The Old Italian School of Singing: Giovanni Battista Lamperti's "The Technics of Bel Canto"

"The true method of singing is in harmony with nature and the laws of health."

Giovanni Battista Lamperti, The Technics of Bel Canto, p. 1

Giovanni Battista Lamperti
Giovanni Battista Lamperti

Giovanni Lamperti and his father Francesco carried on the illustrious banner of the “old Italian School” of voice training through the 19th century. While the method was perhaps uncomfortably short on scientific analysis for a modern, industrial world (unlike the rising, competing method of the Garcias), it was long on histories of success spanning from the great castrati of the 17th century to the many successful students and teachers that emerged from the Lamperti studios. The teachings of the two Lampertis have accordingly taken on a “holy writ” status among many vocalists today: either cherished or ignored for their ancient origins.

The Lamperti method could perhaps be best described as the accumulated wisdom and art of an accomplished but diverse and evolved métier, distilled and adapted for modern use. While both father and son did express their share of reactionary disgust at modern disregard for the techniques and taste of the operatic legacy, they were clearly realistic in preparing their pupils for the conditions present. Unlike his father, Giovanni even went so far as to say that there was nothing damaging to a singer's voice in singing the strenuous demands of Wagnerian and Verdian opera. Rather, the deficiency of preparation and training was responsible for the host of damaged voices that fell casualty to the craze for bigger, higher, louder, longer opera.

Giovanni Battista Lamperti was born in 1839 in Milan. There, he was a chorister at the great cathedral and studied voice and piano at the conservatory. A student and later accompanist for his father at the conservatory, Giovanni knew better than anyone else the method his father taught (which he claimed descended from the great castrato-teacher Bernacchi). Appropriating it for teaching his own students, Giovanni also began teaching voice at the Milan conservatory and then for 20 years in Dresden, followed by Berlin. His preferred teaching arrangement was having three or four students present at each lesson: each would get their turn while the others observed and learned thereby. He was said to be a strict, exacting instructor not given to flattery, but who enthusiastically praised his students upon exceptional achievement. Many of Giovanni‟s students became international opera stars including Irene Abendroth, Marcella Sembrich, Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Paul Bulss, Roberto Stagno, David Bispham and Franz Nachbaur.

Several students of father and son became voice teachers themselves and published singing methods they claimed were the Lampertis'. One of the father's students explained the differences students' methods thus:

I have found but a very few of former students of the great master who truly knew how to impart their masters' golden rules without disfiguring them to the widest extend and mixing them with what they called "their own artistic experience," which of course did not and could not amount to very much. (Interview with Martin Roeder, The Musical Courier, Oct. 4, 1893.)

The Technics of Bel Canto is the only book (other than the maxims recalled and published post-humulously by student W. E. Brown) that Giovanni ever wrote on his method.

As a final note, there was famously bad blood between the elder and younger Lamperti, eventually resulting in a bitter schism between the studios and followers of Francesco and Giovanni. A pupil of both Lampertis described the hostile situation thus:

Strange as it may seem, father and son never understood each other and were never on good terms. They were both high strung, highly temperamental, and perhaps got on each other's nerves. At any rate, there was a jealousy between them that was never overcome. The father said that his son was no musician, and the son answered by saying: "At my father's death he had great fame and no money; at my death I will have a reasonable about of fame and a large income." When the misunderstanding between the two became unbearable the younger man went into the music profession for himself. (Interview with Lena Doria Devine, New York Post. Qtd. from The Musical Courier, Oct. 25, 1893.)


The Technics of Bel Canto (1905)

Print: $16.96 Download: $5.95

With new foreword, annotations and index by Gregory Blankenbehler

"Die Technik des Bel Canto" (1905) As the last of the great master-teachers of the “old Italian school” of singing, Giovanni Battista Lamperti taught his students virtuosic vocal techniques handed down from the great castrati of the 17th century: exquisitely rich chiaroscuro tone, seamless flowing legato phrasing, undetectable passaggi register transitions and the delicately poised appoggio breath technique that allowed the astonishingly rapid coloratura typical of baroque music. In the only treatise he ever wrote, Lamperti the younger shares with all students, teachers and enthusiasts of singing, the techniques and skills that made his students that greatest singers of their time: the arcane secrets of bel canto.

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John Sarkis 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

Excellent article. What your favorite "Bel Canto" opera?


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