Auditioning in Italian: three tools in the text

Auditioning in Italian: three tools in the text

Auditioning in Italian: three tools in the text Melofonetica

Beyond demonstrating language ability, how can good diction help the singer in an audition scenario? Matteo Dalle Fratte, Melofonetica Founder, discusses three tools in the text that can help singers to both feel fully in control of their performance and to sing with greater impact:


In sung Italian there are specific tools directly linked to diction that can be very powerful in tackling the challenges of an audition. They are equally as important for performing in other settings, so I really encourage singers to master these.


Firstly: first impressions really count. It’s important for singers to use the text to fully engage the panel right from the very first word. That’s why the attacco del suono in Italian, meaning the ‘start of the sound’, is fundamental. This means articulating the beginning of the first line (and indeed subsequent lines) with well connected breath support and clear intention, both musically and dramatically. In the Melofonetica Method, the attacco del suono is usually achieved by using a long consonant at the beginning of a line – or preceding a vowel with a long glottal stop.


Secondly, a skilful use of rubato really makes a performance shine. In Italian, this means understanding which sounds in the text can be correctly lengthened to enhance expression without compromising diction. Sometimes this occurs on vowels, other times on consonants. This is where a singer can really add depth and emotion to their performance – and where the distinctive phonetic pattern and musicality of sung Italian truly emerge.


Thirdly, when put together, the sequence of long and short consonants that characterises the Italian language creates a roadmap through the score. Once the singer has identified all the long consonants in their text (including written double consonants and those applied for expression or emphasis), they can use these as anchoring points through the piece. These points help the singer to know where they’re heading, create more confident phrasing and make better use of tempo, timbre and dynamics.


We know that good diction in sung Italian isn’t just a nice addition but is integral to technique and overall performance. Many methods of singing over the centuries have mentioned the range of technical benefits that singing with good diction brings. As Pacchierotti, renowned 17th century singer and singing teacher famously said in his memoirs, “Chi sa ben sillabare e ben respirare, saprà ben cantare”, meaning he/she who breathes and articulates well, will sing well.


In a demanding audition scenario, it’s also reassuring for the singer to be able to draw on very specific tools within the phonetics of sung Italian in order to communicate their aria expressively and confidently to the panel.


For one-to-one audition preparation coaching in sung Italian – contact us for full details.

The benefits of vocalising with text

The benefits of vocalising with text

The benefits of vocalising with text Melofonetica

Matteo Dalle Fratte, Melofonetica Founder, explains why vocalising with text is such a valuable exercise for singers:


Singers vocalise to warm up, build singing technique and grow vocal stamina and strength. Singers usually vocalise using vowels; consonants are rarely used in vocalising exercises but if they are, they’re typically used without vowels such as exercises with the rolling r and constrictive consonants such as vv and ff. Singers don’t often vocalise using text or lyrics, but in the Melofonetica Method, we believe it’s really useful to practise vocalising with text for a number of reasons:

1. When we perform we need to do so much more than just vowel vocalisation: we use all the phonetic elements of text, even in coloratura arias where there is still text in the ornamentation.

2. By vocalising with text, singers can focus on one combination of phonetic elements at a time, singing notes and intervals across the registers with an awareness of how different vowel and consonant sounds relate to each other and how airflow needs to be balanced and adjusted appropriately across the different sounds.

3. In sung Italian, vocalising with text gives us the opportunity to practise distinguishing long and short consonant sounds, which is fundamental for good sung Italian diction.

4. Singing long consonants well creates more resonant vowels!

5. Using the full range of Italian phonetic elements actually helps singers to maintain a healthy vocal system. The correct production of long consonants in particular helps to:

  • Maintain an active and high tongue position
  • Reduce tension in the tongue root
  • Keep the soft palate flexible
  • Activate the muscles engaged in breath support
  • Optimise the pharyngeal space
  • Find the best formant frequencies for operatic sound

Vocalise like the great Italian singers!

There are some popular lines that have been used by singing teachers for a very long time, some of which have been handed down to me from my singing teacher, the bass Paolo Badoer, who studied with Gilda Dalla Rizza. Dalla Rizza was Puccini’s favourite soprano and a singing teacher at the Venice Conservatoire. She trained many successful singers, including coaching Maria Callas for her role as Violetta in La traviata. Dalla Rizza’s teachings on singing technique were in turn passed down from famous singers before her, such as Adelina Patti and Giuditta Pasta. Popular lines that these great Italian singers would use to vocalise included:

O che bel sole
È primavera
Un giardin di rose

It’s really beneficial to practise these lines, with a simple triad of notes, focusing each time on the different sequences of consonants and vowels. Using lines from famous arias that combine different phonetic elements is also a great way to vocalise, such as the line Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore.

Our Melofonetica courses always include sessions on vocalising using text to warm up and feedback from singers is highly positive – watch this space for a CD of vocalising exercises!

Make sure you’re first to know when we launch new courses and resources for sung Italian: sign up here to join our mailing list.

Veneto Opera Summer School: the inside view

Veneto Opera Summer School: the inside view

Veneto Opera Summer School: the inside view Melofonetica

Lucy Farrimond, mezzo soprano, shares her experiences of attending this year’s Veneto Opera Summer School and performing in Arte Lirica Festival:


I have recently returned from a two week adventure in Italy on Melofonetica’s Veneto Opera Summer School and WOW! I simply cannot believe how fast those two weeks passed by… two weeks in which, I can honestly say, I had the time of my life and made memories that I will cherish for a lifetime. I am now a member of the very special Melofonetica family.


Application process

I set myself the goal of expanding my solo singing experience and developing my sung Italian. So, after having seen the summer programme advertised online almost a year ago, I hastily sent off my application, including a recording of an Italian aria. I was absolutely thrilled to receive the news that I had not only been accepted onto the course, but had also been offered the principal role of Pisandro in Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria.



