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What exactly is bel canto? It’s a way of singing and, for some, an addiction.

Juan Diego Florez, one of today’s leading bel canto tenors, singing at the Kennedy Center in 2010. You may hear him in an occasional light Verdi or Puccini role, but, for the most part, he sticks to Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, the three main bel canto composers. (Evy Mages/For The Washington Post)
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Every so often, when I’m pontificating about opera, in print or in person, a reader or an editor will ask me, “But what exactly is bel canto?” And I’m brought up short.

The quickest answer is, “It means ‘beautiful singing.’ ” That doesn’t explain much. Yet when I say, “Bel canto denotes the style of Italian opera of the early 19th century, specifically the works of Gioachino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini” — well, that gives you the facts, but it still doesn’t really help you. (It doesn’t even let you know how you are most likely to have heard of those three composers, who wrote “The Barber of Seville,” “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “Norma,” respectively.)

I could tell you that bel canto operas tend to have dated plots, filled with romance-novel-ish retellings of history, and heroines who keep going mad at inopportune moments. Or I could tell you that bel canto can be intoxicating, and that just trying to find examples to play for you led me to hours of bingeing on old YouTube videos, grinning like an idiot. But I’m not sure that will help you, either. Bel canto, I realize, is a little bit like a drug: Descriptions tend to sound either clinical or loopily subjective. To really get it, you need to experience it for yourself, by listening to recordings, watching videos or going to a performance such as Rossini’s seldom-played “Zelmira,” which the Washington Concert Opera is offering with Lawrence Brownlee next Friday evening.

But at least I can give you some orientation.

Bel canto is supposed to be the quintessential way to sing opera. The style is associated with beautiful melodies, silvery voices and floods of rapid notes curling their way up and down the scale, sometimes only loosely around the framework of what the composer actually wrote. Because opera singing is not amplified, one of its basic techniques is developing sufficient breath support to enable your voice to be heard in a 3,000-seat theater without a microphone. Teachers often tell singers to visualize a solid column of air, starting from your diaphragm (or lower) and extending up to your throat, atop which your voice is perched like a golden marble. With good breath support, a singer can spin out a long, long line of music — legato is the term for the flowing unbroken string of connected notes — and bel canto composers wrote long, long melodies for them to sing.

Tenors and sopranos who sing bel canto tend to have lighter voices than those who sing, say, Verdi and Puccini. The tenors, in particular, are the welterweights of the opera world. We are currently in a new golden age of bel canto tenors, with Juan Diego Florez, Lawrence Brownlee and Javier Camarena three of the prime exponents. But the only Verdi or Puccini roles you’ll see them in are the lighter ones, like the Duke in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” or Alfredo in “La Traviata.” Puccini seldom calls for a high C, and never for the high F that Bellini threw in for the tenor lead of his opera “I Puritani.”

Bel canto voices also need a lot of flexibility to sing all those fast notes. This doesn’t necessarily mean a smaller voice; indeed, some of the great powerhouse mezzo-sopranos of recent memory, such as Marilyn Horne and Ewa Podles, have dazzled in bel canto, and the sopranos Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas were not exactly vocally puny. But generally speaking, a very high upper extension often goes hand in hand with a lighter instrument.

As for the high C: The kind of C you hear today is a relatively recent development. In the heyday of bel canto, tenors tackled most notes above a B as falsettos, like a crooner; when the tenor Gilbert-Louis Duprez first tried a full-voiced high C, in Rossini’s “William Tell” in 1831, Rossini compared the sound to the squawk of a capon being strangled. Nonetheless, the note caught on and Duprez’s style displaced an established bel canto tradition, to the point that we expect full-voiced high notes. To get an idea of the contrast, listen to Pavarotti’s gorgeous falsetto high F in “I Puritani” (toward the end of the ensemble “Credeasi misera”) and compare it to the full-voiced take of someone like Nicolai Gedda, also far from shabby, in the same piece. (You can also, on YouTube, find more than one video comparing different tenors’ renditions of this same note, over and over; this is what opera-lovers do for fun. Welcome to my world.) The ne plus ultra of the high-C tradition, the opera that sealed Pavarotti’s American fame as “King of the High C’s” in 1972, is Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment,” which Javier Camarena has recently made his own at the Met, overturning decades of company tradition by actually giving encores (most recently last month).

Although the ideals of bel canto singing have never gone entirely out of style in vocal pedagogy, some of the details — the trills; or the technique called messa di voce, in which a singer swells the voice from very quiet to very loud and back down to quiet in a single sustained gesture; or the art of singing clean coloratura without making chugga-chugga noises in your throat (a controversial point) — have blurred for many singers. This is in part because the actual bel canto repertoire, dated both in its stories and in its ornate style (with each slower aria followed by a faster cabaletta to show off vocal pyrotechnics), was essentially neglected for a hundred years or so, until the middle of the 20th century, when Callas (and others) started exploring it anew and mining these works for their expressive and dramatic potential, rather than just using them as vehicles for gorgeous sound.

Opera companies still tend to focus on only a few titles: Donizetti wrote more than 70 operas, of which only a handful are in regular rotation, and Rossini is mainly remembered for his comic operas, although during his lifetime he was revered for his many serious ones, such as “Zelmira.” Bellini died cruelly young, at 33, but left some of the most beautiful bel canto operas, and arguably the longest legacy, affecting everyone from Chopin to Verdi to Wagner. (Wagner, notably, wanted bel canto singers in his own operas, but the musical language he developed, with its huge orchestras and roles, gradually evolved another breed of powerful, heroic singer — who too often neglects the legato lines and beautiful singing style that are bel canto’s tangible legacy to opera.)

Sure, these heightened melodramas can seem dated. Yet their emotions, if you can see through the historical trappings, still ring true. Take the end of Act I of “Norma,” when the older woman listens sympathetically to the younger woman’s confession of an illicit affair, only to find that they are both having affairs with the same man — who, seeing that the secret is out, promptly blames not himself, but the younger woman for spilling the beans. (“Me?” she says, incredulously.) It could be a scene from “Mad Men,” if the women in question didn’t happen to be Druid priestesses.

What really carries the feeling through to the present, though, is the voices. There’s a lot of talk these days that opera exists to tell stories. What they do, though, is tell stories through music, specifically through the voices that sing it. Bel canto puts the full spotlight on the voices, which have a visceral effect in a way no other art form quite does. If you want to understand what makes opera special, and exciting to the people who love it, bel canto is not a bad place to start.

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