Bel Canto bel ˈkäntō,ˈkan-/ (noun): a lyrical style of operatic singing using a full rich broad tone and smooth phrasing.
I recently finished reading Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto at the recommendation of my sister. It’s set in an unnamed country in South America and is about a birthday party gone horribly wrong. As the title suggests, the book revolves around an opera singer, which got me to thinking about how little I know about opera…
A Brief History of Opera: Opera is Italian for “work” – both the act of labor and the final product. Western Opera started in Italy at the end of the 16th century. The wealthy artists of the Florence Renaissance (known as the Florentine Camerata) were searching for a way to revive and elevate traditional Greek dramas. Their solution was to heighten it by setting it to melodies to enhance the text. Dafne by Jacopo Peri is often referred to as the first acknowledged opera. In the beginning, these operas were commissioned by European royalty as entertainment for their court. However, by the mid 17th century, opera had spread outside of Italy, reaching France and Germany. The idea of “opera season” originated in 1637 and tickets began being sold to the public.
There are many “genres” of opera: most notably, “opera seria” (a more traditional and serious opera, such as Mozart’s Apollo et Hyacinthus) and “opera buffa” (a comedic opera, such as Rossini’s The Barber of Seville). Opera seria were generally about nobility and created for the enjoyment royal court. These operas usually have three acts and leaned towards singers with high voices, favoring sopranos and castrati for the main roles. (Yes, a castrato is a fancy term for a eunuch – yowch!). I’ve included a handy chart of vocal ranges on the left for your reference.
On the other hand, opera buffa was a reaction to opera seria and strove to create an opera that was more accessible to the people. It generally has two acts (compared to seria’s three) and consisted of four voices – a soprano or mezzo, a tenor, a baritone, and a “basso buffo,” the comic relief and a specialist in the “patter” – a fast, rhyming, comedic song.
Many of the composers that we associate with classical music also composed operas – including Mozart, Handel, J.S. Bach, and Beethoven, to name a few. These operas are performed in their original language, and if you go see a live opera, there will be subtitles projected either over the stage or in front of your seat (you can often even pick your own language!)
In honor of this book, I’ve put together a small playlist of what I have been told are great operas and arias to dive into:
- Mimi, La Boheme, Puccini
- Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Rossini
- Le Nozze di Figaro, Mozart
- O Sole Mio, Caruso
- Madama Butterfly, Puccini
- Israel in Egypt, Handel
- Don Giovanni, Mozart
- Au Fond Du Temple Saint, Bizet
- The Flower Duet, Charlotte Church
- Tale of Genji’s Opera for Beginners
- Wikipedia’s Extensive Opera Article
- A Short History of Opera
- Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto became an opera performed by the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Watch the promo trailer here.
- Buy the Book
- Are you an opera buff? Please share your knowledge with me!