Bel Canto: Definition, Style & Technique

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

Bel canto is a style of singing as well as a type of opera. We'll examine both uses of the term, how they are interrelated, and the role they play in today's opera performances.

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?

Gioachino Rossini
Photo of Rossini

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.

Vincenzo Bellini
Portrait of Vincenzo Bellini

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.

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  • 0:04 Bel Canto Opera
  • 2:16 Bel Canto Singing
  • 3:55 Bel Canto in Modern Day
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A scene from a modern staging of Nabucco
Photo of a scene from Nabucco

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.

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