Sung Italian: what matters in a large performance space

Sung Italian: what matters in a large performance space

Sung Italian: what matters in a large performance space Melofonetica
Sung Italian: what matters in a large performance space Melofonetica

Melofonetica’s Founder Matteo Dalle Fratte is a Visiting Professor at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama (RWCMD) in Cardiff. He discusses what’s important for singers when working in a large performance space, drawing on a recent coaching session with RWCMD postgraduate vocal students:

I did some interesting work recently with a group of singers from the RWCMD. We were lucky to be able to use the beautiful Dora Stoutzker Hall pictured above. This concert hall seats up to 400 and has incredible acoustics. It provided a great opportunity for the students to experience Italian coaching in a large performance space and to work on achieving the connection and energy that are needed in a space of that size. It’s only when you are performing in a larger space like this, as the singers noticed, that you really understand how you need to use your breath support and the text to maintain your line of singing with energy and control.

 

Out of necessity and practicality, singers often need to practise in smaller acoustic spaces where it is less demanding to deliver the text. But it is very useful to be able to work in larger spaces that allow singers to understand the job of a professional opera singer who needs to deliver the text to the audience in an opera house, accompanied by an orchestra.

The students each sang an aria and they were able to ‘feel’ the space of a real concert hall. I asked those listening to stay towards the centre of the auditorium, about 20 metres away, where the acoustics could really be enjoyed and where it’s possible to gauge how much of the voice and text are being delivered.

This work really required a shift in acoustic awareness from everyone – I also had to shout quite a lot in my coaching to reach the singers! The singers started to experience how effective use of the text really helps to carry the words to the audience. In Italian, this means creating a very clear distinction between long and short consonants and allowing the consonants to provide a framework to shape the vowels and melodies.

In Italian, this means creating a very clear distinction between long and short consonants and allowing the consonants to provide a framework to shape the vowels and melodies.

We worked on different pieces by Handel and Mozart and it was interesting, in particular, to work on Handel’s aria Svegliatevi nel core, furie dell’alma offesa. In this piece, we focused on the alliteration of the long fs: in furie (the f is lengthened for emphasis, what we call a ‘melo-gemination’ in the Melofonetica Method®), offesa (a double f, written in this case) and far di un traditor (a co-gemination between the a and f, creating another long f). We tried to make the listeners aware of the pattern of these three long fs and it was challenging to begin with. The singer needed to make them more audible and she initially felt she was doing too much. But after we worked a bit further and she achieved this, she felt that she was able to anchor her singing, control the sound of her voice and play with dynamics in a much better way. Additionally, those long fs also created a particular colour in the melody which was perceived by the audience in the auditorium. With a real focus on the the three long fs as implosive long consonants, each with an agogic accent, the audience was impressed with how much they could enjoy this alliterated pattern of sound.

We also worked on other pieces where we had the typical elegant Italian effect of a long consonant on an upbeat and short consonant on a downbeat (what I call the ‘Michelangelo effect’), where we needed to make the upbeat really accented and smooth instead of the downbeat. This needed a lot of care and attention from the singers to make sure they were really long on the long consonant and very, very short on the short consonant. This is a key characteristic that makes sung Italian so beautiful but also really effective in a performance space. It seemed exaggerated to the singers themselves at times but those listening said the distinction was just enough to be audible!

As opera singers, we need to remember that using the phonetic structure of the Italian language properly – in particular all of the long Italian consonant sounds – not only helps us stay connected and deliver the text effectively in a performance space but also helps us with emphasis, interpretation and characterisation. When we do this, we not only achieve the idiomatic sound of the language but we also create an exciting and enjoyable experience for the audience, even in a large acoustic space.

Thank you to the RWCMD and well done to the students involved in the session.

Interested to know more?

The Melofonetica Method® is a method of improving sung Italian, based on Dr. Matteo Dalle Fratte’s research into the phonetics of the sung language. It helps singers to achieve better diction, expression and projection in a performance space. Find out more here.

To receive news on our courses and resources for sung Italian, and a free article with tips on Italian diction, sign up to our mailing list here.

We welcome your feedback and queries about the content of this blog post and sung Italian in general – get in touch with us at info@melofonetica.com.

Bringing the text to life in the Monteverdi 450 project

Bringing the text to life in the Monteverdi 450 project

Bringing the text to life in the Monteverdi 450 project Melofonetica
Bringing the text to life in the Monteverdi 450 project Melofonetica

In his introduction to the recently released recording of Monteverdi’s ‘Il ritorno di Ulisse in patria’,  Sir John Eliot Gardiner discusses the work of Melofonetica Founder Matteo Dalle Fratte on the Italian diction in the award-winning Monteverdi 450 project.