In preparation for my trip to Italy, I researched the life and music of Claudio Monteverdi and set about learning my role. This was my first staged trouser role, so I was very excited! Alongside the Monteverdi, I prepared chorus roles for scenes from Puccini’s La bohème, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and additional choruses ‘Brindisi’ and ‘Va Pensiero’ from Verdi’s La Traviata and Nabucco. In addition to these roles, I prepared a solo aria of my choice; this was ‘O Del Mio Amato Ben’ by Stefano Donaudy.


Journey to Italy: time in Venice

I had never actually been to Italy before, so I was unbelievably excited to be adventuring somewhere new – to the birthplace of opera! My flight to Venice Marco Polo was early in the morning, meaning I had a few hours of free time before the Melofonetica transfer would collect me and take me to Bassano del Grappa with the other course participants. During this time, I took the water bus into Venice and explored the city. The first stop on my list of attractions was Teatro La Fenice. What a beauty it is! I was lucky to explore the theatre and view the Maria Callas exhibition. After squeezing in as much sightseeing as possible, I made my way back to the airport to meet the other participants before taking the coach to Bassano.


Arrival to Bassano

The accommodation and classes were based at the Istituto Scalabrini in Bassano. Upon arrival at the grand institute, participants were greeted by Matteo Dalle Fratte (Melofonetica Founder) and his team in an introductory session, including celebratory welcome drinks. We were all given welcome packs, including the weekly schedule and information about Bassano and Arte Lirica Festival 2019. We were then given a tour of the Scalabrini Institute – our new home for the following two weeks. This wonderful building is situated beside the glorious River Brenta – a very idyllic setting!

An introduction to the Melofonetica Method

The first day of the course consisted of a morning introduction to the Melofonetica Method, including an insight into Matteo’s extensive research and key facts regarding Italian pronunciation. I was able to observe masterclasses with fellow course participants before singing the Donaudy repertoire in my own masterclass. During the masterclass, we were able to use the same stand that Maria Callas had once used, which – alongside the beautiful setting and views from the windows – proved to be incredibly inspiring! The Melofonetica Method was a new concept to me and I noticed a positive difference in my singing by the end of what was a very rewarding session. Matteo was extremely encouraging throughout the masterclass and was always open to questions regarding the method.


Life in Bassano del Grappa

On the first night of the course, the group ventured to Poli Grappa Museum for grappa tasting and an insight into how the signature liquor is made. This was followed by a tour of beautiful Bassano led by Matteo.

We were very fortunate to have been provided both breakfast and lunch at the Scalabrini Institute throughout the course. Once musical activities had finished for the day, we were free to venture into town (crossing the Ponte Vecchio) to have dinner – admittedly consuming far too much pizza and gelato!

On Thursdays and Saturdays, Bassano would come alive with its busy market and I managed to also fit in visits to a couple of Bassano’s treasures, the Libreria Palazzo Roberti and Museo Civico di Bassano – which had a Tito Gobbi exhibition!


Course structure

Each morning during the first week, vocalising sessions were scheduled with Matteo, in which he would also give advice on vocal health. Following the vocalising sessions, masterclasses with Matteo would run for most of the day and were open for everyone to observe. Alongside the masterclasses, we were fortunate to have individual coaching sessions with Julie Aherne and Bernard Tan and chorus rehearsals with Peter Ford.


Concert 1: Friday 16 August

The first concert took place in Chiesa di San Vito. I adored this beautiful setting and the lovely, encouraging Italian audience. During this concert, chorus members took to the stage to perform their independent arias, whilst the entire ensemble performed the Va Pensiero and Brindisi choruses with the orchestra. I was very happy to perform in the trio ‘Soave sia il vento’ from Mozart’s Così fan tutte. The concert was a great success!


Concert 2: Saturday 17 August

The second concert took place in Crespano del Grappa, this time outdoors in Piazza San Marco and on the steps of the magnificent church. I performed my Donaudy aria, Mozart trio and Verdi choruses and loved every single second! The square had an incredible acoustic and was jam-packed with eager local listeners! For me, this concert was a highlight of the two week course. It can be easy as a singer to pick a performance apart for faults, yet I was completely calm and happy to be making music in such a beautiful setting with wonderful people and a supportive audience – I will be forever grateful to Melofonetica for allowing me this unforgettable opportunity.

La bohème and Don Giovanni pop-ups: Sunday 18 and Thursday 22 August

Pop-up performances of Don Giovanni and La bohème scenes in the beautiful medieval town of Asolo were a huge success. Seeing the surprised and amazed faces of the locals as we spontaneously erupted into song was priceless!


Monteverdi lecture recital: Tuesday 20 August

Having a principal role in the Monteverdi Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria scene, I had the chance to perform my Pisandro aria and ‘Lieta Soave Gloria’ trio in a lecture-recital at the Municipio di Asolo. Performing such repertoire in this historic building was an incredible experience!


Villa Lunardi dinner

After the lecture recital at the Municipio di Asolo, we were surprised with the news that we would be dining at Villa Lunardi that evening. This beautiful villa was the summer residence of tenor Giovanni Lunardi and now contains a museum dedicated to the singer. I was very impressed to see Lunardi’s original costumes from Verdi operas and hand-written manuscripts by Pietro Mascagni! The museum was created thanks to Matteo’s research. Matteo is also the author of Giovanni Lunardi’s biography Giovanni Lunardi: un tenore drammatico fra Tamagno e Caruso.


Staged scenes at Teatro Eleonora Duse, Asolo: Friday 23 and Saturday 24 August

We are all incredibly lucky to have had the chance to perform our staged scenes ‘Vendette e amori’ at Teatro Eleonora Duse, Asolo. This inspiring theatre is based in Castello Caterina Cornaro which dates back to the 10th Century. It was astonishing to find that opera is in fact rarely performed in this theatre, which I think is a great shame!


Maurizio Muraro

Renowned bass Maurizio Muraro travelled to Asolo from London to be interviewed for the Arte Lirica Festival and to attend our staged scenes at Teatro Eleonora Duse. I am so grateful to have met such an inspiring singer and to have him support the festival!

Thank you!

