A return to the past in pursuit of progress

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An interview to Luca D’Annunzio, by Lic. Kevin Morawicki.

Like all true research undertaken in the field of society and humanity, Luca D’Annunzio’s work bears a distinctive feature: he is an active and purposeful participant of the field that is his object of research. For him, the question is how to teach the ancient art of singing in order to reflect the deepest experiences of the human spirit, those expressions of the soul that last forever and are therefore called “classics.” His double role as a singer trained since childhood under the technical, aesthetic and philosophical principles of the Italian school, and his growth and work as a teacher starting from his youth, make it difficult to summarize and communicate the central elements of his research without making excessive simplifications.

Therefore, just as it happens in the field of knowledge in general, to address the case of a singer who is also a researcher of lyrical singing, implies giving an account of some subjective reasons. These, far from hindering objectivity, make it meaningful and strong.

“From my first years of training,” says D’Annunzio, “I found great differences between the singing of modern performers and that of the old ones. But where was the difference? I could not blame the passing of time for the conclusive loss of that style of singing that was able to make me vibrate and get passionate, that could awaken and define my aesthetic ideals.”

Luca D’Annunzio represents one of the few cases in which the object of research is present on a daily basis in the life of the researcher; these is not very frequent in our times, since the enquiry and the object of research are experienced by the researcher in an existential dimension. In his own words: 

“I was eight years old when my first teacher answered my question by explaining one of the first standpoints regarding singing that marked me forever: “What changed?” —she asked herself, paused, and stated with strong conviction: “Singing is a priesthood for those who are seriously committed. In that vital commitment, the mind, the heart and the body must work as one.” I also remember that she added: “Only a great passion and respect for the art can reclaim the right to excellence.””

At the age of eleven, Luca D’Annunzio read for the first time the famous phrase of the maestro Giuseppe Verdi: “Torniamo all’antico e sarà un progresso.” This words marked his life forever. From then on, he decided not to stop until he could unveil the mystery of those singers, and above all of that school and that tradition. This implied committing himself to what, in the words of his admired composer, was an unnegotiable principle: “Let’s turn our gaze to the old masters and progress will follow.”

Undoubtedly, from then on the challenge was clear: how to undertake, through what means, and with what methodology, the reconstruction of the singer’s training. In short: how to find the way to recover the beauty and expression in singing. 

“It was very difficult to obtain conclusive answers to all my questions, because the truth is fragmented,” recalls Luca D’Annunzio, “so my training was akin to putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Through my teachers and some great figures of this art, I managed to immerse myself, little by little, in the systematic study of the Italian school.”

Given his broad and unclassifiable educational background, it is possible to say that this his path of study and enquiry was, and still is, a work in progress, in the sense that he did not adhere to an already existing research methodology that predetermined his work, but that it was through the research process itself that both the object of research and the methodology were established. The thorough study of all the treatises and methods written by the greatest singers and masters of the past centuries was crucial. “These writings allowed me to penetrate the true principles and guidelines of this art from its earliest times.”

“What had changed?,” he wondered more than thirty years ago. Today, in order to attempt a possible approach to the complexity that the question entails, the master and singer raises the need of classifying the nature of these changes in two main areas:

  1. Vocal technique.
  2. The art of singing today.

What follows is an excerpt from conversations with Luca D’Annunzio, in which he reports on aspects of his research that will soon be published as a book. This selection focuses on the reasons for his strong criticism of the current situation of theatrical singing, as well as on the theoretical, practical and philosophical considerations of the Italian school that would make it possible to attempt a shift in this art towards a future that could reverse its current decline.

Vocal technique

You have focused your research on the masters and singers of the past: what are, broadly speaking, the differences between the study of singing today, and the study of singing in those early days? 

The technical training of the singer is one of the aspects that has regressed the most throughout this time. The limited, improvised and uncommitted study has generated the undeniable decadence that we all witness.

Quite the contrary, the old Italian school compelled students to work methodically and patiently every day for six, seven or more years before making their appearance onstage. The chronicles of that time tell us that Nicola Porpora, the famous singing master, kept Caffarelli under severe technical training for six years. In her treatise on singing, the great German soprano Lilli Lehmann requires no less than 7 years to assemble the instrument before beginning the study of the repertoire. Because, let’s tell the truth, who doesn’t give in to the hypnotic singing of Claudia Muzio, Ebe Stignani, Enrico Caruso, Tita Ruffo? Their performances, so heartfelt, so vibrant, are based on a solid and conscientious study in which perseverance, seriousness, patience, respect, intelligence and beauty are some of the keys to success. 

According to your professional criteria, what are the main aspects that the study of vocal technique should address? 

In the study of vocal technique there is a central question: to cultivate a correct emission is the first objective and the fundamental base that any student who wishes to dedicate himself seriously to the study of singing and who intends to become a great artist, must accomplish. This first stage of study includes, first of all, the integral and fully conscious mastery of all the parts that make up the instrument: the diaphragm, larynx, pharynx, tongue and lips; then, the development of the entire extension of the voice including the three main registers (chest, falsetto and head register), and the two basic timbres (light/dark); and last, the correction of all kinds of problems in the emission (whether natural or contracted by bad practice). 

After this stage, which lasts no less than five years (depending on the student’s muscular condition and disposition as well as his or her intellectual and auditive capacity), further studies must be undertaken, including the development of agility and ornamentation. This is an indispensable training for any singer (whether or not he or she would perform this style professionally) as it plays a significant part in the functioning and strengthening of every vocal organ, irrespective of its register and tessitura

What are the educational objectives of the study of agility? 

