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A Music Ethics Study of Italian Verismo Opera


Verismo is an operatic style inspired by a prominent trend in Italian literature from the end of the nineteenth to the beginning of the twentieth centuries. It is distinguished by a realistic depiction of rural or urban poverty, as well as a vibrant regional culture and an introduction to the region’s typical songs and dances. Singing verismo opera has created certain challenges for vocalists in the past, particularly in terms of stamina and career longevity. The manner in which performance art is presented has evolved throughout time. Classical music is no exception, since it evolves as different composers express themselves via various styles. Verismo is a distinct musical style that portrays everyday social events. It communicates with the audience via everyday circumstances. This study will examine Verismo in connection to classical music and using examples from different composers.

In most situations, studying Verismo Opera is an essential component of classical singers’ vocal music education. My exegesis not only explains the history of verismo, but also music ethics study of Italian Verismo Opera. I’m particularly interested in the different body movements required for singing different types of music. During my research on Verismo Opera, I listened to recordings of several singers and wrote brief analyses of their voices, focusing on how they evolved bel canto to sing verismo. For my repertoire, I’ve concentrated on bel canto and verismo pieces, and I’m certain that I can safely apply the methods thanks to my bel canto training. To show my understanding, I use three distinct arias (one bel canto and two verismo) as case studies to analyze and explain the arguments I wish to express.

Verismo: History and Controversy.

Verismo (‘realism’) is typically described as a late-nineteenth-century European art trend. Since at least the 1870s, the Italian word verismo has been associated with a vogue for materialism in low-life settings, most prominently in the work of Sicilian writers Giovanni Verga and Luigi Capuana. The French naturalism influenced Verismo literature, which had a direct impact on opera in Italy towards the close of the 19th century. Verismo became connected with a new style of Italian operatic music in the 1890s, and the word has stuck.

Operatic verismo has histrionic, sometimes violent stories with people taken from everyday life. Soloists’ impassioned declamations, as well as emotive harmonies and melodies, are used as musical methods to convey this. Pietro Mascagni’s one-act opera Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry, 1890) is often regarded as the earliest example of verismo opera. It is based on a terrible narrative of adultery and murder among Sicilian farmers. The opera earned first place in a competition organized by Edoardo Sonzogno, a Milanese music publisher, in 1889. Two years later, Ruggiero Leoncavallo released Pagliacci (The Clowns, 1892), a narrative with comparable components to Cavalleria Rusticana, but set in a company of actors, so the act of violence became the central theme.

Both operas were groundbreaking in terms of direct melodic and orchestral effects, as well as stunning dramatic shocks, and they left a lasting influence across the world, notably in Germany. Both operas have been presented frequently in a so-called Cav/Pag double-bill. After Mascagni and Leoncavallo, the Italian Giacomo Puccini became one of the most well-known composers of verismo operas. Some of his works, like as Tosca and La bohème, are characterized by the verismo style. Both represent a blissful desire for love and a devastating real encounter that eventually leads to death. Not all of Puccini’s operas, although, are in the verismo style. Some academics have suggested that the word verismo is debatable in and of itself. In a letter to Giulio Ricordi dated November 20, 1880, Verdi protested against verismo, claiming that it was an intentional advancement of music harmony technic at the cost of natural and plain melodies. “[Verismo] has destructed it all, such as the melodramma, where there is a lots of effects, stunning scenes, choruses, and dance moves entwined with song, all constructed to knock the senses; but [now] the old melody can no longer be found, only harmony,” wrote philosopher Antonio Velardita three years later.

Nonetheless, verismo opera has been presented often throughout time and has always been popular with audiences due to its direct emotional relationship and real-life storylines. The late-nineteenth-century operatic style of verismo was characterised by a significantly more declamatory manner of singing than bel canto. Advocates of verismo vocal music frequently disregarded legato in favor of focusing on the emotional parts of the song, resulting in chaotic and sometimes hazardous singing. While this was exhilarating at the time, the vibrato tended to become rowdy and unstable, and many performers ended up shouting as a result of adding more timbre to their voices and not particularly preserving it with their body. On the one hand, the outcomes might be thrilling in the theater by emphasizing the emotionalism of their deeply felt interpretations. However, such a heavy style of singing was not meant for vocal longevity, and several vocalists of the time had rather brief careers. These issues become a big source of worry for performers. While my investigation was not extensive, it seems that there is a dearth of literature to assist vocalists in learning proper singing methods.