I am extremely grateful to have been awarded a scholarship from Melofonetica’s Badoer Dalla Rizza fund, created by the very generous Mr and Mrs McGuire, and very kind financial donations through GoFundMe. This support allowed me to participate in a life-changing course, that has filled me with knowledge and happiness and will hopefully be beneficial for my future career in the world of opera.

There are many people I would like to thank for making the Veneto Opera Summer School and first ever Arte Lirica Festival so special. Firstly, I would like to thank Matteo and his truly lovely wife, Jamila (Academy Manager), for all of their hard work to ensure that everything ran like clockwork and that each and every one of us was correctly cared for and looked after. They deserve all of their successes and I am certain that their work will only continue to grow and inspire others. A huge thank you also goes out to the fantastic coaches; Peter Ford (Conductor), Julie Aherne (Pianist) and Bernard Tan (Pianist) for their support and dedication. It was an absolute joy to work with them and learn from them. I hope to perform with them again in the future.


To be continued:

Alas, I return to Manchester feeling enriched – albeit rather emotional – with not only a deeper knowledge and understanding of Italian opera through the Melofonetica Method, but with connections to a marvellous group of people that I am proud to call my friends. I will no doubt stay in touch with everybody from the course and I hope to have the opportunity to participate in further Melofonetica courses.


Look out for details of Veneto Opera Summer School. To pre-register your interest, please contact us here.

The importance of text for instrumentalists

The importance of text for instrumentalists

The importance of text for instrumentalists Melofonetica

While it’s the singer’s job to convey the words with great diction, the importance of text to instrumentalists can’t be underestimated. We chat to our Veneto Opera Summer School conductor Peter Ford and music coaches Julie Aherne and Bernard Tan to get their views:

The importance of text for instrumentalists Melofonetica

Why is text so important for instrumentalists?

Peter: “As instrumentalists, we fundamentally imitate the gesture and nuance of the human voice. Clear and correct diction creates strong, characteristic articulationand tenuto, staccato, and martellato each imitate the phonetic qualities of text. Effective use of portamento serves to recreate the connection and fluidity of a vocal line. For string players, as an example, the timbral qualities of the voice are reflected in techniques such as sul ponticello (nasal) or sul tasto (breathy). An awareness of all this is vital to achieving stylistic unity in operatic performance.”

Julie: “Training for instrumentalists is very different from that of singers, and so it’s easy for operatic and symphonic repertoire to feel like totally separate worlds. Often, we are told not to apply for certain roles ‘unless we have operatic experience’ – but how do we get that? The use of language is one of the key differences between vocal and instrumental art forms, and so a thorough understanding of how singers use text is essential.”

Bernard: “Most experienced orchestra players will know that playing for opera is very different from playing symphonic works or chamber music. The main reason being that in operas, the text and voice lead the music. Experience and ability in playing operatic repertoire is very important for instrumentalists, but it takes time to build a sensitivity to the voice and learn to use this under an opera conductor. This is where text and an understanding of what to listen for comes in.”


How has a better understanding of text helped you as an instrumentalist/conductor?

Peter: “The pit can be a noisy place! We’ve all been told to listen to the singer, but what are we listening for? If instrumentalists possess an awareness of the workings of the text (not necessarily every single word) then the singer is more freely able to lead, and the orchestra to follow. Clear communication between stage and pit is a hallmark of all great operatic performances.”

Julie: “For me, understanding the role of the text was not just the missing link that helped me work with singers more effectively and holistically, but something that opened the door to new possibilities of expression and interpretation that wouldn’t have occurred to me before. I now look at the text first when approaching a new work. Not only is it a major component of the musical information contained within a score, but in many cases it was the composer’s starting point as well.”

Bernard: “A better understanding of text is fundamental for anyone studying and performing vocal music, regardless of whether you are singing, playing an instrument or conducting. The text makes us understand why the composer writes in a certain way and provides us clear dramatic guidelines as to why the music is what it is and how we should perform it. In my experience, most of the decisions I make in vocal music come from an understanding of the text. This allows me to not only be confident as a pianist and coach but also to fully appreciate how texts work with the accompaniment so that I can make well-informed decisions for the music I perform.”


How does the Melofonetica Method help instrumentalists working with Italian text?

Peter: “The Melofonetica Method’s focus on achieving clear diction as the foundation of musical and dramatic expression shines a light on the hidden rhythms of the text itself. I have found myself endlessly fascinated by what the method reveals of how the poetry of the language informs the musical line, providing both cause and control for rubato and musical gesture.”

Julie: “The method helps instrumentalists understand the links, both historical and practical, between text, rhythm, and articulation of sung Italian. It enables them to understand how singers use text to create and enhance expression, including the use of portamenti, how singers might use text to control and dictate rubato (‘why do they take so long there?!’) and how this is all transferable to instrumental playing. They’ll also develop their skills in what to listen for to aid good ensemble between pit and stage.”

Bernard: “The method is a very systematic way for anyone to understand how Italian text works in music. Instrumentalists benefit by gaining a much better understanding of the structure of sung Italian, and the close connection between the music and the idiomatic sounds of the language, as used by singers at the highest levels in the industry. Ultimately, the method helps instrumentalists build a better sensitivity to the text and know what to listen for when they perform.”



We know that good diction in sung Italian isn’t just a nice addition but is integral to technique and overall performance. Many methods of singing over the centuries have mentioned the range of technical benefits that singing with good diction brings. As Pacchierotti, renowned 17th century singer and singing teacher famously said in his memoirs, “Chi sa ben sillabare e ben respirare, saprà ben cantare”, meaning he/she who breathes and articulates well, will sing well.


In a demanding audition scenario, it’s also reassuring for the singer to be able to draw on very specific tools within the phonetics of sung Italian in order to communicate their aria expressively and confidently to the panel.


Opportunities for instrumentalists to join Veneto Opera Summer School and Arte Lirica Festival

We have a few spaces left for instrumentalists to join us in Italy this summer to develop experience in playing for Italian opera, with 50% scholarships available for early-career artists. The programme provides the opportunity to:

  • Accompany staged scenes at the beautiful Teatro Eleonora Duse, Asolo and other exciting festival events
  • Benefit from tailored chamber music coaching sessions
  • Understand how the Melofonetica Method helps orchestras to accompany singers more effectively in Italian repertoire
  • Enjoy fabulous accommodation and food

To find out more about the programme, visit the webpage here and for more information on scholarship funding, see full details here. Applications are being accepted on a first come, first served basis. Please contact us if you’d like to know more or apply!

