Tips on Learning Recitativo

I am currently working on Le Nozze di Figaro with my students. For some of them, it is their first experience singing “recitativo”. I always love this process, especially with recits as beautiful as those written by Mozart in this opera.

Recitativo, an Italian term commonly known in English as “recitative” or “recit” for short, is a style of delivery used in opera, oratorio, and cantata. In a recitative, the singer is allowed the freedom to adopt speech’s ordinary rhythm and delivery (as ordinary as it can be while singing it). In an opera setting, the recitative is where the story develops because it carries the text’s emotion and moves the story along. Whereas the aria is more reflective, telling the audience about the character’s thoughts and intentions.

There are two principal types of recitative:

“recitativo secco” or “dry recit”

  • This style of recit is sung with a free (written out) rhythm dictated by the accents of the words.
  • The accompaniment is a “continuo” (harpsichord and cello and in the baroque style, sometimes organ), which is chordal and straightforward. However, in the classical period, the harpsichordist can be invited to ornament.
  • In the bel canto period, the pianoforte is the accompaniment.
  • The melody approximates speech by using only a few pitches.

In this recit preceding this lovely duet between the Contessa and Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro, we find a typical recitativo secco. You can hear that both singers adapt to a more “spoken” freedom with the text, but all the while singing with their full instruments. The spoken like quality is created with the words, pauses, tempo of the text and not by taking away the vocal quality.

“recitativo accompagnato” or “accompanied recit”

  • This style of recit is sung with a stricter rhythm.
  • There is a more involved orchestral accompaniment.
  • It appears in dramatically important moments.
  • This type of recit’s character is more emotional.
  • The vocal line is melodic and typically leads into a formal aria.
  • An “arioso” is also a form of “recitativo accompagnato” in lyrical form. The words are still the driving force, but there is a more ornate and expressive melody.

In this example of recitativo accompagnato, Fleming as the Contessa gives us a fully sung recitativo with all the spoken language’s color while never compromising her voice.

The appoggiatura

An appoggiatura is an Italian term to indicate a musical ornament that consists of an added non-chord note in a melody that is resolved to the chord’s regular note. This added note is typically one degree higher or lower than the principal note and can be chromatically altered. The term comes from the Italian verb appoggiare, “to lean upon.”

In the Classical repertoire, singers are expected to add these ornaments within the body of a recitative even if they are not written in the score. Some editions give you options written above the staff but these are suggestions and you can decide if you would wish to add them or leave them out :

Remember when adding your appoggiatura to a phrase to look at the text and how the added note will affect the text. Will it weaken the statement when it is meant to be strong? Does it help your question sound like a question? The decision to add these should be text and character-driven to make it most effective.

How to Approach Singing Recitativo

A singer learns about recitative from the beginning of their formal training; however, there is often not much help beyond the basic understanding until you are confronted with performing it. At this point, the singer must find a teacher, coach, or conductor who understands and has experience with the subject. Decisions on adding appoggiatura in recitatives can help shape the text’s inflection; that being said, always be prepared to remove them or add more at your first musical run-through with a conductor. There are strong opinions and tastes regarding this practice, so it is in an artist’s best interest to remain flexible.

Tips on how to learn a recitative:

  1. Translate the text; not just a word-for-word translation, but use words you would use in your daily life. This translation is of the utmost importance because the recitative is text-driven, and your connection to the text and how you express it is based on your translation. 
  2. Make a phonetic translation of the text and meet with a diction coach. You will work on the natural pronunciation, inflection, and meaning of the text.
  3. Speak the text in rhythm until you know it inside and out, develop your muscles for the language, and you will attain a natural inflection. Test yourself by writing the text or reciting it while doing a mundane household chore, independent of the notes and rhythm.
  4. Start learning the notes slowly with the text.
  5. Take it to your voice teacher and put it in your vocal mechanism before adding any vocal “effects” . You mustn’t skip this step. Learn to sing it before you sing it!
  6. The next step is to work with your vocal coach. Your coach should be able to play and sing all the other replies so that you can rehearse your timing and entrances before going into your first musical rehearsal with the conductor and cast.

Important points

  • You will inevitably be asked to “speak more” when you are working on “secco”. Please be careful with this. The “parlando” aspect of the recitative is the last layer of your preparation. With your voice teacher and coach’s help, you should first build the recitative into your voice in a technically healthy way before adding any “speech like” effects. Be careful not to go entirely to the “parlando” side of the recitative because continually going back and forth between “speechy” and “sung” will prevent you from keeping your voice fresh throughout a performance.
  • Learn the rhythm to recitativo secco very carefully. After you have done so, you will sing it with a more natural flow, but it is always easier to loosen up when you know something inside out, but if you haven’t learned it the way it is written on the page first, it isn’t easy to go back if a conductor asks you to do so.
  • Some conductors observe all rests in recits, and some require you to go through specific musical rests that break up a grammatical phrase. While there is some truth to the fact that composers had to observe time signature, which is why some musical rests are in the bar, you should always try and adapt to the conductor’s preference, even if/when you disagree with them.

Being able to sing recitatives convincingly separates the good from the great. Try following these steps the next time you learn a recitative and try to go too quickly: “Make haste slowly!” is an excellent rule to follow when learning/preparing recitatives.