The art and science of singing have their origins in Italy. When Claudio Monteverdi and the members of the Camerata Fiorentina developed the concept of opera, they started a revolution in western music. The Camerata’s belief that a vocal line should reflect the emotion and nobility of classical theatre laid the foundations of what has become known as bel canto (beautiful singing).
The speed and sophistication with which vocal expertise evolved was staggering. Successive generations of composers transformed Monteverdi’s recitar cantando (sung recitation) into a more elaborate and vocally demanding melodic style. The new style pioneered by Scarlatti and Steffani at the end of the seventeenth century required considerable technical skill. As a component of the baroque, opera mirrored painting and sculpture and became a virtuoso art-form in its own right. Music conservatories, schools, and vocal pedagogues soon began to emerge.
Most vocal teachers were castrati, the semi-mythical creatures who dominated the world of opera until 1800. Castration enabled them to retain the beauty, range, and flexibility of voice of a youth, but with an adult’s physical strength and lung capacity. Operatic castrati such as Porpora, Caffarelli and Farinelli became the greatest known technical singers. Many became equally legendary as teachers, and vocal manuals by Tosi, Mancini, and Porpora set out the rules for bel canto and good vocal training. With time, voice classifications became more meaningful. Sopranos of the calibre of Cuzzoni, Bordoni, Durastani, and Strada, the bass Boschi, and tenors Pio Fabbri and Borosini were prototypes of their modern counterparts.
The excesses of vocal virtuosity faded with the arrival of Gluck’s Reform operas, which returned to classical values and a simplified vocal line. Though more sophisticated, Gluck’s work may be seen as a vocal prolongation of the French tragédie lyrique style of Lully and Rameau. The strongly declaimed French manner had nothing in common with the legato, portamento, and cantabile Italian style, whose first building block was the mezza voce. The Italians referred to the French style as canto di urlo (shouting singing) and deplored such French developments as the high tenor voice called haute-contre.
Throughout the eighteenth century, Italian opera seria (serious opera) ruled Europe, except for France. In Italy another form of vocal specialization occurred, dividing serious from comic singers. With Rossini’s arrival, the barriers between the comic mezzo carattere and seria singer became less rigid, and more importantly Rossini’s Naples opera seria gave rise to a new vocalità. With the aid of perhaps the greatest team of singers ever assembled, Rossini perfected a dramatic coloratura style that not only led to the development of various voice types–soprano drammatica d’agilità, baritenore and contraltino tenore–but also the creation of a style of composition that anticipated the Romantic era of Bellini, Donizetti, Berlioz, and Meyerbeer. This was particularly evident in Rossini’s French operas, where the simplified vocal line was more extroverted and expressive. Le Comte Ory and Guillaume Tell also heralded the arrival of the baritone.
The Romantic era
Vocal styles underwent a revolutionary change during the nineteenth century Romantic era. The Romantic hero used a tenor rather than a castrato voice. To better express the heightened nature of operatic dramas, Bellini, Donizetti, Berlioz, and later Verdi raised the vocal stakes and the tessitura of all voice types, especially the hero tenor. The high-C from the chest (ut de poitrine) rather than in falsettone became a career necessity. The heroine soprano also had to use a far greater vocal range. The nascent baritone quickly established himself as the antagonist, the third in the Romantic opera triangle.
Vocal changes were occurring throughout the musical world. German opera came of age with Weber and Wagner. Performers now had to sing in German and contend with Wagner’s vocal requirements, which stressed the bel canto virtues. Wagner’s music also demanded considerable physical stamina and an emphasis on the middle voice. No wonder his tenors became known as Heldentenors (heroic tenors)! In France, Berlioz and Meyerbeer took French grand opera to different but equally heroic heights. Vocal classifications became very distinct. Sopranos were of the Falcon or Dugazon variety, tenors classed as fort-ténor or demi-caractère. Composers like Gounod, Bizet, and Massenet merely amplified the prevailing vocal tendencies. But French déclamation lyrique had assimilated certain elements of bel canto techniques that included such mysterious elements as voix mixte.
National opera styles
There was significant development of national opera styles throughout the operatic world. Whether in Russia, Poland, or Bohemia, bel canto principles were being fused more or less successfully with indigenous linguistic characteristics. Previously, a bel canto style had to deal only with the language of song–Italian. The principles involved didn’t always travel well. Other factors affected vocal standards, particularly the increasing size of orchestras. The mass of sound created by a Verdi or Wagner orchestra forced singers to project their voices over an increasingly large instrumental mass in ever-larger theatres.
In the twentieth century, vocal standards underwent a fundamental change. The new realistic opera of the Nuova Scuola generation of Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano, and others altered the age-old balance between words and music. Both had traditionally been of equal importance. Now the emphasis was on the middle voice and the projection of words rather than musical phrases. This basically undermined bel canto principles. In Germany, Kneise’s adoption of a style called Sprechgesang at Bayreuth not only betrayed Wagnerian vocal beliefs but had a disastrous effect on vocal standards. Known as the Bayreuth bark, Sprechgesang was a forceful over-emphasis on words at the expense of vocal line and ease of production.
The realistic school of composers also banished the traditional vocal ornaments and embellishments that were fundamental to interpretation and overall vocal technique. The works of composers like Meyerbeer and Mercadante almost disappeared within a generation, and performances of Verdi, Bellini, Donizetti, and Berlioz changed irrevocably. In Germany, post-Wagnerian Romanticism had a similarly unfortunate effect. Voices were often seen as just another instrument and had to contend with a mass of orchestral sound as well as an ever-rising tessitura. In the works of Richard Strauss (Daphne or Frau ohne Schatten, for example) performers frequently seemed to be singing at or beyond their limits.
It became all too apparent that voices were coming under ever-increasing pressure. Many new vocal compositions were fundamentally anti-vocal. In addition, the art form had become universal; many singers were badly trained, and vocal longevity now became rare. Later in the century, jet travel and a higher orchestral pitch merely compounded existing vocal dangers.
The nature of opera had also changed by the end of the Second World War. Until then, singers could expect to perform new works created each year. Reflecting the unease with contemporary opera, companies became more and more mired in revivals. Rather than perform new works, it seemed wiser to resurrect past repertoires. Singers could specialize in specific repertoires and make a career singing Wagner, Mozart, or the Nuova Scuola works. Contemporary trends have amplified existing models, but there is some cause for optimism.
The rediscovery of repertoires such as the baroque and works by Rossini has meant that singers must learn vocal techniques (including bel canto) that they would have neglected. Perhaps most important, the younger generation has demonstrated more independence about entering the operatic jet-set. Many have sought more balance and variety in their professional lives. This is partly why we have enjoyed a lieder and song renaissance. Many singers have decided to do more concert work, believing they are more suited to it temperamentally and vocally. A balance between opera and song reflects bel canto’s traditional balance between words and music. Perhaps it is the way of the future – a return to balance and basic values.