Opera Corner: Stile Recitativo

By  | September 2, 2011 | 2 Comments | Filed under: Features, Opera Corner

This is how it started... I swear.

Welcome back to the Opera Corner. I was initially overwhelmed by the number of potential topics for this back-to-school month. However, I was inspired by a subject that not only takes you back to basics, but also requires time and study: Italian recitative. I will specifically be discussing recitative in the tradition of opera seria (the noble and serious style of Italian opera that was popular in Europe in the 18th century). This musical form, basically the dramatic declamation of text to music, is infused with a sense of poetic purpose, text, and character. Despite (or perhaps because of) this implied freedom, the word recitative can conjure a feeling of unease for many singers.

I am sure that at some point you have chained yourself to a piano bench and drilled this seemingly archaic form of declamatory singing ad nauseam. Perhaps you tried to cram recitatives at the last minute, which is nearly impossible. What is missed in both of these approaches is an understanding of the finer linguistic and dramatic elements of the recitative (the actual studying part!) Leaving this aspect unexplored puts the interpretive burden on conductors and coaches; leaving them to wring style, drama, and linguistic authenticity from the ruins of your recitatives.  So before you bang your head against a wall – or snap a vocal fold pushing your way through another 10 pages of recitative – I would like to suggest an enjoyable and rewarding process for learning recitatives.

How to Break it Down – 18th cent. Style

Origins of Recitativo

“[The term 'recitativo (properly 'stile recitativo')]… derives from the verb recitare, ‘to recite’, which was also used in the 16th century for vocal performance, for example in Baldassare Castiglione’s Il libro del cortegiano (1528), where the phrase ‘cantare alla viola per recitare’ occurs. The liberalization of poetic forms and blank verse in late 16th-century Italy fostered approximations of the affects of dramatic speech through pitch and rhythm in many different places and circumstances. These attempts, by groups such as the Florentine Camerata, had a number of typical traits: the text was generally not repeated, the rate of harmonic change varied with the affect of the text, an overall slow harmonic rhythm unfolded over a generally static bass line (which gave the impression of declamatory freedom, though chord progressions were still clearly derived from the madrigal), the poetic accents were reinforced by harmonic change, and particularly affective passages or individual words were often supported with strong dissonance (another madrigal borrowing).”

- New Grove Dictionary of Music [1]

The first step when learning recitative should be to look at the text without music. When reading the text broken up into syllables – as it appears in the score – it is harder to discern the meaning and sentence structure.  Find an authoritative copy of the libretto, or if a libretto can’t be found, pull the text from the score.  Next, write out the text line by line (including repetitions), double-spaced. I recommend writing out all your translations by hand, rather than typing; many of us type quickly, basically unconsciously.  We benefit from the slower pace of writing by hand, jump-starting the memorization process.

Once you have written out your text, translate it (thus the double-spacing).  Do a literal, word-for-word translation! This means that your syntax will be screwy, but this is very important. You want more than a general sense of what each sentence means; you want to understand why the composer set each word to each specific pitch.  This will help you to better understand the composer’s dramatic intent, which will make your interpretive choices much more obvious.  Many opera libretti have been lovingly laid out by Nico Castel in his volumes of libretti. These books contain phonetic transcriptions, literal translations, and the occasional modern translation if the poetry is ambiguous.  Of note are his two volumes of Handel opera libretti.  While his books should be on every singer’s reference shelf, it is important to try to make your own translations, as you will gain a greater understanding of the language you are translating through the process.

“A great website for researching definitions (in almost any language) is Wordreference.”

A great site for researching definitions, context, and pronunciation (in almost any language) is Wordreference.com.  A thorough Italian dictionary will also suffice, but the search functions and cross-referencing features of this online dictionary (and the website’s language forum) makes the process easier.

Your next step should be to create a poetic (grammatically correct) translation of your text. This will help you get to the root of what the character is saying.  The roundabout sentence structure of a literal translation can bog you down and mangle your understanding of the text. If you are unclear as to what you are saying, your phrasing and actions when singing it will be unclear too.