What’s it like at a Melofonetica Masterclass?

What’s it like at a Melofonetica Masterclass?

What’s it like at a Melofonetica Masterclass? Melofonetica

So far, we’ve trained over 150 singers and accompanists on our courses, with many coming back more than once. But what typically happens at one of our coaching masterclasses and how do participants benefit? Read on for a sneak peek…


An introduction to the Melofonetica Method

Our masterclass days are small group sessions led by Melofonetica Founder, Matteo Dalle Fratte. They are designed to give singers and accompanists a good grasp of the key principles of the Melofonetica Method and first-hand experience of how it improves sung Italian. The first hour of the day is an introductory session where Matteo discusses the research behind the method and the science i.e., the key phonetic characteristics of the sung Italian language. He discusses what the key findings mean in terms of correct diction, expression, breath support and voice projection in a performance space, and the important things to keep in mind when performing Italian repertoire.


With the theory summarised, practice is key for the rest of the day! A group vocalising session helps participants to warm up and experience the key principles of the method with their own voices, practising sung Italian sounds, words and phrases with Matteo’s guidance.

What’s it like at a Melofonetica Masterclass? Melofonetica

One-to-one coaching

After a quick coffee break, the intensive one-to-one coaching sessions begin, where each singer works with Matteo on any Italian piece of their choice while the rest of the group observes. Each session is tailored to the level and needs of each singer, and aims to improve the singer’s diction, expression and performance skills.

There is also a focus on how effective use of the text enhances the relationship between singer and accompanist, and the elements of diction that accompanists need to be listening out for. This applies equally to orchestral accompaniment, with a recent participant commenting, “The input I received on my aria really helped me understand not only more about the Italian, but what to think about when performing with an orchestra as well. I now understand a lot more about what a conductor would require from me”. At many of our masterclasses, we are also lucky to have input from conductor and coach Peter Ford who shares valuable guidance in this area.

What’s it like at a Melofonetica Masterclass? Melofonetica

As the one-to-one sessions are packed with tips and advice, singers are able to record their session to take away and use again after the day. There’s no need for singers to know their pieces off-copy, as the sessions are an opportunity to work closely with the score and make appropriate notes. We also provide a repertoire list ahead of the day, so that all participants can bring other scores to follow and make notes on. 

Matteo comments, “We find that participants benefit equally from listening to others being coached, and each one-to-one session demonstrates different aspects of sung Italian diction and expression, in a wide range of repertoire and voice types”.

We find that participants benefit equally from listening to others being coached, and each one-to-one session demonstrates different aspects of sung Italian diction and expression, in a wide range of repertoire and voice types.

Guided listening

After lunch, there’s an interesting guided listening where we listen to performances by well-known singers and some of the great recordings. The session helps participants identify and discuss different aspects of sung Italian diction and how performers express the text and character. Then it’s back to more vocalising to try out different aspects of diction before the one-to-one coaching sessions resume.

Putting it all together

Towards the end of the day, there’s an opportunity for Q&A, followed by a final sing-through of each full piece to put the day’s learning into practice. Everyone leaves energised, inspired and with new practical tools to apply to all Italian repertoire. We’re proud that feedback is always extremely positive, with singers often commenting on how much they have increased their confidence and learnt about sung Italian in just one day (read feedback from previous participants here). Matteo comments, “It’s great to meet singers of all ages and backgrounds who would like to make an improvement to their sung Italian, and these masterclass days are always packed full of learning but fun, friendly and supportive”.

More information

Our masterclasses take place in Spring and Autumn. As well as singers and accompanists, we also welcome observers, such as singing teachers, who would like to know more about the method and see it in action. Find out more about our next masterclasses here. We also work with opera groups and companies to create bespoke masterclasses – contact us for more information.

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.

Recitative: three top tips

Recitative: three top tips

Recitative: three top tips Melofonetica

Recitative moves the plot along and is one of the most exciting features in an opera. If you’re looking to improve your skills in Italian recitative, keep these three top tips from our coaches in mind …


Pacing is key. Consider the trajectory of each section: is there a particular point that the rhythm of the music or text is driving towards, or that the content of the words, or perhaps the harmony, indicates is a highpoint? Know where each section is headed, and you’ll create more excitement for the audience and give more structure for your continuo player to work with.

Speed isn’t an end in itself. Recitativo is a sung musical line much the same as any other, requiring the same attention to phrasing and cadence. You have near unlimited scope to play with tempo, timbre, and dynamic, but recitativo secco feels its most fluent and engaging when the exchange of line between singers makes musical sense.

Recitative is not the same as speech. Recitative is still sung language that needs to be clearly expressed and projected in a performance space, and it should be approached in the same way as an aria. While recitativo secco may not have melismas and coloratura, its syllabic, fast pace still requires advanced and controlled articulation of the language, particularly the correct articulation and sequencing of long and short consonants. Meanwhile, simpler tessitura means there is more flexibility for singers to experiment with the brightness or darkness of vowel timbres as an expressive tool.

Keen to know more?
If you’d like to develop your skills in Italian recitative, why not attend one of our biannual Art of Italian Recitative weekends? They include one-to-one coaching sessions focusing on diction, expression and phrasing, and the preparation and performance of well-known recitative opera scenes to put your learning into practice. Find out more here.

We welcome your feedback and queries about the content of this blog post and sung Italian in general – contact us at

The three musical effects in sung Italian

Matteo Dalle Fratte, Founder of Melofonetica, shares insight into the musicality of the Italian language:

As part of my research into sung Italian, I’ve come to realise that while the beauty of the sound of the language may seem to lie in the sound of its oral and pure vowels, it is, in fact, the pattern of consonant sounds – and the effects they create in combination with vowels – that create the unique musicality of the language.

