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A STUDY IN EXTROVERSION: Learning and Singing Italian Repertoire

September 2, 2011

The editors of Collective Voice recently posed a handful of questions to performers on VOX 3 Collective’s “Viva Italia!” concert about their experience learning, singing, and speaking Italian.  Below are responses from sopranos Elizabeth Shuman (ES), Alison Wahl (AW), and baritone Sean Stanton (SS).

When and how did you first learn Italian? 

ES: When I was very young, some of my first voice lessons included exercises from the Vaccai Practical Method of Italian Singing. I can still hear the first tune in my head “Manca sollecita…” It was a wonderful tool for learning how to use the language, and I have since used it with my own students.

SS: I learned Italian through a vocal diction class. We learned the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and which sounds were used in the language. The hard part was actually singing the right sounds and in the right order. I would always add letters like “L” or “R” to words for no reason. I had to learn how to read left to right, slowly, to make sure I was pronouncing the language properly.

What things do you try to keep in your head when performing a bel canto piece?

AW: When singing bel canto, I always think about the musical line as it relates to the subtext.  Often the poetic Italian is grammatically convoluted, and I find myself emphasizing unimportant words or syllables because I’m thinking about the individual words, and not the meaning and significance of the phrase.

SS: Legato. Every phrase must be legato from beginning to end or you miss out on the beauty of the vocal line.

How do you approach a new piece written in Italian? 

SS: Text first. I have to write out the IPA in my score and then translate the song into English.

ES: I agree.  I always approach a new piece by focusing on the text. I want to have a deep understanding of what the piece intends to communicate. Writing out the poem or stanzas in a paragraph helps me visualize the language in its pure form, without the distraction of syllabication that is necessary in the score. Speaking the text fluidly with breath support and a sense of line helps me to get a sense of where the emphasis should lie. These are fairly simple tools, but being disciplined and taking the time to utilize them has been very helpful for me.

AW: I have a multi-step process for learning Italian rep.  First, I listen to a recording of an Italian (or someone with documented great Italian diction) singing it, and then I do a word-for-word translation on my sheet music.  After I have that, I do a poetic translation on a separate piece of paper alongside the original text and translation.  After speaking the Italian in rhythm and listening to the recording for a bit, I get to work on learning the music.

What do you like in particular about the pieces you’ll be singing on this concert?

SS: I will be singing “L’ultimo ricordo,” which means “The Last Memory.”  I love Rossini’s setting of this text; he uses his wife’s name in the poem, which adds a little more drama for the singer to portray.

ES: I will be singing two very different pieces.  “Danza, danza, fanciulla gentile” is a passionate call to dance that happens to be in the 24 Italian Songs and Arias, a collection that every young singer is very familiar with. Growing up, I heard this particular song performed by young middle school and high school students at voice contests. It’s fun to explore what I can do with it as a grown woman! And, I’ll confess, I like the low notes. The aria I’ll be singing, “Sul fil d’un soffio etesio,” from Verdi’s Falstaff is one of my favorite pieces to sing. In the opera, this scene is staged outside in a forest in the evening, so I am excited about the opportunity to perform it outside on our first concert.

Soprano Elizabeth Shuman, Baritone Sean Stanton, Soprano Alison Wahl

Do you have a favorite Italian composer to sing?

ES: I haven’t settled on a favorite composer to sing, but Rossini would probably be my favorite to listen to at this point. The finale for his opera, La Cenerentola, is stunning. When performed well, it can leave both the most discerning and the most inexperienced opera-goers completely breathless. The technical agility required is impressive in its own right, but rather than being simply an impressive vocal exercise, listeners are convinced that it is the natural outpouring of pure joy from the heroine. Here it is sung by Joyce DiDonato.  Bel canto indeed!

Have you been to Italy?  If so, did your time there influence your understanding of this repertoire?

AW: I spent the summer of 2009 in Urbania, Italy.  My host sister was a chef/firefighter/hairdresser, and everything she did was unbelievably passionate.  It took me about a week to realize she wasn’t upset with me or yelling when we spoke; she was just really, really excited about what she was saying!  Whether she was cooking, cleaning the house, or walking her dog, she was outgoing, extroverted, and loud.  She helped me understand the extremely exothermic energy associated with Italian music!

ES: I have been to the border of the Alps on the Swiss side and experienced the view of the Italian side of the great Matterhorn and beyond, but I haven’t had a chance to explore Italy yet. I do have my own little slice if Italian culture here in Chicago, though. I live in Bridgeport and for the past five years my windows have often been filled with the sound of my dear Sicilian neighbor engaged in passionate conversation (in Italian) with whoever will stop and chat. Understanding how passionately Italians communicate is a very important concept for singers to grasp when performing the Italian repertoire. Inhibition is not welcome here!

SS: I have never been toItaly, but my love of pasta may be an influence.

One Comment leave one →
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