The invention of the ‘modern’ voice: changing aesthetics of vocal registration in Italian opera singing 1870-1925

Gentili, B. (2019) The invention of the ‘modern’ voice: changing aesthetics of vocal registration in Italian opera singing 1870-1925. Doctoral thesis, Royal College of Music.


At the turn of the twentieth century the Italian tradition of operatic singing became ‘modern’. My study seeks to identify and explore the formative elements of this multifaceted ‘modernity’; a phenomenon which laid the basis for the way operatic singing worldwide has been understood and judged ever since. The crucial element of this revolutionary transformation consisted of a new conceptualisation of the operatic voice that progressively eschewed the bel canto ideal of ‘pure’ tone quality, acquiring instead an irreversible gendered connotation, and an erotically charged expressive force. Pivotal to the achievement of these results, was the idea that the singing voice should preserve the same timbral quality from top to bottom (‘total timbral consistency’), an aesthetic principle completely alien to the voice culture of the previous centuries, when a timbral divide between the different vocal registers was considered not only unavoidable but also desirable. Using my training as an opera singer, I have built a methodology which, as illustrated in Chapter 1, brings an autoethnographic perspective to bear on two key sources: recordings from the pre-electrical era and vocal treatises of the mid- and late-nineteenth century. In Chapters 2 and 3, I offer an overview of the wider socio-cultural context which determined this radical ‘shift’ in voice culture, paying specific attention to the conflagration of literary and musical verismo in turn-of-the-century Italy. Chapter 4 places early recordings and vocal writing in a mutual dialogue, through which vocal treatises explain what is heard in early recordings, and the aural evidence sheds a new light on the treatises. In this chapter I also devise a lexicon of terms that enables the analysis of 103 recorded excerpts, contained in the last chapters of my thesis. Here, the case-studies of three tenors (Chapter 5) and three sopranos (Chapter 6) reveal the crucial role that some Italian singers born in the 1870s had on the ‘invention’ of the ‘modern’ operatic voice. Their decisions reflected and also helped to shape broader aesthetic shifts in post-unification Italy, in an inextricable tangle where causes and effects cannot be ultimately distinguished.

Actions (login required)

View Item View Item