Historical Perspectives: The Opera House “Size Myth” Part IV: Rossini, Bellini, Meyerbeer, Berlioz

This is the fourth installment in the Foreman series.

Here are links to Part I, Part II, and Part III.

“Style” is an inclusive word. In this case, the move from contrapuntal style to harmonic is significant, because in the harmonic style, the functional movement of chords drives the music toward climaxes based on tension and release, and that leads to the shaping of melodies – usually capable of being described as “the surface of the harmony” – which inevitably lead to a sustained climactic high note.

The early 19th century style of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti is groping toward this, assisted by  the addition of ornaments by singers who had caught the high note virus. There are still many cadenzas and ornaments that begin with a phrase leading to a high note and taper off from that into rapid passage-work, trills, leaps and other older kinds of ornament. But this period also sees the beginning of the re-shaping of phrases to lead up to high notes, often the penultimate note of an aria.

As an example of what I mean, two cadenzas for the same phrase in Sonnambula, the first by Maria Malibran in the early 1800s:(1)

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The second is from very late, as sung by Regina Pinkert: (2)

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Admittedly, nearly half a century separates these two artists, nevertheless, it is the same aria, the same place, and entirely different esthetics of ornamentation. Pinkert was a throwback to the agile high soprano of the Catalani-Sontag type. But she has lost the essentials of the Bellini style, and would have held the penultimate “Bb” until the audience responded. Sopranos of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who sang Sonnambula were mostly of this nightingale type, employing a well-developed head voice and hardly any chest voice at all (3). When Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland appeared, the right balance of the voice was restored, and Sonnambula became once again more than a showpiece for pretty, flutey little voices.

Interestingly enough, in the first 40 years of the 19th century, the Old Italian solfeggi were still being collected and published. The Méthode de chant du Conservatoire de musique (1803-4) was a collection of the earliest 18th century composers, Scarlatti, Buononcini, Marcello, Hasse, Galuppi, Porpora, et al. Spontini, whose operas were innovative in the best Gluck style, himself published Ristretto di esercizi per bene apprendere la maniera di canto e Lezione di portamento, di ornamento e di espressione (Summary of exercises to understand well the manner of singing and Lessons in portamento, ornament and expression, 1800.) They harked back to past practices, and did little to prepare the singer for the new style.

As for the analogies between the style of Rossini and that of Bellini, it is evident that the Bellinian drama reacted to that of Spontini, while the Rossinian drama remained, like so many other facets of Rossini, a somewhat isolated and original element in the development of the musical art.

Setting aside for the moment the vocal style of Rossini, the relation between the post-Gluckians and the composers of 1830 and 1840 is evident. Bellini offered a style at once broad and expressive, whose origins lay in the works of Spontini. Donizetti also had a style broad and expressive, but more vibrant, more romantic. Verdi began in the style of Donizetti, reaching an affection for legato, broad, uninterrupted songs, which later gave way to his predilection for melodies broken by pauses.

Naturally the adaptation of the singers to this style, so unlike the fioratura of the 18th century, was not immediate, but came about rapidly enough. The Rossinian singers were able to encompass the style; then arose the Meyerbeerian singers. It became immediately evident that long studies in agility were no longer necessary for the singers of less florid music. The decay of agility followed the repudiation of severe studies.(4)

The vocal style of Donizetti was quite different from that of Rossini; veiled tones, voce di petto, declamation! These were the resources of singing about 1840. A new vocalism had arisen, expressive of a more vehement dramatic sense, romantic, agitated, accompanied by an orchestra which had, for the same reasons, greatly augmented its sonority. (Emphasis Foreman’s.)

Returned from Italy, Duprez came out in Guillaume Tell at the Opéra (Paris) in 1837. Two new characteristics were noted in his robust and expressive singing: “the singular diction of the recitative.” wrote Quicherat (Nourrit, II, p. 40), “and the vibrant, shining sounds, vigorously launched to represent violence of passion. These effects had never been heard before in Paris.””