The poignant and vivid new recording of Il ritorno di Ulisse in patria, performed by the Monteverdi Choir & Orchestra and English Baroque Soloists and conducted by Gardiner, was recorded as part of last year’s Monteverdi 450 trilogy project. The acclaimed project saw Gardiner conduct a world-class cast of singers in their performances of L’OrfeoIl ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and L’incoronazione di Poppea, in locations around the world. Matteo was honoured to work closely with Gardiner as Italian Coach on the project, and as part of his introduction to the new recording, Gardiner provides fascinating insight into Matteo’s work on the text and how this enhanced expression in the three Monteverdi works:

 

“Our language coach, Matteo Dalle Fratte, went to great lengths to point out to the cast the mesmerising beauty of sung Italian when consonants are projected percussively and expressively in counterpoint to the smooth legato flow of the vowels. This applies not just to double consonants but to comma punctuation, agogic accents, word repetitions and exclamations. Only once the technique has been fully mastered by the singer-actors (as opposed to the dreaded ‘singerese’ – the disease of so many opera singers), can this produce a frisson in the way words will be received by the listener; but it also enhances the expressive vocabulary of Monteverdi’s word-setting and his cunning way of imitating the accents of speech. The slight anticipation of the incoming consonant and a minuscule delay before the vowel mirrors the thought processes of the narration. To me this is analogous to the ways Monteverdi uses both rhythm and counterpoint. In his operas Monteverdi habitually uses an alternation of duple and triple metre against an implied tactus (a regular unvarying beat). That is where the rhythmic frisson originates.”*

* Gardiner, John Eliot. 2018. ‘The Return of Ulysses to his Homeland’, sleeve note for Monteverdi, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, cond. by John Eliot Gardiner (Monteverdi Productions, SDG730, 2018), 6–11

It is thanks in large measure to the insights of language coach Matteo Dalle Fratte that this performance is every bit as vivid (in many respects more so) as any DVD production might be.

Europadisc review, October 2018

Reflecting on the project, Matteo comments, “It was a privilege to work with such talented artists and the inspirational Sir John Eliot Gardiner on the Monteverdi trilogy. The detail of the sung Italian was given a huge amount of importance and focus by everyone involved. My work on this project showed me just how powerful great diction in Italian opera can be, ensuring that all the emotions of the text are truly delivered with impact in a performance space – and fulfilling Monteverdi’s own vision that opera should stir the emotions.”

Bringing the text to life in the Monteverdi 450 project Melofonetica

We highly recommend listening to the new recording of Il ritorno di Ulisse in patria to enjoy both the excellent sung Italian and an opera that, despite being composed almost four centuries ago, remains musically and dramatically so powerful today. Visit the Monteverdi Choir & Orchestras website to find out more.

Image above: the final bow and live recording at one of the ‘Il ritorno di Ulisse’ performances at the National Forum of Music in Wrocław, Poland, September 2017.

Feeling inspired?

We have opportunities for singers, pianists and instrumentalists to join us in Italy next summer to be coached by Matteo Dalle Fratte and perform in scenes from Il ritorno di Ulisse in patria at our inaugural Arte Lirica Festival in Asolo. Find out more here.

Diction from the conductor’s perspective: views from Matthew Kofi Waldren

Diction from the conductor’s perspective: views from Matthew Kofi Waldren

Diction from the conductor's perspective: views from Matthew Kofi Waldren Melofonetica

We talk to acclaimed opera and orchestral conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren about the importance of good diction in opera.

 

As a conductor, how does a knowledge of correct diction affect what you do?

Text, for an opera conductor, is key. It is the element that conductors don’t have at their disposal in the symphonic repertoire, and in opera text can unlock everything. It necessarily provides narrative, and also the psychological intent of the characters. And, it is the reason a composer might choose a particular orchestration, articulation and harmony.

Knowledge of the language of the opera you are working on is vital, as are the sounds of that language and how those sounds are formed. The physical formation of the sounds of the language and how they are delivered have a huge impact on rhythm, cross-rhythm, and articulation. Correct use of diction is fundamental to guiding the music, guiding the singer’s phrasing and helping the singer be proactive in showing the conductor where they are heading.

 

Can you give some examples of this from Italian repertoire you’ve worked on?

