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