Bel Canto Music

Dame Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti perform in the Metropolitan Opera production of Gaetano Donizetti's opera, Lucia di Lammermoor, on January 9, 1987. The opera is a great example of bel canto music.
Dame Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti perform in the Metropolitan Opera production of Gaetano Donizetti's opera, Lucia di Lammermoor, on January 9, 1987. The opera is a great example of bel canto music. Photo by Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

The Origin of Bel Canto Music

In the early 19th century, Italian opera dominated the scene because of three extremely popular composers: Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti, and Gioachino Rossini. The operas these men created appealed to audiences on an almost primal level; a level that anyone, no matter their intelligence or operatic knowledge, could appreciate. What audiences loved, however, other composers did not.

Some believed these popular operas lacked technical prowess and mastery; the Italian composers turned what once was an academic challenge into something that was "a sensual pleasure and nothing more," as said by Hector Berlioz. Berlioz was greatly dissatisfied with Italian opera at the time and continued by saying, "For this noble expression of the mind [the Italians] have hardly more respect than for the art of cooking. They want a score that, like a plate of macaroni, can be assimilated immediately without their having to think about it, or even to pay attention to it." Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini, and others of similarity knew exactly what their audiences wanted to hear and delivered it abundantly and without hesitation: the voice.

What is Bel Canto Music?

The meaning of bel canto has evolved into many different definitions and interpretations today, but when it was first created in the early 1800s, bel canto singing was a virtuosic skill possessed not only by sopranos, but altos, tenors, and baritones alike.

The singer was expected to have flawless technique, a great purity and brilliance of sound, meticulous diction, soulful expression of emotion, excellence in legato and staccato singing, and last but not least, a mastery of embellishments and improvisation.

Because of the great demands and required skills necessary for singers to perform these bel canto roles, the truly great singers became the stars of the show.

At many times, the great singers outshone the composers who wrote the music, and as their egos grew, their demands seemed to increase exponentially. Singers often rewrote the music to fit their own voice or to cater to their own grandeur. In extreme cases, the newly-penned score would go beyond the composer's recognition! Sopranos would count the number of measures in their arias, then demand the composer to lengthen her aria if she found out the other soprano's aria was longer. And fighting over parts was all in a day's work.

Examples of Bel Canto Singing

Famous Bel Canto Operas

The opera deemed the best example of bel canto singing is Vincenzo Bellini's Norma, (composed in 1830-31) which contains one of the world's most recognizable soprano arias, "Casta Diva.". Read the synopsis of Bellini's Norma. Other bel canto operas include Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor and Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia.

These operas remain crowd favorites today thanks to the mid-20th century revival which featured singers like Dame Joan Sutherland, Maria Callas, Beverly Sills, and Montserrat Caballe. Their flawless performances caught the attention and hearts of millions of people around the world.