Italian in Singing | Muriel Corradini

Friday, 7 May, 2021

Language is an essential part of the training of any opera singer and we're delighted to partner with the Italian Institute of Culture to provide Italian language classes to the ABL Aviation Opera Studio artists. Over the last number of weeks we've been working with language coach Muriel Corradini who shares some of her insights into the Italian language below.

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Part of my work with singers deals with how to sing Italian, which implies pronunciation of speech sounds, accurate enunciation of these sounds and expression, which is the act of conveying the full meaning of every phrase, or song. Expression is also very much linked with phrasing the words within the musical line.

As we cannot rely on spelling to know how to pronounce speech sounds, we use an International Phonetic Alphabet which indicates the exact pronunciation of all languages, regardless of their spelling. Italian, unlike English is highly phonetic, which means that its spelling is mostly related to sound.

The 4 main important things to know about Italian diction in singing are:

1. The legato: Italian is a legato language and the vowel line always prevails over the consonants

2. The purity of vowels

3. The difference between single and double consonants

4. The tonic accent

When I coach an English singer who is learning how to sing in Italian, I start with vowels and guide them towards the right pronunciation of “i”, “e”, “o” and “u” and “a”. Depending on the singer, I can explain how the vowels are shaped, but I can also show them how they are pronounced and the singer can imitate me and find how it feels in their mouth.

Basically, with all Italian vowel sounds, the tip of the tongue should be in contact with the lower front teeth. This is achieved not through muscular effort of the tongue itself but as the natural result of a relaxed tongue, which actually implies a relaxed jaw, as they are attached. A relaxed jaw and tongue help the larynx to remain free of tension, as they are all attached, which is of course essential to singing!

Then, we deal with consonants. The point of articulation of consonants in the mouth varies between Italian and English. For instance, English-speaking singers will tend to sing aspirated « k », « p » and « t », when actually, all Italian consonants are unaspirated.

And of course, like for any language, a singer has the tendency to tense the jaw, the tongue and the neck in order to articulate consonants which create a lot of tension in the larynx and tightens the sound of the voice. Therefore, it is very important to address this issue and guide the singer towards good breathing and fluidity of sound with a relaxed jaw, neck and tongue!

How it works...

Vowels

Italian vowels are always strong and have one colour, excepted for the “e” and “o” vowels

In English, the pronunciation of the vowels is not always the same and it also changes with unstressed syllables and words. English obscures its unstressed syllables, it neutralises and weakens them.

Ex: In “able” and “hard”, the (a) is stressed and has a different sound / In “wizard” the (a) is unstressed and weakened.

Ex: In “cone”, the (o) is stressed / In “contain”, it is unstressed and it has a different and weak sound.

This never occurs in Italian! Whatever its place in the word and whether it is stressed or unstressed, the vowel remains the same.

Ex: abile, mamma, motto

Italian monophthongs prevail over diphthongs

A diphthong is a sequence of two vowel sounds belonging to the same syllable and English tends to diphthongize long vowels, particularly long stressed vowels. Ex: “say, oil, I, dear, poor, etc…”

Italian is almost at the other extreme of English, since it is characterised by a striking prevalence of monophthongs: vowels have only one sound, they are pure.

When diphthongs occur in Italian, they are always written with two letters (not one, like it can happen in English – “i”, “o”). Ex: “aura” / “feudo”

Consonants

Italian consonants sound neater, sharper and more precise than their English counterparts. This is due to the fact that in Italian the adjusting movements of the speech organs are quicker and more energetic (but not tense) than in English.

These movements also take place farther forward in the mouth, than in English.

In Italian, a consonant should never be prepared ahead of time. Only when the vowel is completed should the consonant be attacked, promptly and with precision.

Unlike English, Italian differentiates single and double consonants.

Ex. le note / la notte

Many thanks to Muriel for sharing her knowledge with us and to the Italian Institute of Culture for facilitating these classes.

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