To understand this, firstly we need to understand that in Italian, meaning is made through the length of consonants. For example, if we say mamma with a long m, this means mother, while m’ama with a short m means he or she loves me. Unlike in English, German or French, lengths of vowels don’t change the meaning of words in Italian. The correct sequencing of long and short consonants is therefore fundamental for meaning in Italian – but it is also what gives Italian a specific phonetic pattern and musical rhythm.

The correct sequencing of long and short consonants is therefore fundamental for meaning in Italian – but it is also what gives Italian a specific phonetic pattern and musical rhythm.

Within this phonetic pattern, we find three specific musical effects: tenuto, martellato and staccato – terms that are well known in the instrumental world. While we can now identify these instrumental effects in the language, it’s interesting to note that at the time when opera was born (in the 16th and 17th centuries), instrumentalists were in fact seeking to imitate the complex sounds of the voice! As Barthold Kuijken says, “Instrumentalists were always required to take singers as their model, and indeed they will have needed to listen attentively to the singer in order to imitate or accompany well at appropriate places”.[1]

Tenuto effect: a vowel followed by a short consonant
Coraggio; Unaura amorosa

In Italian, short consonants allow the preceding vowel to be as long as the whole length of its note; the short consonant is then very short and pronounced very quickly at the beginning of the following note. The short consonant is so fleeting that there seems to be almost no interruption between the two vowels in the sequence. This effect is called tenuto, which means ‘held’. The first vowel sound is sustained and smoothly connected to the subsequent vowel sound via a very short consonant. This tenuto effect, when it occurs across a downbeat in music, creates an elegant way to sing through the important beat with an almost imperceptible articulation. Drawing a parallel to visual art, this would create a curve instead of an angle.

Martellato effect: a vowel followed by a long sonorant consonant (e.g., long l, m, n or r) or long sibilant consonant (e.g., long s or f)
Gli anni assieme

Martellato literally means ‘hammered’; if you think about the way we would imitate a hammer, we would use a sound such as ‘tang’ or ‘pang’. These sounds end with an ng that is a diminuendo, like the reverb of a hammer’s sound. This effect is what happens when we hear the sudden diminuendo of a sonorant or sibilant consonant following the active and supported preceding vowel.

Sonorant consonants are formed by a voiced sound and sung without any interruption, such as long l, m, n or r. Sibilant consonants are formed by a ‘hissing’ unvoiced sound with no interruption, and include long s and f.

Staccato effect: a vowel followed by a long stop consonant
Tutto acceso

Staccato is the most common effect in Italian, and the one that adds the most colour to the musicality of the language. It is simply created by a stop consonant which creates an occlusion, i.e., a stop to the airflow. The preceding vowel is interrupted by the onset of the stop consonant. The staccato effect is one of the easiest effects to identify in sung Italian because of the clear difference between sound and silence. In a group of consonants, a martellato often combines with a staccato effect to create a martellato-staccato effect, for example, in the word quanto.

Putting it all together
Let’s take the well-known line Bella siccome un’angelo. This includes a martellato effect on the double ll in bella, a staccato cc in sicc followed by a tenuto in ome, a combined martellato-staccato in the ang of angelo and finally another tenuto with the short l in elo.

The right pattern of musical effects comes naturally into place in Italian when singers learn to correctly articulate Italian sounds and, in particular, distinguish correctly between short and long consonants. However, an analysis of the text to find these different musical effects is a useful way to identify mistakes and polish the diction in order to achieve idiomatic and even more expressive sung Italian throughout the piece.

[1] Barthold, Kuijken, The notation is not the music: reflections on early music practice and performance, Indiana University Press, 2013, p.41

Comments or queries?
We welcome your feedback and queries about the content of this blog post and sung Italian in general – contact us at

Veneto Opera Summer School: alumni insights from April and Susanna

We talk to sopranos April Goss and Susanna Heard, who attended last year’s Veneto Opera Summer School.

What are your favourite memories from the summer school?

April: There were so many memorable and glorious moments but I think my favourite has to be the concert at the end of the week. The experience of singing for an Italian audience was so incredible, and a fantastic way of putting into practice the skills we had gained throughout the week.

Susanna: I loved every minute of it – from the masterclasses and concerts, to discovering Bassano del Grappa’s rich history. The course felt like a holiday too!Veneto Opera Summer School: alumni insights from April and Susanna Melofonetica

How has attending the course helped you in your singing career?

April: The masterclasses helped so much in terms of how to approach new Italian repertoire. The coaching really helped make my Italian clear and crisp, which has allowed me to focus on the interpretation and characterisation of my Italian roles.

Susanna: It has really helped me with my sung Italian and also helped me secure a place in the chorus for Verdi’s Falstaff, performing with Sir Bryn Terfel and the European Opera Centre last year.

Veneto Opera Summer School: alumni insights from April and Susanna Melofonetica
Enjoying a glass of prosecco and dinner in Bassano

What advice would you give others who are considering applying for the summer school?

April: This course is an amazing opportunity for all levels of singers, it was one of the most enlightening Italian courses I’ve been on. All the staff were so helpful and encouraging which made for a very comfortable and friendly learning environment. The break mid-week to visit the Prosecco Valley and the surrounding areas was also a great way to bond with everyone as well as enjoy and appreciate the local culture.

To get the most out of the experience, I would advise singers to prepare fully, for example, learning pieces off copy, getting translations of repertoire and fully understanding the plot of the opera that each piece is from. This will help singers give a well-rounded performance at the end of the week.

Susanna: If you’re looking to improve your sung Italian and have a holiday in Veneto, this is the course for you!

What are your current singing projects and what’s on the horizon?

April: I’ve just graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in London with a Bachelor of Music degree and in September I’ll be starting my postgraduate studies at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.

Susanna: I’m looking forward to attending the Studio Program with the Berlin Opera Academy this August.

Find out more about this year’s Veneto Opera Summer School and how to apply.

Read more about the Melofonetica Method.

Veneto Opera Summer School: alumni insights from Eleanor and Óli

We talk to Eleanor Wood, Australian soprano and Óli Rúnarsson, Icelandic tenor, who both attended the advanced and professional level week of last year’s Veneto Opera Summer School.

