Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.
Bel Canto Opera
It was 1858. The great opera composer Gioachino Rossini had been retired to a comfortable life in Paris for decades. Opera was thriving under younger composers, such as Charles Gounod and Richard Wagner; yet Rossini was unhappy. 'Alas for us. We have lost our bel canto,' he sighed. What was this bel canto, and why did its disappearance cause Rossini such grief?
Bel canto is Italian for 'beautiful singing.' From the mid-18th century through the early 19th century, Italian opera developed what is now known as a bel canto style. Composers began to write long, sustained vocal lines intended to show off the beauty of the voice. These melodies were often embellished with various ornaments such as trills, turns, and runs that demanded great vocal agility.
To support the singer's efforts, the orchestra was kept to a simple accompaniment. Strings and woodwinds were often used, and harmonies were basic chords. The composers didn't want to detract from the exquisite vocal lines. All other aspects of the music were to serve the melody itself instead of the whole production.
The most important composers of bel canto opera are Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti, and Rossini. Lucia di Lammermoor, an opera by Donizetti, contains a fine example of coloratura singing. Coloratura is a style of singing popular in bel canto opera that demands very fast vocal movement in high registers. Norma, an opera by Bellini, is revered for its long melodies that seem to spin out into the eternities without pausing for breath. The aria ''Casta Diva'' from Norma is considered by many to be the epitome of bel canto writing.
By the 1830's, the bel canto style was being replaced by a heavier, dramatic opera. Guiseppe Verdi was a transitional composer. His earliest operas, Oberto and Nabucco were beholden to the bel canto style. Gradually this gave way to the inspiration of the Romantic Period. He began to use larger orchestras, more dramatic melodies and harmonies, and less florid, delicate bel canto embellishments. Other composers followed in his footsteps, and soon bel canto was gone.
Bel Canto Singing
Historians aren't exactly sure which came first - the opera style or the singing style - but they clearly influenced each other. There appears to have been a symbiotic relationship. Composers loved the new style of singing and wrote more music to accommodate it, while singers loved the new style of opera and more singers began to adopt bel canto techniques.
As you can probably tell, this is a bit of chicken and egg problem. Bel canto singing required control of the breath. To maintain a beautiful tone while singing long phrases, opera singers had to support that tone with an ample supply of air. This was a technique that had to be studied and learned. Breath control gave the singers the vocal freedom necessary to sing the rapid coloratura passages. It also facilitated a legato line. Legato is the Italian word for smooth or connected. Lyrical, smooth vocal lines with perfect connections between different notes was a hallmark of bel canto singing.
Another important component of bel canto singing was the handling of the passaggio. The passaggio is the transition between two different registers of the voice, such as the low voice and the high voice, or head voice. In bel canto singing, this transition was to be flawlessly smooth. No listener should be aware of the change in registers.
There have been many famous and talented bel canto singers. The Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé, the Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli, and the American soprano June Anderson are just a few. One of the most famous was Maria Callas, a Greek soprano who lived from 1923-1977. She had an international career singing bel canto repertoire.
Bel Canto in Modern Day
Although Rossini lamented the loss of bel canto's popularity in his lifetime, it's actually still alive and well today. In the mid-20th century, there was a renewed interest in bel canto operas and singing. Voice students again studied bel canto technique while learning how to become masterful singers. Opera houses began to program bel canto operas. These operas are performed all over the world with great success. There's a large roster of rising bel canto opera stars who once again demonstrate the beautiful vocal line and agility required for the repertoire.
Bel canto, Italian for ''beautiful singing,'' is both a style of singing and a style of opera. Popular from the mid-18th century to about 1830, bel canto opera is represented by the works of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. The singing technique requires great breath control to sustain long, legato phrases, which is the Italian word for smooth or connected. There are often rapid coloratura passages, which involve a style of singing popular in bel canto opera that demands very fast vocal movement in high registers. Another important aspect of bel canto is the use of passaggio, which is the transition between two different registers of the voice, such as going from high to low or vice versa. In the mid-19th century, a heavier, more dramatic singing style became popular due to the operas of Richard Wagner and others. Bel canto enjoyed a resurgence in the mid-20th century and is still performed and studied today throughout the world due to this resurgence.
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