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Talk Like An Opera Geek attempts to decode the intriguing and intimidating lexicon of the opera house.
It's easy for opera fans to toss around the term "bel canto." It's much harder to actually define it. Literally, bel canto means "beautiful singing" in Italian, but it's so open-ended that it's come to mean anything from the lyrical trend in Roman cantatas from the 1640s to any particularly lovely snippet of vocalizing from any era. And then there's the inverse of bel canto — "can belto" — a handy put-down to be flung at any singer who just stands and barks.
But another important reference point for bel canto leads to a particular trend in Italian opera that was responsible for this so-called "beautiful singing." The style bloomed in the first few decades of the 19th century, starting with Gioacchino Rossini, moving through Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini, and winding up in the early operas of Giuseppe Verdi.
As opera orchestras (and opera houses) began to grow in size, composers shifted toward a slightly heavier vocal tone. No longer relying solely on the old-fashioned flurries of notes and roller coaster runs to wow audiences, they emphasized long, flowing melodies, where carefully placed (even disguised) breaths from the singer would preserve the unbroken quality of the lines. And yet, not all the pyrotechnics disappeared. Rossini included both the old florid style and new bel canto expressions in his operas, sometimes both within the same aria. His operas positively sparkled, yet his musical characterization could be shallow. Bellini was far more poetic in setting text, but it would take Verdi, after emerging from his early, self-described "galley years" to uncover an even deeper musical realization of characters. But that's a story for next time.