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Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy.

Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy. By James Stark. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999. [xxv, 325 p. ISBN 0-8020-4703-3. $75.]

James Stark's study of bel canto, the historic vocal method developed in Italy during the baroque period, follows in the tradition of pedagogical inquiry begun by Victor Alexander Fields more than half a century ago. Fields's Training the Singing Voice: An Analysis of the Working Concepts Contained in Recent Contributions to Vocal Pedagogy (New York: King's Crown Press, 1947; reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1979) was a first attempt to sift through the mass of confusion in the published account of the science and art of singing in the early twentieth century. His approach was systematic and quantitative, and as such did not extend to the bold historical judgments attempted by Stark. Nonetheless, Fields's work, in creating a bibliography of vocal treatises examined by category, began a trend of greater objectivity. This was continued by Philip A. Duey (Bel Canto in Its Golden Age: A Study of Its Teaching Concepts [New York: King's Crown Press, 1951; reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1980]), John Carroll Burgin (Teachin g Singing [Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1973]), and Brent Jeffrey Monahan (The Art of Singing: A Compendium of Thoughts on Singing Published between 1777 and 1927 [Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1978]).

Stark identifies the pivotal figure of Manuel Garcia (1805-1906) as the individual through whom the earlier bel canto teaching tradition was united with the modern scientific approach in the teaching of singing. The singing profession has credited Garcia with inventing the laryngoscope, but Stark has done his homework and frames this traditional claim in a more accurate historical context. Though others in the nineteenth century experimented with laryngeal examinations, Garcia was unique in desiring to study the singing voice. Stark also makes the point that Garcia's examinations were performed only on himself and extended only so far as to produce evidence to support his evolving theories about the function of the glottis. Stark's project examines Garcia's major claims about vocal technique in order to (1) substantiate them insofar as possible by means of modern scientific measurements, and (2) trace their roots from the earliest developments of the bel canto tradition. Stark's scientific explorations of Ga rcia's claims are summarized in an appendix.

In chapter 7, Stark proposes a new definition of bel canto, one based on the representative vocal techniques involved and on the style of composition developed for their expression. His definition, more functional than historical, fills a need that voice teachers, confronting the array of alternative vocal techniques arising from popular idioms and the relatively recent advent of electronic amplification, will understand. While bel canto has its roots in the historic Italian tradition, it is still the predominant technique of the classically trained acoustic opera and concert singer. Stark's book spans the chasm separating the empirical approach to bel canto of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries from the more recent scientific attempts to quantify it.

Each chapter tackles a major area of controversy in the historical record, beginning with Garcia's coup de la glotte. Stark argues that Garcia was identifying firm adduction of the vocal folds as the necessary first step to a balanced, operatic onset and continuing phonation. Further, the coup de la glotte was greatly misunderstood, and much incorrect science in the early twentieth century was cited to argue against it. Stark traces the views of glottal closure from the time of Garcia through more recent research, concluding that Garcia's technique probably reflected the actual practice of many operatic singers then and now. Continuing in this process of reconciling the historical record with modern scientific inquiry, Stark examines the timbral question of chiaroscuro, concluding that singers engage the vocal tract in producing this quality of both "cover" (by lowering the larynx) and brightness (by intensifying the singer's formant).

The chapter on vocal registers is necessarily somewhat tentative, as more scientific research is needed to understand the interplay of factors in the control mechanisms of trained singers. Clearly, in the bel canto tradition, the goal is to produce a seamless texture of sound throughout the vocal range. The number of distinct registers of the voice, or the question of whether separate registers exist at all, was a matter of bitter controversy at the time of Garcia. Science today has established certain distinct functional positions of the vocal folds, but much more research must be done to reconcile the historic treatises with actual vocal function. In regard to breath control (termed appoggio in the bel canto tradition), similar difficulties emerge. Voice science affirms that the resistance work of breath for bel canto singing is significantly different than in other techniques of singing or speaking. Nevertheless, the strategies employed by individual singers involve such a wide range of variables that fur ther research is necessary to understand this process more fully.

The chapter on vocal tremulousness begins to examine the phenomenon of vibrato and its causes. This quality of the singing voice is related to the interaction of muscular efforts in phonation and is therefore affected by breath pressure, glottal closure, and a number of other factors. Historic treatises commonly consider vibrato a controlled element of the singing voice. Its presence is often more pronounced in the delivery of heavier roles in nineteenth- and twentieth-century opera. Stark proposes that vibrato results from complex functions of the singing voice and that it is controllable, if indirectly, since it is measurably variable. Again, his conclusions are tentative, as more research is needed in this area as well.

Stark's discussion of idiom and expression begins with an examination of the heavy emphasis on producing word and meaning encountered constantly in treatises from the earliest period of bel canto. He adds to this discussion the insights of contemporary aesthetics and science.

The culminating chapter proposes a new approach to understanding bel canto. Stark's thesis is that the technique was invented and advanced in the late sixteenth century by court singers in northern Italy, many of whom were women; he gives much credit to Giulio Caccini for its early development and dissemination. The phenomenon of the castrato followed the development of the bel canto style quite naturally, as the castrato voice was capable of producing the bel canto sound in a highly successful way. Had the castrati not emerged, argues Stark, the bel canto tradition would still have held sway in Europe, as its roots predate the popularity of the castrato voice on the secular stage.

This book joins the best of the recent studies in voice pedagogy. It is impeccably researched and compellingly written.
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Title Annotation:Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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