Bel Canto Boot Camp

by Pamela Hay

Our 2021 Annual Review featured an article by Janice V Thompson regarding the Bel Canto Boot Camp, a then-online group established by two coaches from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Their aim was to draw on their long experience as top coaches of top singers, and the depth of their knowledge of bel canto treatises, to explain and de-mystify the technique behind bel canto singing. One could tell how fact-filled their “boot camp” was by how many nuggets of gold rolled out of Janice’s article. When I heard that AOTOS had invited Rachelle Jonck and Derrick Goff to speak to us directly, I couldn’t make the booking fast enough.

The evening did not disappoint. Rachelle and Derrick’s approach overlaps exactly with what I love about AOTOS: the opportunity to learn (and reinforce) vocal fact from vocal fiction, while conducted in a friendly atmosphere in which we were encouraged to be active in the chat box.

Having been the victim of a tremendous amount of vocal fiction when I began my own studies as a singer, I still find it a balm to hear experts speak with authority on the facts of good singing. What was incredible was that they could be so precise in their technical guidance, whilst being rooted in the use of the poetry, and the understanding of the ornamentation styles of the times: a truly holistic approach to the bel canto music. Indeed, they made the point that García’s treatise was the “mother of all treatises”, as he was the first pedagogue to write a method book using poetry and not simply solfège or vowels.

Some of the truisms were not new to me but exciting for the simplicity in which they were rendered, as in “legato is the goal, portamento is the tool,” or “legato is continued breath, not continued vowel.” At other times there were new ideas and images aplenty, too numerous to list in this report.

Particularly interesting to me was how much time and care they took to elaborate on ornamentation, as no discussion on bel canto style should be without it. They had a particularly useful graphic of what the “skeleton” of Pamina’s aria from Die Zauberflöte would look like, which brought one to appreciate Mozart’s written-out ornaments. They challenge their Boot Camp participants to re-ornament the aria, having learned the types and functions of ornaments available.

Overall, this was a rich lecture, delivered by experts in both the theory and practice of these ideas, in a welcoming environment. I can’t recommend it enough, so if you missed it, please do watch it on the AOTOS website (you will need to be logged in), and treat yourself to their Sunday Matinée series on Zoom as well, which they have generously made available to AOTOS members, as well as the PDF of this presentation.