What are your favourite memories from the summer school?

Eleanor: Performing under the stars in the courtyard for an audience of Italians was an experience that will always stay with me. It was so thrilling to put what we had learnt into practice, and hope that our language passed the test for the Italian audience! Also, the prosecco. All the prosecco. 🙂

Óli: I have many great memories, but my favourite is probably the moment when everything that was being taught through the Melofonetica Method suddenly clicked with everything I’d previously learned. For the first day or two, I was starting to think that what I had learned before was somehow wrong, but by the end of day two it all clicked into place, and I realised that I was building on my previous knowledge.

How has attending the course helped you in your singing careers?

Eleanor: I use the skills that I learnt on the course on a daily basis in my singing. It informs the way I sing Italian, and my overall technique generally. It was also a great opportunity to meet like-minded singers and form friendships and networks that I will keep throughout my career.

Óli: It has helped me a lot both in my teaching and singing. The way the Melofonetica Method was presented was very clear. To work on my sung Italian like that for an intensive week was very helpful, it somehow got the messages into the muscle memory. I’m now applying the method to my old repertoire and it’s remarkable how everything sounds better and is easier to sing and perform. I have also used the same approach successfully in other languages and it works even in Icelandic too!

Veneto Opera Summer School: alumni insights from Eleanor and Óli Melofonetica
Eleanor and Óli performing in the final concert in Bassano on 5 August 2017

What advice would you give others who are considering applying for the summer school?

Eleanor: Don’t hesitate. Matteo, Jamila and the team have put so much thought into crafting an experience that is musically and artistically enriching, but also one that gives a great insight into Italian culture. This was made all the better by Matteo’s insider knowledge of Bassano, including where to get the best gelato!

Óli: Go for it, this was hands down worth every single penny. You can only benefit from this course, it should be mandatory for all young professionals who are seriously thinking of going into the profession. I even think my career would have been different if this course had been on offer 15 years ago!

What are your current singing projects and what’s on the horizon?

Eleanor: I’m currently singing as part of the chorus in Thaïs at Cadogan Hall, and have several concerts around London coming up over the summer.

Óli: At the moment, as well as my teaching work, I’m rehearsing a new opera called Brothers by Daniel Bjarnason and have just finished conducting my two choirs in five concerts. Next winter, La traviata is my biggest project, alongside a series of Christmas concerts and working as a conductor and vocal coach on a production of the musical Man from La Mancha.

Find out more about this year’s Veneto Opera Summer School and how to apply.

Read more about the Melofonetica Method.

Diction from the accompanist’s perspective: views from Bernard Tan

We chat to Bernard Tan, award-winning collaborative pianist, vocal coach and répétiteur. Bernard joins us as a coach on this year’s Veneto Opera Summer School.

How important is it for you as an accompanist to have a good knowledge of diction?

Just as flour is the foundation of pasta, text is the foundation of vocal music. Delivering the text well in vocal music is fundamental, also for the accompanist. A good knowledge of diction is really important for accompanists – perhaps as important as understanding the meaning of the text itself. Understanding the sounds and rhythm of a language and how it works phonetically enables the accompanist to listen to and collaborate much more effectively with the singer, and also to play according to the style and character of the piece.

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

An example that immediately comes to mind is the beginning of Tosca’s aria Vissi d’arte, where the orchestra’s part is so simple that the accompanist will need an understanding of Italian diction to know when to place the chords precisely with the singer. There is also the ending of the beautiful song O del mio amato ben by Donaudy where the final chord would be the warmest one when the accompanist understands that the word ben has a beautiful stopped b at the beginning.

Which aspects of Italian diction are most important for you?

The long and short consonant sounds of the language are definitely the most important aspect. Consonant lengths really matter to accompanists because all the notes we play are percussive, and there is no way to ‘hide’ misplaced notes. We always aim to place our notes on the vowel, so we need to understand the length of the consonants in order to judge when to place the notes or chords with the singer.

Diction from the accompanist's perspective: views from Bernard Tan Melofonetica

Just as a knowledge of diction helps the accompanist collaborate better with the singer, a good level of diction from the singer will help the accompanist to be more sensitive and musical.

From your perspective, why does the singer need good diction?

Just as a knowledge of diction helps the accompanist collaborate better with the singer, a good level of diction from the singer will help the accompanist to be more sensitive and musical. Good diction not only produces clearer text, but is also an expressive tool for more beautiful singing. This directly influences the accompanist because when a singer knows how to use diction in expression, the accompanist will naturally follow the expression created by the singer. In some cases, in the instrumental introduction of a piece, the accompanist will create the expression for the piece based on the text, and then the singer will continue this, making it a heart-warming collaboration.

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

The thing that I see many singers struggle with is pronouncing the stop consonants. This is true for native speakers of many languages because stop consonants are not in our nature. For English speakers, producing a correct t consonant in Italian is also often difficult, but it is important to address this because t is one of the key consonants for a more authentic Italian sound.

How have you found working with the Melofonetica Method?

I started working with Matteo and getting to know the Melofonetica Method in 2016. The method has hugely enhanced my approach to Italian repertoire and has made me a better coach. It has helped me to understand the structure of the Italian language in music, and to be so much more sensitive to texts. As a result, I’m able to give much more effective suggestions when I coach singers in Italian repertoire.

Bernard joins us as a coach on our Veneto Opera Summer School. You can find out more about Bernard here or on his website.

Are you an accompanist?

Would you like to share your thoughts on diction or find out more about working with the Melofonetica Method? Places for accompanists are available on our courses throughout the year and we also work with accompanists on a one-to-one basis. Get in touch with us here.

Veneto Opera Summer School: alumni insights from Emma and Tom

We talk to Emma Dogliani, soprano and Tom Niesser, baritone, who attended the advanced and professional level week of last year’s Veneto Opera Summer School.

What’s your favourite memory from the summer school?

