Bel canto simply means beautiful singing or beautiful song. It refers to a style of singing in Italy which started to evolve significantly with the creation of opera at the beginning of the 17th century. Unlike sacred music, opera required great drama and heightened emotions, which in turn needed greater agility, range and power. Consequently, vocal development rose to the occasion. Bel canto is sometimes misconstrued as pretty, but modest vocalising. Yet contemporary accounts testify to the power and volume of many of these legendary singers - and their ability to thrill as well as touch and delight an audience.
Interestingly, the term 'bel canto' is relatively modern. The old bel canto maestri - Tosi, Mancini, Porpora, Bernacchi, et al., didn't think of themselves as specialists in beautiful singing. They simply achieved it as a matter of course. The big question is - how did they do it?
Anybody who has an interest in the history of singing could not fail to be impressed by the extravagant adulation accorded to such great singers as Farinelli, Giovanni Rubini, Giuditta Pasta, Luigi Lablache, Jenny Lind, etc.. They were the superstars of their era and transcended the demographic. The great singers of the day beguiled all with their art and the beauty of their voices. It would therefore be fascinating to read the treatises of their singing teachers. When we do so, one of the most striking things is not what we learn, but what we don't learn. Those 20th and 21st century obsessions - voice placement and breathing - are barely mentioned. What we get is a relatively short supply of archaic and sometimes florid language - which seems to say very little - and lots of exercises. It has even been suggested by several commentators that the old masters cloaked their skills in secrecy, wouldn't put pen to paper and only handed down their arcane knowledge from generation to generation in the studio. I think we can discountenance this theory. Anybody who has been involved in the singing profession would know that it's difficult to keep a secret for five minutes - let alone several centuries!
Therefore we literally need to take things as read. Italian singing teachers would have inherited many students with natural voices, helped by being brought up in a singer-friendly language. If there were any vocal faults, they would have been eradicated
Pier Francesco Tosi (1653-1732)
empirically by trial and error. Not by 'placing' the voice or overwhelming it with a dislocated breathing technique - but simply by freeing the tone and keeping it pure and steady. When the voice works in a natural way it 'places' itself and is automatically connected to the requisite degree of breath pressure, which in turn develops with use. And that, I believe, is why these historical treatises on singing didn't talk about voice placement and breathing techniques. To them, they were unnecessary in the true culture of voice.
Having found the natural voice, it would then be developed with a series of exercises designed to develop range, agility, sostenuto, legato and dynamic control - which would in turn enhance expression - resulting in bel canto. Luckily, we have proven links to this great historical school - recorded and filmed evidence of amazing artists who sang with great power and beauty and yet who made it appear effortless. There is so much audio and visual material available and it goes back as far as the baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure, who was born in 1830 - only two years after Schubert's death and nine before Verdi premiered his first opera! So, right through from Adelina Patti and Mattia Battistini to Julia Lezhneva and Javier Camarena via Enrico Caruso, Rosa Ponselle, Kirsten Flagstad, Nicolai Gedda, Maria Callas, Montserrat Caballé, Luciano Pavarotti, Edita Gruberová and many, many more, it is possible in all recorded eras to find a way of singing that provides the fundamentals of bel canto - beauty, power, expression and ease of emission.