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From the Other Side of the Curtain
Bel Canto—a Perspective
By JOAN CAPLAN

One of Maria Callas’ accompanists in her later years was a fine pianist and coach by the name of Robert Sutherland. In an interview Sutherland recounted the following anecdote. He was with Callas when what was at the time a rare and “pirated” tape of her 1955 Lucia in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor arrived. A fan had sent it. The singer and the pianist sat together and listened to this amazing performance. It had been one of those magical nights when every note, every mood and every nuance transcended “perfection.” When it was over he didn’t quite know what to say: “Well, Maria, THAT was marvelous.” She countered, “Marvelous? It was a miracle.”

It is this possibility, the chance that somehow the fates will conspire on your behalf, and that you will summon all of your talents and all of your concentration to perform this minor “miracle,” which leads many singers to love and embrace the challenge of singing bel canto. Your years of training have led you to the point where you are able to achieve that special joy of communication unfettered by your critical “self.” You have managed to fulfill the promise of your potential. Your reward is the experience of having musical, vocal, emotional, and interpretational inspiration converge in one performance. The result is that you have lifted both your audience and, consequently, yourself to another plane.

To reach this end one must consent to remain in a state of vulnerability. That risk can lead you to heaven or hell. Talk with singers after one of those magical evenings—you can hear them remark, “It felt almost surreal—as if I weren't singing,” “It wasn't even me,” "It all happened so fast." That singer has “climbed Everest,” or “won the U.S. Open,” and in his/her way achieved control over mind and body, allowing themselves to be the channel for the composer. Conversely when the evening isn’t going all that well, every deficiency is painfully evident to the singer whose performance has fallen short. In this instance, those who fail to bring the audience into the world of the composer have broken a promise. For in their eagerness to be perfect they miss the mark and thus they cheat the listener, the composer and themselves. Compassion, then, in thinking of the poor performer coming from the stage into the wings after a particularly “off” night. Then you can understand how slowly time can pass for a singer. Have you ever witnessed a performance that wasn’t quite all it could be? Believe that it is not only we the listeners who wish that time might pass quickly, the curtains would close, and we could all go home.

Sir Laurence Olivier said in an interview that our duty as interpretive artists is to give our audience a glimpse into a moment of truth. I believe that to be the essence of interpretation. It is not how the singer feels about the music, but how he or she can make the audience feel about the music. It is the ability simply to convey clearly the meaning of the word by way of voice, musical notation and intention. When one sings the meaning of the word with a sense of concentration and integrity, the drama of the music will carry itself. That is why the great composers are great. They know how to bring honesty and dramatic value to the spoken word.

Nowhere in the world of music is that more apparent than in the performance of the bel canto operas. In the purely etched lines of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini the root of bel canto is discovered. Primary in this exploration is the way in which the vocal line relates to the orchestra. The melody expresses life itself. The voice soars above the instruments telling the story, while the orchestra acts as the heart, lungs and mind, which underline life. The cadenzas, scales and roulades are not there to show how quickly and accurately the singer can sing notes, but serve to intensify for the audience the sense of laughter, fright, tears, in truth all of life’s emotions. When you listen to the orchestration you will hear the heart beating, the joy of life, or the ominous warning of impending death, the erratic rhythms of insanity, the pulse of life ebbing. This overlaying of the voice over the instruments gives another interesting aspect to the meaning of the term “Prima Donna,” for in this way the singer becomes the “first” instrument of the orchestra.

Bel canto, a phrase in general use for decades, actually describes two entities. One pertains to the great Italian operas of the 17th through the 19th centuries, the second to a technique of singing. The translation of bel canto is “beautiful song” expanded to mean beautiful singing; and as there exist few singers who want to think that they are not singing beautifully, when you inquire of any young singer what singing method they espouse, they will indiscriminately answer “bel canto.” Who wants to believe that they are unintentionally singing “brutto” (ugly) canto?

What are the components that make a really great singer of the genre? The challenge is manifold. Of primary importance is the development of the ability to use the breath to sustain seemingly endless phrases of music. Then, one must learn to spin these long phrases with apparently no shift in vocal register, using the voice seamlessly from the highest note to the lowest. This is analogous to the technical accomplishment of a virtuoso violinist who learns to change the direction of the bow so that the listener is never aware of a break in tonal quality or musical line. “Bel cantoland” is the land of extremes. The pitch range of the true bel canto singer must encompass three effortless octaves. You must also be able to sing with great dynamic variation, moving (again, effortlessly) from a floated sotto voce to full fortissimo. In addition you must have the agility of rapid motion from note to note (effortlessly...of course). These aspects of technique can be learned by anyone provided with the basic equipment. But lessons can teach neither feeling nor determination: the singer must almost intuitively find a fresh shade of intent for every repetition of a word or phrase. This involves much more than technique. It comes in allowing yourself the freedom to delve into your own innate talent for performance.

In the sixteenth century, when the patronage of nobles and individuals of great wealth supported composers, a man’s soul and the soul of Heaven were believed to be of the same harmonies. The patron ensured his ascent to Paradise by commissioning great religious works of music. Church composers created an harmonic texture, which became known as Polyphony. Many voices sang simultaneously, with each group of singers tracing an independent vocal line. The execution of these works was thought to be a reflection of the angelic choirs. And angels, being angels, never need to breathe. So as the choirs of human beings sang, each group breathed in a different place, to give the impression of an endless flow of line and harmony just like the Heavenly Hosts. If indeed this was the music of the angels in choir form, surely the great bel canto composers recreated the harmony of Heaven and Man as they wrote their works for orchestra and solo singer.

In order to sing this repertoire, the singer must develop the self-control that enables you to sing with the ease and the voice of an angel, and at the same time maintain a heart of fire and a mind of ice. The great difference between this kind of vocalism and that of other styles (such as the later verismo of Puccini, Leoncavallo, Giordano) is that while you must infuse your singing with great intensity and meaning, you must resist the impulse, to say nothing of the desire, to “go for broke.” It is so easy in the latter music to become swept up in the moment by the sheer power of the instruments; some performers allow themselves to hide their vocal imperfections within a great wall of sound. Bel canto is the ultimate balancing act. It is like riding a unicycle high on a tightrope while repairing a watch—and enjoying every minute of it. So why in the face of all this does a singer want to sing Bellini? Because it is beautiful, because it is a supreme challenge and because sometime in the course of your career you might participate in and help create one of those miraculous evenings.

—Tulsa Opera Playbill