Emma: I have two favourite memories: the day that Matteo delivered fantastic and totally liberating news about vowel modification and the amazing hot day when we ate a delicious lunch and went wine tasting in the Prosecco vineyards.

Tom: It’s really difficult to pick a favourite memory as there were so many, but performing for a knowledgeable Italian audience in their native language and in such a wonderful setting was a very special experience. You really felt that the music of Donizetti and Puccini made even more sense.

How has attending the course helped you in your singing career?

Emma: The course has further developed my singing of Italian opera and songs and solidified my whole technique just in time for my first Verdi role of Luisa Miller, which I returned to Matteo for help with. I have also sung Donna Anna again in Italian since taking the course, and have used everything I learned last summer, over and over again. I have also incorporated much into my own teaching.

Tom: I am very lucky that I will be starting a Master’s course in Vocal Studies at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in September. I performed a couple of the pieces I had worked on with Matteo in my audition and also felt that I was able to apply his rules to other Italian pieces. The panel was very impressed with my sung Italian!

Veneto Opera Summer School: alumni insights from Emma and Tom Melofonetica
In coaching and rehearsal sessions

What advice would you give others who are considering applying for the summer school?

Emma: I would advise anyone who has the opportunity to take this course. Matteo is a fantastic teacher. He is always clear, always helpful, a perfect balance of encouraging as well as demanding, and absolutely committed to the spreading of excellent Italian singing. His method encourages everyone to sing not only with more clarity of diction but with better, more engaged vocal technique. Matteo and Jamila are also wonderful hosts. They know the area inside out and go out of their way to look after you. Even when I created a big problem by leaving my phone in a bar, they were immediately on the phone and sorting it all out!

Tom: I would tell anybody who is thinking about taking the course to embrace it – I was sceptical at first, as I hadn’t heard of the Melofonetica Method before, but the whole group could feel an improvement having spent the week listening and working closely with Matteo and the other coaches. It would be wrong not to also mention just how good the food and atmosphere was for the whole week, and every aspect was well thought out and properly planned (and that coming from a German!).

What are your current singing projects and what’s on the horizon?

Emma: I have lots of concerts with my chamber music trio coming up as well as oratorio next year and a production of Die Fledermaus. Even when I sing in languages other than Italian, Matteo’s approach to consonants has been so useful. I am an absolute fan and am almost tempted to retake the course! 🙂

Tom: Aside from starting my Master’s course at the Guildhall School in September, I will be playing the role of Littore with the Berlin Opera Academy in August, as well as performing regularly in concerts across North Wales.

Click here to find out more about this year’s Veneto Opera Summer School and how to apply.

Click here to read more about the Melofonetica Method.

Lily Scott shares her highlights of Veneto Opera Summer School

Lily Scott shares her highlights of Veneto Opera Summer School Melofonetica
Lily Scott

We talk to Lily Scott, soprano, who attended the advanced and professional level week of last year’s Veneto Opera Summer School in Bassano del Grappa.

What’s your favourite memory from the summer school?

The concert that we gave at the end of the week at the Museo Civico in Bassano del Grappa was an unforgettable experience: probably the most charming and beautiful venue I’ve sung in. Singing in the open air also really reinforced the importance of communicating the text and how the right execution can be so much more emotive for the audience. It was also a joy and privilege to be able to sing in Italian, in Italy, to an Italian audience!

Lily Scott shares her highlights of Veneto Opera Summer School Melofonetica
Performing in the final concert in Bassano del Grappa

How has attending the course helped you in your singing career?

My goal is always that my performance is indiscernible from that of a native speaker. The principles of the Melofonetica Method have had a powerful effect on my ability to achieve this in Italian, and as a result I have secured concerts in Spain, Germany and Italy.

Something that really stood out to me during the course was Matteo’s attention to the significance of consonants. I have noticed a HUGE difference when applying this part of the method to my singing. I am deeply grateful to Matteo for the extra confidence he helped me develop.

The incredible mentoring and guidance from Conductor, Peter Ford and Répétiteur, Julie Aherne also cannot go unmentioned – their advice and angle on the Melofonetica Method was so helpful and enriching.

Lily Scott shares her highlights of Veneto Opera Summer School Melofonetica
Lily in a coaching session with Matteo

What advice would you give others who are considering applying for the summer school?

Do not hesitate! The course is a deeply informative series of seminars and performance workshops taking place every day which guarantee significant improvement in your voice and Italian delivery.

The immersion in Italian culture in the astounding Veneto region is also invaluable; we had (probably way too much) delicious food and wine, visited the vineyards, explored Bassano and Asolo and Venice … the whole experience was fantastic, organised by Jamila (Academy Manager) whose planning was meticulous!

What are your current singing projects and what’s on the horizon?

I’m currently working professionally as a singer and performances this month include a concert of world and folk choral music with London Contemporary Voices at Union Chapel, London, and singing the Spanish and English National Anthems for a national professional mixed martial arts (MMA) event. There are also some music festivals on the horizon in the summer in the UK, France and Italy, for which I am extremely excited!

Click here to find out more about this year’s Veneto Opera Summer School and how to apply.

Italian is a language built to be sung

Matteo Dalle Fratte, Founder of Melofonetica, explains how the evolution of the Italian language is directly linked to the birth of opera, and the key phonetic characteristics that give the language its beauty and musicality.

The Italian language is one of the most widespread languages in the world, not just because of the diffusion of Italian cuisine and fashion, but also because of the popularity of the libretti of Mozart, Puccini and Verdi’s operas.

So, what is it about the language that makes it so enjoyable to hear, particularly in its sung form? To answer this, it’s interesting to understand firstly how the language was created, before looking at the phonetic qualities and innate rhythm of the language itself.


The birth of Italian

The Italian language as we know it today was originally conceived for artistic use in the 13th century by poets. The half-Norman king Federico II di Svevia, King of Sicily was himself a poet and he spoke six languages fluently. He wanted to define a language that would be the most beautiful to hear in poetry recital, so he tasked the best poets from Sicily and the mainland (together called the ‘Sicilian School’) with devising the most beautiful form of spoken language (volgare) for use in art.