Consider the evolution of the style of Meyerbeer. In Crociato the vocal style is still Rossinian, and a little sentimental. After Robert le diable, it inclined to instrumental and strong singing. With Les huguenots the romances become more vocal and the theatrical accents reinforce them more dramatically. In Le prophète, the romantic character reached a peak, and the sonority of the orchestra increased so much as to require an added vocal intensity. The orchestral and vocal unisons forced the singers to make themselves heard in the complex. (Emphasis Foreman’s again.)

New styles of singing, new sonorous ideas. Giacomo Guglielmi published in France in 1842 a method of beau chant in which he said: “The ultradynamic singing which is today à la mode, is a deafening noise, a succession of shouts which ruin the throats and lungs.”

Contemporaries considered the years from 1820-40 as the end of an era and the beginning of another.”

Rossini, no longer involved in composing for the stage, thought the mezza voce (half-voice) agility (5) of the 1840s inferior to the full-voice agility of the 1820s, and critics remembered fondly the singing of Malibran, Tamburini and the other great Italians of the first quarter of the century.

Berlioz seems to have been the one to start the misunderstanding of the causes of the decline:

About the same time, Berlioz wrote an article, afterwards included in the book À travers chants, in which he touched on vocal styles: “The art of singing has become what it is today, the art of shouting, because of the great size of the theaters, La Scala, Canobbiana, San Carlo of Naples. (6) The style of singing which is rightly censured today has come out of the greatest Italian musical centers. Besides, since the public in Italian opera houses talks during performances, as they do on the bourse of Paris,  the singers and composers have tried many ways to concentrate the attention of the public, whom they say is ignorant of music. They have had recourse to sonority; to obtain this they sacrificed the use of sfumature (7), of the voce mista (8), of the head voice, of the deepest notes of the scale of each voice; the tenors use only the highest sounds of the voce di petto; the bassi, singing only in the highest tessiture, are transformed into baritones; these male voices, not finding at the top what they lose at the bottom, have relinquished a third of their extension. The highest female voices, the most piercing, are preferred everywhere. The extended applause for these singers has encouraged composers to second the stentorian pretenses. Duets in unison, trios, quartets, choruses in unison. Facile and hasty works, for composer and performer alike. For the aid of the great treasuries they have instituted in the greater part of Europe this system of dramatic music in which we now rejoice! Germany is an exception, for the halls are not vast, the singers, having a fine musical sense, do not shout, and the public is attentive.” (9)


  1. Both examples from Ricci, E.R. 1903, p. 78.
  2. Pinkert, Regina (1871-1964), Portuguese soprano. She studied with her father, a well-known baritone, and made her debut in Lisbon, 1888, in Sonnambula. In 1889 she was in Milan, Palermo and London. In 1902 she appeared in London with Caruso, and in 1904-5, she was at Monte Carlo. She retired in 1907 to marry.
  3. The paragon of this type in my young days was the French soprano, Lily Pons, who sang the “Mad Scene” in Lucia di Lammermoor transposed up to F.
  4. These quotes are from Andrea Della Corte, article “Vicende degli stili del canto dal tempo di Gluck al ‘900.” in Canto e bel canto. Milan, c. 1933. Foreman’s translation.
  5. The new generation of singers could only perform agility by taking the pressure off the voice and reducing the volume, a clear indication that they were forcing the voice and clamping down on it in the throat.
  6. This may well be the origin of the mistaken notion that the size of the theaters had changed, or that it had an effect on the voice. Berlioz seems not to have understood the acoustics of vocal sound.
  7. The use of the least amount of voice; the merest wisps of sound.
  8. Mixed voice.
  9. Della Corte, op. cit., as footnote.


Foreman, Edward. Authentic Singing: The history of singing. Vol. 10. Pro Musica Press, 2001.

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