There are so many examples! Italian opera composers knew exactly what they were doing with text; they understood how it was formed, the rhythms of the text, and how it should be sung.

There are countless examples of l’accent d’insistance, for example, where the composer clearly wants the text rhythm to play against the dominant musical rhythm, to create intricate cross rhythms. Try making the conversational beginning to Puccini’s La rondine work without the accent d’insistance and you’re doomed to failure! The bar lines would be far too much in evidence and you would kill the music!

There are simple yet detailed examples of rhythm, too. Looking at Mozart’s autograph scores, we can see the speed at which he wrote, and can surmise that he wanted final crotchets to be short – he just didn’t write them as a quaver followed by a quaver rest as it would have taken longer to write. The written note values are not always verbatim; they are a guide. The composer knew that some things make sense musically and don’t need to be spelled out.

The same happens with text. There are many examples in Mozart operas of the orchestra having dotted figures while the singers are seemingly set against them without dots. But, when we look at the text, the correct use of the diction means that those seemingly undotted figures for the singer must be sung inégales (near enough dotted). If Mozart had written the figure as dotted for the singers, this would have become over-dotted with the correct Italian diction in place (as he would have expected). So, he wrote an undotted figure, assuming that the correct use of text and diction would make it sound naturally dotted, thereby aligning with the orchestral dotted figure.

Puccini, on the other hand, notates every dash of articulation, every detailed dynamic change, every tempo change (he has a wonderful array of descriptions telling us to slow down!) Sometimes, though, a simple ritenuto should be viewed as a reminder rather than a command. If you look at the text, there would be no way of singing it with the correct diction without slowing. Puccini writes these indications as a reminder that the text needs attention. If we impose a ritenuto on top of the time needed for the text, we can find that the music becomes overly indulgent – not something of which Puccini himself was a fan.

Correct use of diction is fundamental to guiding the music, guiding the singer’s phrasing and helping the singer be proactive in showing the conductor where they are heading.

Diction from the conductor's perspective: views from Matthew Kofi Waldren Melofonetica

Which aspects of Italian diction are most important for you as a conductor?

I am very clear that the text is our primary job in opera, so all aspects of diction are incredibly important. But the correct use of long consonants and the accent d’insistance are particularly important to me in Italian.

 

In your experience, what are the aspects of Italian diction that singers most need to focus on? 

One of the reasons that my answer to the previous question focused on long consonants and the accent d’insistance is that these are the aspects of singing in Italian that often get overlooked by singers in the quest to achieve legato and line. However, we can maintain connection to the breath and actually find it easier to sing when we really employ these techniques. Not only that, but with clear and correct articulation, the music comes to life and the audience comprehends the text. In singing any language, line and legato do not mean the absence of text. Singers often focus on vowels, specific vowel choice and vowel modification. While these are important, my job is often to introduce the proper use of consonants, and earlier onset of long consonants to aid the vocal line, helping us to bring the composer’s intentions to life, and actually make it all easier to sing!

Photo credits: Dave Myers (header image) and Robert Workman (image in article)

About Matthew Kofi Waldren

Matthew Kofi Waldren studied at the Royal College of Music‚ Guildhall School of Music and Drama‚ and Fitzwilliam College‚ Cambridge. After a 10-year career as an opera singer, he swiftly gained a reputation as a dynamic young conductor‚ receiving plaudits for his collaborative approach and his detailed‚ dramatic readings. Matthew Kofi was a ‘Newcomer’ nominee in the International Opera Awards 2017‚ and held the ENO Mackerras Fellowship 2016-18.

Matthew Kofi has a long-standing association with Opera Holland Park, for whom he has conducted many critically-acclaimed productions. He has also conducted the City of London Sinfonia‚ the orchestras of English National Opera, Opera North and Scottish Opera, the National Festival Orchestra and London Mozart Players.

Matthew Kofi’s most recent and upcoming engagements include Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Linbury/Royal Opera House and Opera Holland Park)‚ Texting Heer (workshop – Linbury/Royal Opera House)‚ The Marriage of Figaro (English National Opera)‚ Paul Bunyan (ENO at Wilton’s Music Hall)‚ Don Giovanni (Opera North)‚ Un Ballo in Maschera‚ La Traviata‚ La Rondine (Opera Holland Park)‚ Les Mamelles de Tirésias‚ Gianni Schicchi (Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) and Pelléas Unwrapped (Scottish Opera). His acclaimed studio recording of Will Todd’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland on Signum Classics entered the official specialist classical chart at number one. You can find out more about Matthew Kofi on his website.