Bel canto in Britain, Britain in bel canto

Kenneth E Querns-Langley shares his hopes for the upcoming London Bel Canto Festival and the challenges of teaching bel canto technique.

The London Bel Canto Festival is an international music festival and academy focused on the development of young opera singers and the reinvigoration of bel canto. It acts as an academy for young singers, hosts performances, and promotes new music. Each of these pillars supports an aspect of the bel canto tradition. Our goal is to increase public awareness of both bel canto in Britain, and Britain in bel canto.

The concept of bel canto is rooted in the old Italian operatic tradition, and I admit that precisely what constitutes bel canto can be quite controversial. My goal with this is to help singers and the public to come to terms with its multifaceted nature, and understand how it can be brought forward into the twentieth century while keeping its historical roots intact.

Bel canto not only describes an operatic repertoire and period style, but also an applied vocal technique and style of singing. At the festival we teach each singer to use the historical techniques of the master bel canto teachers to produce the healthiest voice regardless of repertoire.

The festival is a truly international festival that has performers and teachers from North America, Asia, Africa and Europe. I am always fascinated by each student’s unique set of skills and languages, which affect how they learn and sing. An individual’s native language sets up the basic structure of their voice and varies significantly from one student to another. I have also found that linguistic tendencies can have dramatic influence on muscular coordination and the mechanical setup of the voice – some songs may require sounds that are not within the singer’s native language.

Cultural differences can also come into play when learning to sing from teachers who do not share a cultural framework. Helping students to achieve a free and resonant tone can require imagery that is not necessarily universal, and requires extra creativity on the part of the teacher and more than a bit of patience on both parts.

As London is a truly international city, bringing a multitude of cultures together here is completely natural. This city is a crossroad of international music, theatre, style, food and languages. The draw of the city has been so great over the centuries that most of the greatest musicians and artists have made their way to London at some point in their careers including a young Mozart, Haydn, Handel, Mendelsohn, and the great bel canto composer Bellini to name just a few.

Further, the greatest singers in history have performed here, and the greatest singing teachers like Manuel Garcia Jr and Mathilde Marchesi lived here. Garcia lived in Cricklewood to be exact, and taught at the Royal Academy of Music for 50 years. His vocal tradition shaped the future of singing and is passed down to us today, through his students, upon which much of the pedagogy of the festival academy is based.

The history and literature of Britain also figure quite prominently in bel canto. Donizetti wrote multiple operas based on British literature, like Sir Walter Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor (Lucia di Lammermoor) and the history of the monarchy including his three queens: Elizabeth, Mary Stuart, and Ann Boleyn. Rossini also wrote operas based on Shakespeare and the British monarchy.

The standing of Britain among the greatest artistic nations is undeniable, but we tend to defer to the continent when it comes to high opera. My focus through the festival is in bringing bel canto home and re-establishing Britain as major influence on the future of opera on an international level, not second to European houses. Britain was there in the beginning of the development of the bel canto movement, and will be a powerhouse of the future.

The London Bel Canto Festival runs from 6-22 August.