Next comes the task of perfecting your Italian diction.  Get a good diction book and/or coach to guide you.  When in doubt, check!  Here are a few general rules that will help:

General Rules for Italian Diction

  1. Always maintain a sense of legato while speaking (or singing) your text, do not add glottal attacks before vowels.  We often do this in English in an attempt to clarify or emphasize. However, this is not the case in Italian. If you want to emphasize an important word, elongate the stressed vowel of that word instead.
  2. Find the stressed syllable in each word, and de-emphasize the other syllables.  Of course, in the context of a phrase, some words will be more important then others.  A common mistake (and one I was often guilty of earlier on) is not giving enough length to the [i] in “mio” or “io,” don’t be tempted to come off that vowel too soon. (Those words are used a lot, so I thought I should mention it!)
  3. Closed o and e vs. open o and e? This is important and unfortunately, you just have to learn the rules and exceptions.  A good rule of thumb in lyric diction is that the final “e” or “o” is always open. Also in lyric diction, unstressed “e” and “o” in a polysyllabic word are always open.  Any other “e” and “o” which is neither final nor unstressed in a polysyllable, may be either closed or open.  (Isn’t that fun? Sorry!)
  4. “I” or “e” after “c” or “g” serves to soften those consonants.  Therefore, “cio” is pronounced [tʃɔ], whereas, co is pronounced [ko].  It is important to remember that in the process of softening the “i” is absorbed into the softened consonant. It is not pronounced. In other words, “cio” is pronounced [tʃɔ], NOT [tʃiɔ]. The same applies to “gi” and “ge,” which are pronounced [dʒi] and [dʒe].
  5. Be careful not to add shadow diphthongs to certain vowels (for English speakers particularly [o], which migrates to [ou], and [e], which migrates to [ei]. This can be very subtle; many of us are completely unaware that we are doing it, as we tend to think of the diphthong as a way to gracefully taper off the sound.  Vowels in Italian are always pure.  A good way to practice this is to think of an inhalation for your cut-off while maintaining the vowel’s mouth posture.  I like to call this maintaining vowel integrity.
  6. Flipped “r” vs. rolled “r.”  If there are two r’s, it is rolled.  If there is one r adjacent to another consonant, it is rolled. If there is a single “r” between two vowels, it is NOT rolled most of the time.  If an initial “r” is intervocalic or adjacent to a consonant by nature of the last letter of the preceding word, follow the same rules as if the letters were directly adjacent.
  7. An intervocalic “s” should be pronounced as [z]. There is , however, a big exception:  Italian, like English, often applies prefixes to verbs; ri- or re- is the equivalent of the English re- (implying the action is being done again). Make sure with these particular prefixes, if attached to a verb that begins with an “s,” that you do not pronounce the intervocalic (between two vowels) single “s” as a [z] sound (e.g. “risento” is pronounced [risento], not [rizento].)
  8. Take time to highlight the double consonants.  They are a defining characteristic of the Italian language and must not be overlooked.  When you finally sing the text with pitch and rhythm, it may be necessary to give a dotted feeling to the rhythm to allow the doubling to sound.  If you have practiced this by speaking the double consonants aloud first, the process will be organic.
  9. Syntactic Doublings

    For example: “re Carlo” (“King Charles”) and “recarlo” (“to bring it”) are pronounced in two different ways.  As a prefix (not the word for “king,”) “re” (/re*/) does not cause the doubling of the following initial consonant sound [rekarlo]. However, “Re Carlo” is pronounced [rek'karlo]. Weak monosyllables (such as articles, unstressed personal pronouns, “ci” (us, there), “ne” and other particles, etc.) do not cause the doubling. Unfortunately, Italian spelling alone does not indicate the doubling; for example, you might see the common phrase “e come” written as the contraction, “eccome.”  In this case, both spellings would result in the same doubling of the ‘c’ consonant.

  10. In addition to double consonants, make sure to mark syntactic doublings. Many Italian words cause the initial consonant sound of the following word to be doubled. This is interchangeably called syntactic doubling, raddoppiamento sintattico, or phrasal doubling. In Italian dictionaries (e.g., Zingarelli, published by Zanichelli), the phonetic transcription of such words is followed by an asterisk (*).  The following types of words cause syntactic doubling:
    1. All stressed (strong) monosyllables
    2. Many unstressed (weak) monosyllables
    3. All polysyllables stressed on the final vowel (with a written accent mark)

General Rules for Italian Grammar

It is helpful to consider learning basic Italian grammar and verb tenses.  I suggest challenging yourself to learn at least the following:

  1. Subject pronouns are often eliminated in Italian. In English, we always use them, since our verbs do not tell us who is speaking. I speak, you speak, we speak, they speak; without the pronoun it would be impossible to know who was speaking. Italian verbs are conjugated differently depending on their subject pronoun, so the actual pronoun is somewhat superfluous. Therefore, you can just say parlo (I speak), parli (you speak), parla (he, she, it speaks), etc. and the subject is implied.
  2. Learn your basic pronouns and they way they form contractions with certain prepositions. (This is beyond the scope of this article, but do your homework on this!)
  3. Learn the conjugations of -are, -ire, and -ere verbs in the present and past tenses (so that you can more easily clue into the verb, subject, and tense in the libretto.)  I recommend purchasing Barron’s 501 Italian verbs for this.  SIDENOTE: The more literary tense, the passato remoto, is often favored over the compound past tense, the passato prossimo, in most poetic Italian, so it’s important to have a basic grasp of this tense for opera.
  4. In poetic Italian, words are often truncated to fit the syllabic requirements of the poetry.  Italian words rarely end in a consonant, except when they are abbreviated or borrowed from another language.  This often happens with infinitive verbs like fare (which becomes ‘far’), as well as certain words like ‘core’ (which becomes ‘cor,’) and amore (which becomes ‘amor’).

Probing the Prosody Like a Pro

After you have done all the necessary language and diction preparation, it’s important to speak the text in Italian out loud as a poem.  Then speak it aloud while playing the continuo part.

“Most recitatives in Italian Opera Seria are secco and should follow the prosody of the language rather than the rhythms on the page.”

It helps at this stage to be able to plunk out basic chords at a piano, but if that’s not your forte, get a pianist or coach to play while you speak through your text in rhythm.  You will start to realize how married to the written rhythms you should be while singing recitatives by speaking them with the accompanying music.  Certainly an accompagnato recitative (that is, a recitative with the orchestral strings in addition to the continuo section) will be more strictly in time.  Most recitatives in Italian Opera Seria are, however, secco (that is, just the singer and continuo section) and should follow the prosody of the language rather than the rhythms on the page.  If the composer was any good, the two will not be very different.  As with any art form, educated minds will disagree when it comes to specific interpretive choices.  It is vital that your choices arrise from the language and the dramatic impulse of your character.

“Do not make every cadential point a major event… Most characters don’t make grandiose statements every time they sing”

It is important to lengthen here and there – a little more than you would in normal speech – if the word calls for emphasis. Take more time with important words, and be more conversational and quicker paced with the other parts.  It should feel almost as if you are rushing to slow down on the more emphatic text. To that end, look at the written rhythms as guidelines; they may help indicate some of the important words or moments the composer is looking to highlight. Do not make every cadential point a major event unless this character is somewhat pedantic or emphatic that way.  Most characters don’t make grandiose statements every time they sing.  If they do, it usually is for comic effect.

Then comes the task of putting your recitative in the singing voice.  Most recitative will be written at a pitch level more attuned to speech.  Occasionally roles will have higher or lower tessiture in the recitatives which may effect how naturally you can convey them.   However, having done your homework will make this less awkward and seem more realistic.  It is important while speaking and singing the text to try to retain and maintain all the elements worked on up to this point.

Be mindful of appogiature, the most common ornament in recitativo.  Most will be approached by step (filling in thirds) or softening leaps between fifths or fourths. The rules to this are a little loose, and not all conductors or coaches may want every appogiatura sung.  If you are lucky, they will leave the ornamentation up to you; you should discuss this early on.

It is important to decide where you are going to take breaths or inserting pauses in your speech (to show shock, thinking, plotting, or speechlessness).  Any of these affects will make a character seem more believable. This gives the appearance of spontaneity to your recitative.  Equally important is to know when to jump in on someone else’s line as if you are cutting them off.  This is what makes recitative exciting and seem more like dialogue.

All of this careful attention to detail will help make your recitatives sparkle and make character motivation and staging much easier.  Take the time and do this necessary preparation and study, and I am sure you, your colleagues, and your audiences will be thrilled with the result.


Monson, Dale E., et al. “Recitative.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 2 Sep. 2011 <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com>.
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Nicholas Tamagna is a countertenor based in New York NY. He regularly performs as a concert and operatic soloist regionally throughout the US. He was educated at Manhattan School of Music and City University of New York at Hunter College and is the recent recipient of the Nico Castel Mastersinger Award. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.


  • http://www.singthrough.com Susan Morton

    Nice summary, Nick. I appreciate all the time you took to point out some very important basics AND more advanced concepts in Italian diction for recitative purposes. AND there is no substitute for speaking the language, preferably in Italy, so you can be immersed in the linguistic “soup” which is harder to do here in the States. You can feel inflections, the fluidity of the phrases and begin to have an idea of expressive options available to you as a character, including tempi and colorations to the voice which give us insight into the character’s emotional state and point of view at any given moment in the opera.
    Nicely done!

    • http://www.blog.counterpointspublishing.com Nicholas Tamagna

      Thanks Susan! This is so true. No substitute for spending time in Italy to improve your sense of the language. Thank you again for the reply!