Representative Composers.

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919), and Pietro Mascagni (1863–1945) are three important verismo composers. This section provides a quick overview of these composers and their contributions to verismo.

Pietro Mascagni’s father was a baker, and he was born in Livorno. He enrolled at Milan Conservatory in 1883 as a pupil of Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-1886), the composer of the opera La Gioconda. Mascagni was forced to leave the Conservatory two years later after failing to finish his allocated work, and he subsequently departed Milan without completing his studies. Mascagni began his career as a double bassist in the stage and as a conductor of travelling operettas. He and his pregnant wife Lina moved to Cerignola, Puglia, in 1886, where Mascagni taught music. Mascagni was the first Italian verismo composer to attain popularity, despite a rocky start. For a competition organized by Sonzogno in 1888-9, he wrote the one-act opera Cavalleria Rusticana. L’amico Fritz (1891), his next opera, is set in Alsace. The piece is less passionate and more innocent than Cavalleria Rusticana, surprising some who anticipated it to be. Iris (1898), set in Japan, and Il piccolo Marat (1921), set during the French Revolution, are two more somewhat popular operas. Mascagni also created holy and secular choral pieces, songs, and orchestral and chamber music compositions, the most of which were never released. His fame was built completely on Cavalleria Rusticana, and none of his subsequent operas made much of an effect. Mascagni replaced Toscanini as music director of La Scala in Milan in 1929, and his last opera, Nerone, debuted there in 1935 but has since been seldom performed. On the 50th anniversary of Cavalleria Rusticana’s initial performance in Rome, Mascagni conducted it at La Scala in 1940. Unfortunately, he was linked to Mussolini’s Fascist dictatorship and died in an undisclosed hotel in Rome soon after Mussolini’s authority fell in 1945.

Ruggero Leoncavallo was born in Naples to a rich family. At the age of nine, he enrolled at his hometown’s Conservatory, where he trained for 10 years. Later, he traveled to the University of Bologna with the intention of writing an Italian Renaissance trilogy, a response to Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, which he never finished. In 1888, he travelled to Paris to meet Victor Maurel, the baritone who played Iago and Falstaf in Verdi’s operas, and who was intrigued enough to convince Ricordi to publish Leoncavallo’s music. He returned to Milan shortly after marrying the singer Berthe Rambaud. Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, which he created in 1890, drew Leoncavallo’s attention to the verismo opera. Leoncavallo rapidly created Pagliacci to his libretto, eager to prove himself. The premiere in Milan in 1892 was a huge success, and Pagliacci was presented with Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1893. The two operas were highly successful, and they are affectionately known as “Cav and Pag.”

Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca, around 12 miles from Pisa, in the year 1858. Both organists and choirmasters at Lucca Cathedral, his great-grandfather was a member of the Bologna Accademia Filarmonica, and his grandpa, Domenic, produced an opera that Paisiello admired. Giacomo was the youngest of seven children, and when his father passed away in 1863, his likewise music-loving mother, Albina, was resolved to carry on the family’s musical history by becoming a church organist. Puccini learnt to sing and play the organ from an uncle, then attended the city’s music school (the Istituto Musicale Pacini, where his father had been a director), completed in 1880, and created Messa di Gloria, a mass. He then moved to the Milan Conservatory, where he studied under Ponchielli and others, as well as sharing a chamber with Mascagni.

