A couple of years ago I came across these videos posted on youtube. Richard Bonynge discusses “bel canto” techniques in a candid, informal setting with Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, and Luciano Pavarotti, some of the most beloved singers of the last century. Aside from the generally enjoyable banter and of course the beautiful singing, the topics they cover are of note:
Part I, 1:00: Bonynge defines “bel canto” both as meaning “beautiful singing,” and as the body of stylistic methods employed by singers in the late 17th-18th and early 19th centuries. Then at 2:34, after about a minute of (valuable) rabbit trails, he continues that it is difficult to explain this style, but that great singers can demonstrate it.
3:14: Pavarotti lays out (again) his favorite subject: the necessity of cover in the upper male passaggio—only this time, he uses it as a standard for the “real tenor voice.” As usual, the maestro gives a succinct, clear demonstration.
3:56: Bonynge brings up the importance of legato line. Scales are advocated to achieve this end, and Pavarotti gives a lovely example—although, shame on him, he sings his high F natural wide open—and proceeds to admit fault for it!
4:56: Horne shares a vocalise designed to help mezzos and contraltos move through the head-chest-head passaggio correctly.
5:43: The “heart of bel canto,” Bonynge says, is the “real cantalena, isn’t it? The long, flowing melodies.” Pavarotti graces the company with an example, singing first as a vocalise, then adding text a second time.
A few other golden one-liners from Part 1:
Pavarotti: “I am hearing one fraction before the note I am going to sing. ‘Hear like Caruso’ means ‘sing like Caruso,’ because of course if you hear one note project like that, you are going to do that note, but you have to hear the note.”
Horne: “I think, mainly, you don’t learn that much from the books, do you? … It’s doing it.”
Bonynge: “So many singers, the minute they start learning, they want to sing ‘Che gelida manina,” they want to sound like Pavarotti—it’s not possible, is it?”
Bonynge: “There’s no instrument in the world that can touch the human voice for communicating from one person to another.”
The following are mentioned in part 2 of the discussion:
0:01: Sutherland reminisces how she grew up in a singer’s home.
0:30: Pavarotti says much the same, mentioning his father as a tenor who is successfully “closing in the passaggio” (covering). He also mentions his favorite “bel canto” tenors from his childhood—Caruso, Schipa, Bjorling, Tucker, di Stefano, and a few others.
1:14: Horne also remembers her father’s tenor voice and musical encouragement.
2:12: Horne romances Pavarotti with legato and a smooth transition from head to chest—she then demonstrates how a “bad singer” would lean into the chest.
3:11: Bonynge brings up the “hair-raising tricks” of bel canto. Sutherland demonstrates a florid line.
3:41: Trilling is discussed, including a mention of Jenny Lind’s prescribed method and Horne’s personal history. Pavarotti insists that he, like Sutherland, learned from the birds.
4:37: Sutherland demonstrates trilling on the full tone, followed by trilling on the semitone.
5:04: Horne demonstrates a mezza di voce—or messa di voce, or mezza voce, depending on who you think wins the linguistic altercation she has with Pavarotti.
6:20: Sutherland then does the same.
6:28: Fioratura is defined.
7:20: Horne demonstrates a line, first without decoration, then with. Sutherland does the same.
Other golden moments from Part 2:
Horne: “I started studying much too young… I started at five, and…”
Pavarotti (laughing): “Much too young—yes!”
Horne: “That’s just it—it’s a miracle I’m still singing.”
Horne: “I think I began as a soprano because I began so damn young. Who’s got any chest voice at five years of age?”
Pavarotti: “Who has any chest at five years of age?”
Bonynge: “Bel canto is working at its fullest when the human voice is singing perfectly. It’s something we all want, something we all desire. It doesn’t happen too often, but then that is the only instrument which one wants to hear.
Floor: opened. Thoughts? Comments? Witticisms? Do share.