Hot. Hot. Hot.
There's not much happening in the world of opera. Many singers are at Summer Festivals or are taking some well deserved time off while companies reset and get ready for the coming season.
And, speaking of "reset" - I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to stay inside of our air conditioned environs and get back to basics. Well - at least some basics of singing, anyway ...
What does that mean exactly? Many of us try to achieve it. Other of us try to emulate it. And there are those select few in the opera world that couldn't give a tinker's damn about "Bel canto". (You know who you are - don't lie)
"Bel canto", quite simply, is "beautiful singing". The earliest use of the term "bel canto" occurred in late 17th-century Italy, when it was applied to a sophisticated model of singing that was being practiced among the great singers of operatic and sacred music. The term did not become widely used, however, until the middle of the next century, which was the heyday of opera seria and, the static but technically challenging da capo aria.
In other words: the era of park and bark ... standing still and letting the vocal fireworks fly.
As opera gained popularity as a dramatic vehicle in the mid-19th century, composers favored larger sounds - often pitting performers against louder and denser orchestrations. Larger orchestrations, in larger opera houses forced many singers to produce a sound that could compete, but wasn't always beautiful. It was during this time period when "bel canto" gained a more specific meaning as a term to distinguish the traditional Italian vocal model from this more forceful use of the voice.
Additionally, the term "bel canto" is sometimes attached exclusively to Italian opera of the time of Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868), Vincenzo Bellini (1801–1835) and Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848). Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti wrote many works for the stage during what musicologists call the Bel Canto Era. This Bel Canto Era preserved many of the Baroque's musical values, although its characteristic formula, such as the da capo aria, did not survive the passing of the 18th century. Changing tastes and social standards also killed off the operatic castrato voice and ensured the meteoric rise of the prima donna soprano and the virtuoso tenor.
In order to perform the operas of Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) with all of the dramatic fortitude that they require, the popularity of the bel canto style as espoused by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini faded. It was overtaken by a heavier and more intense approach to singing that was necessary.
Although the singing became bigger, more vivid and dramatically intense, it could still be counted upon to be "beautiful singing" - as opposed to the speech-inflected singing associated with German opera, namely Richard Wagner's revolutionary music dramas. Wagner (1813–1883) decried the Italian "bel canto" singing model, alleging that it was only concerned with a "round sound". Instead, Wagner advocated the Germanic school of singing which would produce a huge, dramatic sound based on brute strength - not ease of production.
For more on "bel canto", we turn to four masters: soprano Joan Sutherland, mezzo soprano Marilyn Horne, tenor Luciano Pavarotti and conductor Richard Bonynge. In the following two YouTube clips, these four operatic legends sit down and chat-it-up about "bel canto".
And, finally - some modern-day "bel canto" singing from soprano Angela Meade - "Casta Diva" from Bellini's Norma: