What is Bel Canto?
Many sources refer to Bel Canto as:
• A Singing Technique
• The Musical Era of the 18th and 19th centuries
• The Music and Operas of the 18th and 19th centuries
Although these references are all linked to one another, our focus in this article is on the Bel Canto Singing Technique.
The Bel Canto singing technique is simply designed to teach you how to use your voice healthily and effortlessly for singing. Interestingly, ‘Bel Canto’ is an Italian term that translates to ‘beautiful singing’ or ‘beautiful song’. It is a common misconception that Bel Canto can only be used to sing in a Classical or Operatic style. Although Bel Canto is used popularly in Classical Opera, it can be used to sing in any genre or style of music including pop, rock, country, r&b, jazz and musical theatre.
Before jumping into the Bel Canto style of singing, let’s first take a look at the history of Bel Canto and how it came to be.
History of Bel Canto
Early Bel Canto
In the late 1500’s (16th century), great interest was shown towards the development of the singing voice. This led to the search for unique and desirable singing voices. This gave rise to the early Bel Canto Singing Technique in Italy.
The early Bel Canto was used popularly by the ‘Castrati’ in the 1600s (17th century). The Castrati were male singers who were castrated before puberty in order to retain their childlike voice for singing, which was favoured at the time. At the time, only male singers were allowed to perform in operas - theatrical performances like musicals.
Now remember, Bel Canto was still in its primitive stage during the 1600s (17th century), which restricted singers to a light and less resonant sound. Nonetheless, the early Bel Canto was favoured as performance theatres were small in size and orchestras consisted of a simple accompaniment, mainly strings and woodwinds. This allowed singers to demonstrate this singing technique quite comfortably.
An important point to note is that the early Bel canto was used during the Baroque period (1600-1750). When the Baroque period ended in 1750, the popularity of the Castrati faded as well. However, this did not stop the development of the Bel Canto Singing Technique. In fact, Bel Canto had just entered its prime.
Pinnacle of Bel Canto
Although the Castrati had faded, singers continued to experiment with the different aspects of the voice and develop Bel Canto even further.
The new refined Bel Canto Singing Technique allowed singers to sing with a pure, well balanced and desirable tone through an extraordinary vocal range. The Bel Canto singers could sing high notes with ease, sustain notes for extended durations and carry out passages with impeccable control. They possessed control over their voice in terms of tonal quality, agility, expression and resonance, significantly better than other singers. They could project their voices over large orchestras with minimal effort, which kept audiences awestruck each time. (Note that at the time, there were no microphones to enhance the sound. In fact, to this date, many opera singers do not use microphones for performances).
The Bel Canto Singing Technique was a break through in the singing world.
Bel Canto flourished in Italy from 1750-1830 (18th - 19th century). Some of the early composers of the Bel Canto period were Handel (1685-1759) and Mozart (1756-1791). The composers who contributed the most to popularising Bel Canto were Rossini (1792-1868), Donizetti (1797-1848) and Bellini (1801-1835). These composers brought out the main elements of Bel Canto through their music. Bel Canto music was characterised by long and elaborate passages with fancy embellishments like trills and runs that allowed singers to display the skills they had acquired through the Bel Canto Singing Technique. Singers were often allowed to improvise during performances, each one trying to accomplish and deliver more than the other.
Fall of Bel Canto
Although composers like Bellini and Donizetti contributed greatly to popularising Bel Canto, their later compositions encouraged a transition to a new style of singing. One of the first composers to make this transition was Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) in the 1830s (19th century). He wrote music for even larger orchestras that demanded a more dramatic and intense vocal sound as compared to the Bel Canto style of singing. This new singing technique involved an increased effort to push the sound out for more intensity and power. However, singers had to sacrifice vocal agility for such power. This went against the principles of Bel Canto, which encouraged singers to use minimal effort to produce a light, yet resonant sound.
Nonetheless, audiences seemed to take a liking to the new dramatic sound, particularly in Germany, which encouraged other composers to follow in Verdi’s footsteps. One of these transitional composers was Richard Wagner (1813-1883) who promoted the new singing style even more in his music. The forceful ‘Wagnerian style’ of singing was called ‘Sprechgesang’. It emphasised the enunciation of words more than the smooth transition of words (legato). In fact, Sprechgesang could even be called an anti-legato or anti Bel Canto style of singing. Wagner criticised Bel Canto stating that it was merely concerned with ‘whether that G or A will come out roundly.’
