So many questions run through every young singer’s mind grappling with the five hundred and one skills necessary to succeed in kick starting an opera career. Lyric diction is one of the most important things we need to master, but we don’t give it its “just deserves”? Food for thought, is it not?
I am a young freelance Opera Singer and Italian and English Lyric Diction Coach, based in Munich and an extremely passionate polyglot with an insatiably curious mind for the how and why. I grew up in a bilingual Greek-speaking migrant household in Melbourne, Australia, where the wide nasality of the characteristic Australian twang was met with elliptical, warm undertones of our rich and melodious, somewhat sanguine Cypriot dialect of the deep Eastern Mediterranean. My language experience was literally the horizontal meeting the vertical and as dichotomous, convoluted and intriguing as any product of the diaspora usually is. For me, language has been my primary tool of perceiving emotions, colours, people and, most importantly, music. Only days before quarantine measures came into effect, I was sitting in an interview with the Casting Director of the Bayerische Staatsoper discussing some contractual work as an English Diction Coach in the 2020/2021 season and my simultaneous internship in Italian operatic repertoire with the current team. I was ecstatic. Then quarantine happened, our season cancelled and my internship interrupted, effective immediately. As a singer, auditions for houses and agencies were also cancelled for the immediate future.
I asked myself: “How can I contribute to opera in a time when no performance is possible? What can I give if not my voice”? The answer - Words. Singers exist because of words. Verdi gave particular gravitas to “the word” when he crafted la parolascenica. His theory? That drama reaches its orgasmic culmination through a perfect synergy of thematic and linguistic choice. Key to beautiful singing, powerful interpretation and unforgettable performance is a faultless vocalic technique and clarion diction, beginning in the mind of the singer. I am not speaking about vocal technique; rather vocalic technique which is its source. The Italian language lends itself perfectly to the art of singing due to the purity of the seven vowels.
Vowels provide the space for our singing and our fundamental resonance and expression. Narrow and wide vowel groupings are determined by the relationship a vowel has to its mother vowel of I (narrow) and A (wide), respectively. Not opening or closing a vowel correctly can cause a real fault in the natural chiaroscuro balancing scheme of the voice leading to timbre distortion and the old, familiar audition feedback: “Is that your real voice?” or words to that effect. Often, there is a tendency to want “to do something” to help the diction by “placing the voice” in the mask OR to overproduce our vowels to achieve a more mature sound, especially as a young singer.
I really encourage you to resist the temptation of placing your voice. Take time to explore the similarity and difference between anatomy and your perception of sound. Antonio Juvarra, one of the greatest living theoreticians of bel canto and published Ricordi author, states that the concept of mask is non-existent. Sound resonates through the size and skeletal structure of its subject, in this case, the singer. Accurate declamation of the vowels provides you with the perfect vocal position - period. No active muscular intervention is required nor necessitated. Why? Because interfering with our natural pure vowel formats interrupts the legato line. Think the vowel clearly in your mind and your body will do the rest. By being faithful to the vowel, we discover a unique authenticity and truth to all the wonderful qualities of our own, individual instruments. Be the master of your own voice and master all its quirks. Face yourself. No one knows you and your voice better than yourself. It could save all of us a lot of money, tears and frustrations, if we recognised the importance of language from the outset. As a conservatory student, I remember being taught that text ought to be clearly enunciated regardless of where the singer finds themself in their tessitura. Some coaches asked me to actively modulate the vowel as I went through the first passaggio: Dome shape, soft-palate lift, copertura, inalare la voce – you get the gist. Others wanted a clear vowel declamation on a top C. Guess what? Both are right, strangely. But to what degree? The truth lies in the uniqueness of each singer’s anatomy and in the initial thought of the sung word: Say the vowel in your mind. The container of sound is the vowel and if this is unclear, then your diction will also be unclear.
Basically, sound arranges itself in a non-spatial and non-local way around the idea of a comfortable vowel format for your physiognomy. So, get comfortable with your vowels. Observe yourself in the mirror and move through your tessitura on one vowel. Examine the physiognomic adjustments your body naturally makes as you sing through your range, clearly pronouncing the vowel repeatedly in your mind: Say the vowel! Don’t look for harmonics by squashing the sound (schiacciare), or dropping your jaw to your knees or widening the corners of your mouth. If you move the position of the vowel or vocal position (vowel translates to vocale in Italian), so much that it becomes visible, the sound becomes scoperto or distorted. We reveal our trick and subsequently lose the ability to enchant our audience, incantare. Perfect diction is the combination of the clarity of the word in your mind and a relaxed, outward physical invisibility. If you can execute this, you’ll never have to worry about placing a sound anywhere because that’s already taken care of. Kolinsky et al., 2009, reference in the title of their paper that “vowels sing, but consonants speak”. Consonants channel our vowels and offer rhythmic beauty and acoustic undulation, μελωδία (Gk. Melody). They form the musical pattern and natural lilt of the language. The correct sequence and production of long and short consonant sounds is important for the prosody and acquisition of that native speaker flow we so desperately seek first in our text declamation and then in our singing. We call this doubling or raddoppiamento fonosintattico and it’s the icing on the cake of Italian lyric diction. Doubling is a present feature of normal native Tuscan pronunciation (central Italy) - the chosen lingua neutra of Dante Alighieri and throughout Southern Italy. It’s less prevalent in the dialects of the north. For the most part, in the Italian language, consonants ought to be the connective glue between the vowels; our relatively unsung heroes of appoggio. Our vowels remain the stars of the show but understanding how to treat our consonants unlocks the spatial potential of our vowels. So, aside from the major technical benefits like reduced tongue tension, a flexible soft palate and optimised pharyngeal space, what else is Lyric Diction good for? To put it plainly, the audience can understand you. In my opinion, Lyric Diction is the prime subject all singers should master before approaching Italian operatic repertoire.
More importantly, passion for the language; albeit Italian, Arabic or Mongolian, and learning, in general, is the key to art that moves people – It is the visceral, hard core emotion like the stuff Callas sold to her public. Language transcends time and place and opens hearts. I encourage you all to explore the intricacies of language and culture by traveling widely and accepting people and experiences with great receptivity, tolerance and impartiality. These are all skills necessary to survive in the opera industry and in life, period, so why not use the linguistic road map and jump in head first?
I'm offering a free 15-minute meet and-greet to all Living Opera subscribers, supporters and community members! If you read this article and are curious to do some work. Send me an email, I’d love to hear from you! You can also enrol for the next Masterclass OR book your coaching HERE.
• BILINGUAL: The Collins Italian English Dictionary. Download the app version (one-time payment)! It’s fantastic and complete with IPA and verb tables.
• MONOLINGUAL: click here for an amazing resource in Italian!
• I beg you, no Nico Castel