Verismo Singing Incarnation

Unlike bel canto operas, verismo operas’ singing and dance are concerned with life-like and quasi-real depictions of the raw emotion that the performers are singing. As previously said, the words and plot are fluid; there is no repeat, and the vocalist seems to be presenting the story. Despite the fact that the singer is always responding to the shifting emotionality of the words, he or she must nonetheless sing properly. If the performer is too moved by the emotion, it is all too simple for him or her to yell or shout, which is bad for the voice. As a result, in my experience singing, the body and muscular involvement must be properly educated to adapt to the much more direct and perhaps strong vocal line. Because the orchestra is larger, in addition to the deep emotions, the singer must concentrate on conveying the voice and the lyrics. Much more than singing bel canto, this involves a lot of physiological counterbalances. Declaiming the text at pitch is highly useful to obtain the proper forward placement and projection, keeping the sound more front than nasal and lifting the soft palate/tensor muscles, and training this helps their brain perceive the appropriate sound. To balance the forward sound – the genuine embodiment of chiaroscuro- light/dark- in the voice sound – this location necessitates considerably greater bodily involvement.

Don Pasquale’s ‘Quel Guardo Il Cavaliere’ Case Study.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, Don Pasquale was Donizetti’s final humorous opera to continue in a regular rotation. It was composed in 1843 for Paris and became an immediate hit. In the same year, it was spotted in London, and in 1845, it was seen in New Orleans.

Opera Synopsis: Because Pasquale (bass) disapproves of his present heir, Ernesto (tenor), falling in love with Norina (soprano), a young widow, he plans to disinherit Ernesto. Dr. Malatesta (baritone) covertly supports Ernesto and Norina. He advises Pasquale to marry his “sister Sofronia,” who is really Norina. Norina is persuaded by Malatesta to marry Don Pasquale in order to be closer to Ernesto. The marriage document is produced by ‘a Notary’ (Malatesta’s relative), who gives his wife half of Pasquale’s riches. Pasquale quickly comes to regret his choice, as Sofronia’s demeanor changes dramatically and she spends Pasquale’s money at an alarming pace. Pasquale contacts Malatesta when she subtly suggests a date with another guy. Malatesta invites him to go to the garden and capture her and her boyfriend. When Ernesto is waiting for Norina, he sings a serenade, and the two of them perform a beautiful duet. Pasquale, enraged, seizes them and is convinced by Malatesta to dissolve the marriage, which Pasquale gladly accepts. When the truth is revealed, he is so delighted to be free that he forgives them all and offers Norina and Ernesto his blessing. Act I Scene II has the aria “Quel guardo cavaliere.” Norina is reading a sentimental book as the curtain rises. She tosses it away to demonstrate her flirty and vivacious personality to the audience. Because this aria has so many diverse portions, I always practice using a metronome to ensure that the beat is constant.

The intricacy of the lyrics, particularly the quantity of double consonants, is one of the challenges I face with this aria. Because I feel that singing intricate lyrics may easily strain my jaw, I focus on keeping my chin relaxed when singing. While singing, tap the chin with the index finger to relax the chin; else, the jaw muscle will get stronger over time. I’ve concentrated on my beauty and constancy of tone as a bel canto aria, and I’m looking for possibilities to sing messa di voce. In the cabaletta, I concentrate on the coloratura’s tuning and correctness. Because there are so many long notes in the passaggio section, I have to be careful to maintain my neck open and the air going forward at all times. From the outset of the aria, every note should be vibrating: the ‘rolled’r in the aria aids in airflow and maintains the vibrato fluid and uniform. The breath should constantly be flowing, not retained, since this creates muscular strain and carbon dioxide build-up in the body. Singing with a weeping sensation (laryngeal tilt) helps to stabilize all notes, especially the high notes in the passaggio, and it also allows me to concentrate on getting the pitch right. When changing pitches, I maintain the same level of muscular involvement, without pushing or moving my tongue or any other portion of the vocal tract. I concentrate on conveying the emotional journey and become alive and receptive to the text when I’ve practiced in these bodily demands.

I Pagliacci’s ‘Stridono Lassù’ Case Study.