The French had never embraced Bel Canto from the beginning. They preferred a musical style that was very similar to the German operatic style, which focused on the clear enunciation of the words being sung. The French disliked the tonal quality of the Castrati during the 16th and 17th centuries, and opposed the many fancy embellishments Bel Canto singers were known to perform.
Soon, singers of all voice types including sopranos, tenors and baritones adopted the new singing technique. Contraltos and basses were less affected by the transition as their voices are naturally deeper and more suited for the heavy dramatic sound.
The demand for the new dramatic style of singing had taken over Bel Canto throughout Europe. People even criticised the Bel Canto style of singing, saying it lacked vocal agility and resonance. Rossini said in a conversation in Paris in 1858 ‘Alas for us. We have lost our Bel Canto’. By the 1890s (19th century), Bel Canto had faded away completely and Romanticism had taken over.
The true Bel Canto teachers, many of them Castrati, had either passed away (the last significant role for a Castrato singer was written in 1824) or were too selfish to share the extraordinary capabilities of the Bel Canto singing technique with the world. Bel Canto seemed to fade away from people’s memories and was even considered by many as a myth.
With the new heavier style of singing adopted as the standard, many interpretations were made on what exactly the Bel Canto technique might have advocated. Anyone who tried to learn Bel Canto did so with limited knowledge and guidance. Only a hand-full of teachers and singers knew the true power of Bel Canto.
Singer/Author John Potter said in his book ‘Tenor: History of A Voice’: ‘For much of the 18th century castrati defined the art of singing; it was the loss of their irrecoverable skills that in time created the myth of bel canto, a way of singing and conceptualising singing that was entirely different from anything the world had heard before or would hear again’.
It is quite ironical to learn that the term ‘Bel Canto’ was not commonly used until around 1830 (19th century) when it was up against the heavy dramatic style of singing. Even musical dictionaries did not include the definition of Bel Canto until after 1900. In reference to the comparison between Bel Canto and the dramatic style of singing, Harvard Music Dictionary says ‘Bel Canto focuses on the beauty of sound and brilliancy of performance rather than dramatic expression or romantic emotion.’
Revival of Bel Canto
In 1887 (late 19th century), the remaining Italian Masters of Bel Canto published a collection of songs in an attempt to revive Bel Canto. Franz Sieber wrote about this, contrasting Bel Canto with the heavy Germanic style of singing: ‘In our time, when the most offensive shrieking under the extenuating device of 'dramatic singing' has spread everywhere, when the ignorant masses appear much more interested in how loud rather than how beautiful the singing is, a collection of songs will perhaps be welcome which – as the title purports – may assist in restoring bel canto to its rightful place.’
From 1900 (20th century) onwards, Bel Canto started to make a revival. After World War 2, a new group of Bel Canto singers emerged, including Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007), Plácido Domingo (1962-present), José Carreras (1946-present), Marilyn Horne (1934-present) and Joan Sutherland (1926-2010) to name a few. These singers re-popularised the operas of Donizetti, Rossini and Bellini, along with other 18th century operas throughout Europe and America, giving them life and interpreting and performing them like they truly needed to be, in the Bel Canto style. Bel Canto was revived.
The Bel Canto Singing Technique
The Bel Canto Singing Technique will help you:
1. Manage your breath efficiently
2. Sing healthily and effortlessly
3. Sing high and low notes with ease
4. Connect or bridge the registers of your voice
6. Sustain or hold notes for a long duration
7. Sing with power and resonance
8. Have control over the volume of your voice
9. Sing for a longer duration without tiring your voice
11. Resolve any vocal issues
Simply put, the Bel Canto Singing Technique teaches you how to use your voice to the best of its ability and reach your full potential as a singer without straining or hurting your throat in any way.
The Bel Canto Singing Technique will help you practice or perform day after day without experiencing vocal fatigue or any serious problems that could jeopardise your singing career. In fact, it doesn’t matter whether you’re an amateur or professional singer because the Bel Canto Technique can be used by anyone who wants to sing well.
There are two parts to the Bel Canto Singing Technique:
Read the next Article to learn how to apply the Bel Canto Singing Technique.