Briefly, I can say that the student must be able to perform all kinds of passages, whether they are scales (major, minor or chromatic), combined intervals, volate, volatine, arpeggi, etc., with all the vowels in both timbres, in the three main registers, throughout the whole range, in all degrees of strength, in all degrees of speed and in the different articulations: portamento, legato, martellato, spiccato, etc. 

In addition, it is necessary to develop sustained sounds in its four types: tenuta of equal strength, filati, messa di voce, ribattimento; as well as the execution of all the ornaments such as apoggiatura, grupetti, acciaccatura, ribattuta di gola, trills, etc. Finally, it deals with the study of the different styles, the main ones being: florid, spianato and declamatory singing. 

What are the real benefits of the study of agility? 

In addition to allowing the student to execute fast passages, the study of agility provides elasticity, ease, naturalness and uniformity to the voice. Manuel García, one of the most important figures in the teaching of singing, compared the study of agility with the last varnish in the finishing of an instrument. 

What is the role of this hard training in the formation of the singer? Let me be more clear: what happens if a singer omits the study of emission and agility? 

History leaves no doubt about it: without adequate vocal training it is impossible to develop the instrument and transform it into an agent of expression, capable of telling, communicating and rendering service to music, speech and melodramatic art. 

Does this mean that vocal technique and expression are intimately related? 

Absolutely. The acquisition of a good emission and the studies of agility are the pillars that allow the singer to obtain the means of expression. By this I mean that it is only through the exhaustive development of the instrument that the singer can be equipped with what I call technical-expressive tools. 

I can vehemently assert that in olden times people did not train, as many people claim, with the sole aim of attaining purely mechanical means that would make virtuosity possible. The main quest was to provide the human voice with the most sublime and refined expressive shades destined to be at the service of dramatic representation. I insist: virtuosity is the consequence, not the end! 

How is it, then, this relationship between technique and expression? 

Once the singer is sure of what they have to communicate, they must select the appropriate technical-expressive resources for their performance. For example, through what technical-expressive tools do I face the vocal representation of anger? What timbre, volume, intensity, articulation, do I use for the singing of this passion? Even the ornamentation and the assembly of a cadence respond to the desire of expressing something. 

Might we say, then, that expression, for the great masters of the past, far from being the last step in the singer’s education, was what gave meaning to technical instruction? 

Exactly. Every technical gesture has an expressive justification. The need to communicate through the voice led to the discovery, study and tireless improvement of all the tools that make up the Italian school. To put it differently: the method is the result of the search for expression in the voice. 

To defend my position I refer once again to the pedagogue Manuel Garcia who, like his predecessors and his contemporaries, took the teachings of Aristotle, Socrates and Descartes as the cornerstone of his research, with the aim of searching faithfully for the physical-vocal reflection of the feeling of a certain passion. I repeat, technique for the artists of the past had no end in itself: it is a means born of expression itself. 

Your position seems to be clear: the Italian school is the only true school for the study of lyrical singing. Shall we put it in those terms? 

Undoubtedly. The words of Enrico Caruso come to my mind when he said: “Italian bel canto was, is and will continue to be the model to which all those who wish to learn to sing must tend.” And Caruso added something else: “Even the most modern opera must be sung along these lines.”

The art of singing today

As a legitimate heir to the Italian school, Luca D’Annunzio’s criticism of contemporary melodramatic art is based on arguments provided by historical experts in the field, and on considerations that are the result of extensive studies on the education of the singer. 

Although it would be enough to consider the technical and philosophical foundations of maestro D’Annunzio’s perspective and to confront them with the current state of the art of singing to suggest what vision he has of today’s singers, we nevertheless ask him explicitly how he sees, what his opinion is, and what sensations the world of opera stirs up in him today. 

What ideas and sensations do you have when you contemplate vocal art today? 

We live in difficult times for the artist’s life. Times in which the existential grounds of our profession are in decline. Singing, unable to escape this reality, is profaned, vulgarized and impoverished due to lacking the strong support of its foundations. 

I do not want to be apocalyptic but I must be frank. I am saddened by the current situation. We live in such a way that it is impossible for us to achieve meaningful study, attention and detail in order to enter the essence and reality of this art. The decline is undeniable and increasingly endangers the future of this sublime mode of expression. 

In your opinion, what are the aspects that are most in crisis in the training of singers? In any case, what is the main thing that is harming lyrical singing today? 

It is difficult to list the number of factors that are in crisis today, but if I had to emphasize something I would say: lack of respect and commitment, lack of depth and dedication. These are some of the most pronounced ills of our time. We live in a great hurry, we study in a great hurry. Our times and modes of action do not match those of the past and with the study of this profession. Today the market applauds the quantity of production while in former times only the quality and the genuine achievement of success in art were taken into account. 

How can we cope with this critical situation? 

Once again the phrase of maestro Verdi comes to my mind: “Torniamo all’antico e sarà un progresso.” How many secrets are contained in that almost prophetic phrase of the great master! Of course, it refers not only to techniques and ways of making music, but also to the need of returning to the principles, to the genesis, to what gives meaning to the art of singing, of music, of life. 

So is it possible to reverse this situation? 

It is difficult to put it in those terms… Given that already at the end of the 1800s the famous baritone and pedagogue Leone Giraldoni held that the art of singing was lost, all that remains is the individual reflection of those who love this art: on how we do things and on which ones we take responsibility in order to penetrate that truth that today it is increasingly distant from all of us.