After the popularity of Mascagni’s one-act Cavalleria Rusticana, Leoncavallo composed I Pagliacci with a Prologue and two acts. Leoncavallo rose to prominence with the premiere of I Pagliacci in Milan in 1892. Opera Synopsis: In a Calabrian hamlet, a singing and acting ensemble performs. The wife of colonel Canio (tenor), Nedda (soprano), has a hidden romance with villager Silvio (baritone). Tonio (baritone) declares his love for Nedda as well, but is rebuffed, thus he carries a grudge. Tonio receives word from Silvio that he intends to flee with Nedda, and he notifies Canio. Silvio has vanished by the time Canio arrives. Canio threatens Nedda with revealing the lover’s identity, but she remains silent. Canio takes the stage to keep his rage in control as the stage is set to open. The play’s narrative parallels what is occurring in real life. Nedda portrays a young lady who is going to elope with a local kid until her husband finds her. Canio has mixed reality with theatrical acting at this moment. He loses control and grabs a knife from his pocket to murder Nedda. Silvio saves the day, but he gets stabbed in the process. Canio is surrounded by the villages. He places the dagger on the stage and remains there for a little time. Then he addresses the crowd, saying, “Comedy is done (La commedia e finita).” The drama inside the drama of the second act is a notable characteristic of the opera. The play’s narrative is so identical to what transpires between the hero and heroine in real life that the hero forgets he’s in a play. His hatred erupted into catastrophe.

From the beginning of Act I, Nedda is concerned about what would happen if Canio discovers she has betrayed him, expecting the repercussions to be disastrous. When she sees birds spinning in the sky, though, she thinks of her mother, who used to be able to forecast good luck and understand bird song. She admires birds for their ability to soar freely in the sky and wishes for her and her lover’s love to be as free as a bird, thus she starts to sing the aria ‘Stridono lassù.’ Her fear and desire for a new love are expressed in this aria. The first notes, like a bird in flight, serve as a prologue to the ten bars, and the sixteenth notes, like a bird in flight, also convey Nedda’s pleasant attitude at the time.

The quick singing of numerous high notes on the passaggio is the most difficult aspect of this composition for me. These high notes swiftly rise the larynx, which might make my voice seem thin since the lower harmonics are filtered off. As a consequence, my throat feels exhausted and the timbre is lost. My high notes tend to turn flat if I force the high notes, do not maintain the soft palate high, or do not have enough air to sustain the singing. As a result, I lower my mouth and maintain my neck open at all times, and I use my appoggio to prevent the diaphragm from folding upwards by pulling outwardly on the intercostal muscles. I also need to maintain my soft palate up and my mid-tongue flopping forward. To practice making air flow through these high notes, I use a ‘rolled’ r instead of the text. When singing the words, the ‘rolled’r in the lyrics reminds me to keep the air moving. Chest resonance, according to my instructor Margaret Medlyn, successfully brings the low harmonics into the whole voice tone. Head resonance, on the other hand, is characterized by high harmonics. Not only may using both chest and head resonance assist to prevent a harsh sound, but it can also aid to generate a more harmonic and balanced tone. The crucial thing to remember is that singers need a lot of air to move about when singing. When I practice these physical requirements, I must consider the emotional trip. Because I get caught up in the emotion, I have to anchor my core muscles down in my body and utilize my ribs to preserve the low resonances and declaiming sound in my voice. At the same time, I’m thinking about legato and tuning, which are both bel canto characteristics.


I have set forth the essential principles of the verismo singing methodology and examined the incarnation and implementation of those approaches within the boundaries of my exegesis. In doing so for the verismo movement, I have underlined the critical importance of bel canto technique, specifically greater embodiment and physical engagement. I looked at some of the most notable verismo composers, as well as some of the most successful verismo performers. My explanations of my learning approach for the representative arias have assisted me in articulating and distinguishing what I have done in the past without analyzing my practice habits. Based on my research, I believe that in order to perform verismo opera properly, a singer must have good and complete instruction in bel canto methods. Additionally, the performer must be equipped to involve their body more to complement the elevated and overt expressive singing necessary, as well as the text’s declamato quality. My study not only aids in my grasp of the concepts of verismo, but also in the application of the singing methods I acquired in vocal training to my repertoire, and this approach will play a significant part in my future career. My study, I suppose, will serve as a resource and guide for young singers.


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