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A handy guide to opera lingo (helpful when listening to Jean Stilwell’s interviews with singers)

Station Blog2019-10-3By: Classical Staff

October 8, 2019

When mezzo soprano Jean Stilwell, co-host of “Classical Mornings” with Mike Duncan, interviews a singer, it is very obvious that she herself is an opera singer. She bandies about some lingo (with fantastic pronunciations) that you may be unfamiliar with. Thanks to A. Anderson, a loyal online listener from Florida who wrote in to ask what the terms meant, I was prompted to explain them all. A, thank you for writing in. This post is for you!

Bel Canto singing:
Literal translation is “beautiful singing”. Of course, every singer should sing beautifully, but it refers to a time period when the focus on the sound was more important than anything else (power, range, etc.). So even if you could sing much more loudly, you don’t, necessarily. It was a style that emerged in the mid 1800’s and continues today. The piano equivalent would be Chopin’s music, especially his Preludes. Those small gems that, while they aren’t loud, fast, or powerful, are gorgeous and make you sigh. Sondra Radvanovsky is known for her bel canto singing.

Coloratura:
This refers to the run of fast notes. Cecelia Bartoli is the coloratura queen. It’s usually a light voice type.

Chiaro scuro:
In painting, this refers to “light dark”; in singing, it refers to using your voice “open” or “closed”. It’s the art of combining head and chest voice.

Da capo:
When a verse is repeated, but the second time, you add flourishes (“ornaments”) to make it your own.

Fach:
Pronounced carefully on air, this refers to the area in music in which a singer specializes, and is based on voice type.

Sprechstimme:
When the singer speaks over the music. This is common in music theatre, especially by Kurt Weill.

Legato:
The smooth lines in music, and the phrasing. It’s HUGE for singers.

Marcato:
Literally, “marked”. It’s a kind of emphasis – using the vocal utensils, if you will – to tell the story. It also means to sing full out.

Recitative:
This is sung dialogue to speed the conversation along, and you often hear a harpsichord accompanying with rolled chords. A lighter type of singing is used for this.

Colour:
This refers to the quality of the voice – the timbre. Is a warm or cool voice? In the pop world, Celine Dion has a cool voice, whereas Lady Gaga or Adele have fuller, warmer voices.

Staggered breathing:
When singers in an ensemble breathe at different times to ensure an overall impression of continuity.

Tessitura:
This refers to where voice sits, and what part of the voice you’re using, such as falsetto (very high), head voice (high) or chest voice (low).

Jean often refers to voice types when she interviews singers. Here’s the run-down:
Light soubrette:
The lightest of female voices, for portraying the lively flirtatious character, like a role in a Gilbert and Sullivan production.

Countertenor:
The highest of male voices. The “sister voice” is the female alto, and they share the same range (tessitura).

Lyric voice (male or female):
In between light and heavy, referring to the colour of the sound.

Spinto:
Literally it means pushed. Vocally, it refers to a voice in between lyric and dramatic.

Dramatic voice:
For the heavier repertoire, such as Wagner and Richard Strauss. The late Jessye Norman was the perfect example, along with John Vickers and Ben Heppner. It’s the quality of the voice, and not referring to only lower-pitched voices.

“Classical Mornings with Mike and Jean” airs live from 6 AM – 10 AM weekdays on The New Classical FM. classicalfm.ca

Want something explained? Write Liz Parker, Digital Content Editor (and piano teacher, and occasional stylist) your questions at [email protected] PS to A. Anderson: you also asked about what some musical terms meant. I will tackle that soon!

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