What is Bel Canto?
Bel Canto (Italian, beautiful singing)
An Italian musical term; refers to the art and science of vocal technique, which originated in Italy during the late sixteenth century and reached its pinnacle in the early part of the nineteenth century during the Bel Canto opera era.
Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti are the best-known exponents of this style, which flourished from approximately 1810 to 1830. Some would credit the 17th Century composer Pietro Cavalli with introducing bel canto, but his smooth and flowing melodic lines form a different style that belongs to a different era.
Bel canto singing is characterized by a focus on perfect evenness throughout the voice, skillful legato, a light upper register, tremendous agility and flexibility, and a certain lyric, "sweet" timbre.
Operas of the style featured extensive and florid ornamentation, requiring much in the way of fast scales and cadenzas. Emphasizing technique over volume, bel canto style has famously been linked to an exercise said to demonstrate its epitome, where a singer holds a lit candle to her mouth and sings without causing the flame to flicker.
While the bel canto period is typically dated to the early 19th century, the term itself did not come to be commonly used in its current sense until the middle of the 19th century. It was at this time that composers such as Wagner began to call for larger, more dramatic voices; opponents of this trend complained, with Rossini, "Alas for us, we have lost our bel canto."
The sopranos Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland were probably the best-known bel canto singers of the postwar period. Virginia Zeani and Leyla Gencer were both bel canto sopranos of equal abilities, but they made fewer recordings and, thus, were less famous in America.