Bel Canto Vocal Studio

K E Querns Langley

The Bel Canto Teaching Legacy

Musicologists occasionally apply the label bel canto technique to the arsenal of virtuosic vocal accomplishments and concepts imparted by singing teachers to their students during the late 18th century and the early 19th century. Many of these teachers were castrati.

"All [their] pedagogical works follow the same structure, beginning with exercises on single notes and eventually progressing to scales and improvised embellishments," writes Potter on p. 47 of his Tenor: History of a Voice. "The really creative ornamentation required for cadenzas, involving models and formulae that could generate newly improvised material, came towards the end of the process." (Today's pervasive idea that singers should refrain from improvising and always adhere strictly to the letter of a composer's published score is a comparatively recent phenomenon, promulgated during the first decades of the 20th century by dictatorial conductors such as Arturo Toscanini [1867-1957], who championed the dramatic operas of Verdi and Wagner and believed in keeping performers on a tight interpretive leash. See, for instance, Volume 1 of Michael Scott's survey The Record of Singing [Duckworth, London, 1977], pp. 135–136; also Potter, p. 77.)

Potter notes, however, that as the 19th century unfurled, "The general tendency ... was for singers not to have been taught by castrati (there were few of them left) and for serious study to start later, often at one of the new conservatories rather than with a private teacher. The traditional techniques and pedagogy were still acknowledged, but the teaching was generally in the hands of tenors and baritones who were by then at least once removed from the tradition itself."

Early 19th-century teachers described the voice as being made up of three registers. The chest register was the lowest of the three and the head register the highest, with the passaggio in between. These registers needed to be smoothly blended and fully equalized before a trainee singer could acquire total command of his or her natural instrument, and the surest way to achieve this outcome was for the trainee to practise vocal exercises assiduously. Bel canto-era teachers were great believers in the benefits of vocalise and solfeggio. They strove to strengthen the respiratory muscles of their pupils and equip them with such time-honoured vocal attributes as "purity of tone, perfection of legato, phrasing informed by eloquent portamento, and exquisitely turned ornaments", to quote from the introduction to Volume 2 of Scott's The Record of Singing (Duckworth, London, 1979).

Major refinements occurred to the existing system of voice classification during the 19th century as the international operatic repertoire diversified, split into distinctive nationalist schools and expanded in size. Whole new categories of singers such as mezzo-soprano and Wagnerian bass-baritone arose towards the end of the 19th century, as did such new sub-categories as lyric coloratura sopranodramatic soprano and spinto soprano, and various grades of tenor, stretching from lyric through spinto to heroic. These classificatory changes have had a lasting effect on the way singing teachers designate voices and the way in which opera house managements cast their productions.

It would be wrong, however, to think that there was across-the-board uniformity among 19th-century bel canto adherents when it came to passing on their knowledge and instructing students. Each of them had their own training regimes and pet notions; but, fundamentally, they all subscribed to the same set of bel canto precepts, and the exercises that they devised in order to enhance their students' breath support, dexterity, range and technical control remain valuable and, indeed, are still employed by some teachers.

Manuel García (1805–1906), author of the influential treatise L'Art du Chant, was the most prominent of the group of pedagogues that perpetuated bel-canto principles in their teachings and writings during the second half of the 19th century. His like-minded younger sister, Pauline Viardot (1821–1910), was also an important teacher of voice, as were Viardot's contemporaries Mathilde MarchesiCamille EverardiJulius StockhausenCarlo Pedrotti, Venceslao Persichini, Giovanni Sbriglia, Melchiorre Vidal andFrancesco Lamperti (together with Francesco's son Giovanni Battista Lamperti). The voices of a number of their former students can be heard on acoustic recordings made in the first two decades of the 20th century and re-issued since on LP and CD. Some examples on disc of historically and artistically significant 19th-century singers whose bel canto-infused vocal styles and techniques pre-date the "Bayreuth bark" and the dramatic excesses of verismo opera are:


Sir Charles Santley (born 1834), Gustav Walter (born 1834), Adelina Patti (born 1843), Marianne Brandt (born 1842), Lilli Lehmann (born 1848), Jean Lassalle (born 1847),Victor Maurel (born 1848), Marcella Sembrich (born 1858), Lillian Nordica (born 1857), Emma Calvé (born 1858), Nellie Melba (born 1861), Francesco Tamagno (born 1850),Francesco Marconi (born 1853), Léon Escalais (born 1859), Mattia Battistini (born 1856), Mario Ancona (born 1860), Pol Plançon (born 1851), and Antonio Magini-Coletti and Francesco Navarini (both born 1855).