Sicily was a very multi-cultural place at that time, being an economic hotspot in the middle of the Mediterranean, with an incredible exchange of goods, culture and languages. The poets could therefore draw on the most beautiful sounding words they could find from the dialects spoken in Sicily and across the Italian peninsula, but also Latin, Provencal, Arabic and Greek. They crafted them together into a language whose written form was dictated by the spoken form, and protected as such – rather than the examples of French or English, where the spoken form continued to evolve, while the written form remained fixed.

This process of defining the most beautiful form of literary Italian continued into the 14th century and reached a peak of perfection, particularly in Tuscany, with the work of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio in Florence, who sought to elevate the status of literary Italian in art to the same level as Latin.

This form of the language is the version that was again promoted in the 16th century by Pietro Bembo to be the most beautiful language for artistic use. Unlike in other countries, where linguists were looking to modernise, Bembo chose to look to the past for the best version of the language.

The beautiful sounds of this language were already inspiring Peri, Caccini and Monteverdi’s librettists, not only for use in madrigals, but also in their new art form of acting while singing i.e., recitar cantando, or ‘reciting while singing’ – the birth of Italian opera.

Subsequently, in the 19th century, at the time of Unification, the renowned Italian poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni confirmed that this language should become the official language of the newly unified Italian nation i.e., italiano neutro or standard Italian as we now know it today.


The phonetic qualities of Italian

The beauty of the sound of italiano neutro seems to many to lie in the beautiful sounds of its oral and pure vowels. But the unique properties responsible for the success of this language, especially in singing, are in fact its consonants.

Latin is a language where both vowels and consonants have distinctive duration, i.e., upon which meaning is based (phonemic). French, German and English have all inherited the distinctive duration of vowels but they have all lost the distinctive duration of consonants.

Italian, on the other hand, went in the opposite direction. It retained the characteristic of the phonemic duration of consonants i.e., meaning made by the length of consonants, not by the length of vowel sounds. Saying that you know ‘la nona di Beethoven’ (Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony) is not to be confused with saying that you know ‘la nonna di Beethoven’ (Beethoven’s grandmother) for example! Distinctive vowel lengths from Latin, on the other hand, have been lost in Italian, with vowels becoming sounds that have a phonetic but not a phonemic value i.e., they don’t change the meaning of words.

This fundamental characteristic gives Italian a specific phonetic pattern or rhythm. In spoken – and sung – Italian, the sequence of ‘staccato’ and ‘tenuto’ sounds created by long and short consonants, is also what gives Italian its musicality. This rhythmic sequence of consonants provides the framework from which the vowel sounds can be projected and shine.


‘Melophonetics’ – understanding the sounds of sung language

Melos in Greek means melody, and phonetics is the study of the sounds and signs of language. Melophonetics, or melofonetica in Italian, is a new term created as a result of my research into the science of sounds in sung Italian in opera and classical music. While phonetics applies to spoken language, melophonetics focuses on the articulation of sounds, diction and expression in sung language.


The importance of consonants in sung Italian

Looking in more detail at melophonetics in Italian, the correct articulation of long consonants is so important because it helps the singer with breath support, projection and expression.

Long consonants in Italian are approximately four times longer than a short consonant. The partial or complete obstruction of sound activated by the articulators (lips, tongue, palate and larynx) of the long consonants (in particular ‘stop consonants’), engages the muscles involved in the breathing apparatus and increases subglottal pressure, both important elements for supporting the production of the vowel(s) that follow. The effect of long consonants, and the agogic accent that they produce, also give incredible expression and dramatic tension to the text.

Understanding the phonetic structure of Italian enables the singer to identify not only the obvious double and groups of consonants written in the text, but also the ‘hidden’ long consonants. These include ‘self-geminated’ consonants that are always pronounced as long consonant sounds and don’t have a ‘short’ version, such as the z [ʣʣ / ʦʦ] sound in the word azione [aʦʦjone], and ‘co-geminated’ consonants – a rule that comes from Latin where a single consonant sound is preceded by a vowel at the end of a word and forms a long consonant sound, e.g., a casa becomes ‘accasa’; e mio becomes ‘emmio’ etc.


What about Italian vowels?

There are nine vowel sounds (vocoids) in spoken Italian but they do not translate exactly into singing. A sung operatic vowel can be anywhere on a wide spectrum of sound, depending on resonance, timbre and dynamic, as long as the sound is recognisable as one of the five pure and oral vowels. The same principle applies in spoken italiano neutro, when, the articulation of vowels in words is adapted because of speed, expression or emphasis, for example.

At a spoken level, open and closed e and o vowel sounds are variable elements. Without mentioning all the variations that exist between dialects, even in italiano neutro, when words are put together into phrases, open and closed vowels then vary according to the ictus (rhythmical or metrical stress) of the sentence.

This variability was also recognised by the great poets in the 13th century who built poetry to be recited (the maximum achievement for a poet was to have his composition recited, or eventually sung). Within the very strict and complex rules of Italian metrics, they made the revealing choice to remove open and closed vowels in rhyme, e.g., the rhyming of core (o open) with amore (o closed). In his detailed examination of Italian poetry throughout the centuries, Elwert describes distinct open and closed vowel sounds as “fonologicamente irrilevanti” i.e., phonologically irrelevant!


Achieving correct and authentic sung Italian

Looking at Italian through the lens of melophonetics, we can see that even though it is perceived as a language that’s famous for its beautiful vowel sounds, this is in fact a result of the underlying framework of consonant sounds that enable clear and resonant vowels to be well-projected and beautifully shaped.

The correct sequence and production of long and short consonant sounds is fundamental for singers to achieve an authentic Italian sound. Thanks to the innate sounds and rhythm in the language, getting this right doesn’t just mean the ability to achieve correct diction, but also to sing with greater expressiveness and better phrasing.

The poets in the 13th century selected the right phonetic ingredients to make the language beautiful to hear. It’s important that we protect and preserve the beauty and tradition of this heritage, and recognise that not only the meaning, but also the sounds and rhythm of this language, have inspired the music of the great operatic composers across four centuries of Italian repertoire.