the deepest human emotions through voice and text

Keeping these characteristics as their  goal  a singer will begin with a knowledge of how one wants to see the curve of a phrase, express  a vocal color, deliver a text, create a long line, etc. It is in having this strong intent that we go about finding & developing the tools that allow  our singing to be much easier, healthier and energized.

In recognizing and willing these characteristics the technical growth of a singer becomes more comfortable, homeopathic, expressive and less mechanical.  We tend to get out of our own way which, of course, is the singer’s most common vocal challenge.

“Vocalizes are the foundation of a well-developed vocal technique.  They are the only way one can develop the tools that allow for beautiful singing of arias and songs.” – according to the great Belgian Bass Baritone Jose Van Dam.

The intelligent use of bel canto vocalizes is the clear way to achieve these goals, of course.  They are the building blocks  to developing an effortless but  energized classical vocal technique.     When approached in an orderly way the student, with their teacher, is able to develop the characteristics of Bel Canto Technique.   My favorites are:  Rossini (Gorgheggi E Solfeggi); Tosti (alter 25 solfeggi) & Marchesi (accompanied vocalises).

Keeping in mind what three of my favorite singers have said, we will realize that vocal technique is a means to an end – not an end in itself.

“THE VOICE TEACHER’S JOB IS TO HELP A SINGER WHO HAS  SOMETHING TO SAY,  SAY IT MORE EASILY”  (Dietrich Fischer Dieskau)

“SINGING BEAUTIFULLY IS NOT DIFFICULT, AS LONG AS ONE KNOWS WHAT THEY WANT TO ACHIEVE”  (Joan Sutherland)

“A BEATUIFUL TONE IS NEVER AN ACCIDENT (Thomas Hampson)

PS  – As I finish up this blog I have just seen and heard on You Tube  – Fausta Truffa, a  rather old woman singing Verdi’s  “La Vergine degli Angeli”  – a remarkable example of both the Style and Technique of beautiful singing.  It is also a testament to the healthy use  of a voice well into a later life.  Look and listen for yourself.