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  • Writer's pictureNew Moon Opera

Bel canto vs. Verismo

April 5-7, 2019, New Moon Opera will perform a double bill of one-act operas, Il Campanello by Gaetano Donizetti and Gianni Schicchi by Giacomo Puccini. While both operas are comedic Italian operas, they are decidedly different in style. Il Campanello is from a 19th century opera style called bel canto, while Gianni Schicchi is from a later opera style called verismo. (To learn more about the background and stories of these two operas, check out our earlier blog posts!)

Bel Canto

Bel canto literally means "beautiful singing" and is considered to be a style of singing characterized by an even tone through all registers, ability to sing legato, use of tone colors to match the text, and other qualities that sound a lot like the way most modern opera singers use their instruments. There is another application to the term bel canto which refers to the operas of Bellini , Donizetti, and Rossini.

Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835) composed operas such as:

I Campuleti e i Montecchi

La Sonnambula


I Puritani

Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) composed operas such as:

L'elisir d'amore (Elixer of Love)

Lucia di Lammermoor

Il Campanello di Notte

La fille du régiment

Don Pasquale

Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) composed operas such as:

L'Italiana in Algeri

Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville)

La Cenerentola (Cinderella)

Guillaume Tell (William Tell)

One of the most well-known pieces from a bel canto opera is the aria "Il dolce suono" from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. You may have heard it sung by a blue alien in the movie The Fifth Element.

"Il dolce suono" sung by Pretty Yende

In "Il dolce suono" you can hear there is a slow first section with lots of legato singing, and then a faster second section with lots of coloratura (fast notes arranged into scales and other patterns). The slow section is called a cavatina and the faster section is called a cabaletta. Almost all bel canto arias follow this pattern.

Besides cavatinas and cabalettas, there is also another style of music that a lot of comedic bel canto operas use called patter or patter song. It sounds just like the name indicates: lots of words in fast succession, sometimes featuring tongue-twisters, alliteration, and other entertaining effects. Listen to Don Magnifico (evil step-father) from Rossini's La Cenerentola (Cinderella) to hear him patter!

Don Magnifico's aria from La Cenerentola (Rossini) sung by Alessandro Corbelli

Il Campanello features many cavatinas, cabalettas, and patter songs, so be sure to listen for them when you come see the show!

The subjects of most bel canto operas are historical figures (like Donizetti's Anna Bolena/Anne Bolyn), based on literature (like Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor), or various comedic situations (like Donizetti's Il Campanello or Rossini's Barber of Seville). In fact, almost all operas before the bel canto era were about historical figures, literary figures, gods and goddesses, and royalty.

The Transition: Verdi

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) composed operas such as:




Il trovatore

La traviata

Un ballo in maschera




Like a lot of composers throughout music history (looking at you, Beethoven), Verdi is considered to be on the edge between two styles. His early operas are closer to the traditional bel canto style, while his later operas are a bit closer to the later verismo style. As you can glean from the above list, Verdi also based many of his operas on historical and literary figures. La traviata (The Fallen Woman) is based on the play La dame aux Camélias, but it is a bit unusual in that the subjects are more average people (at least more average than say, MacBeth or Otello) and the story is a bit more gritty/sexy than a lot of previous operas had ever been.

"Libiamo" from the Met's production of La traviata, sung by Juan Diego Flores and Diana Damrau


Some music scholars say that Verdi's La traviata influenced the verismo movement in that it featured a more gritty side of life with people that seem more relatable than previous bel canto characters. Composers such as Puccini, Leoncavallo, Mascagni, Giordano, and Cilea wrote in the verismo style; verismo meaning "realism" in Italian.

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) composed operas such as:

Manon Lescaut

La Bohème (the famous Bohème)


Madama Butterfly

Il Trittico: Il tabarro, Suor Angelica, Gianni Schicchi

Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919) composed operas such as:

I Pagliacci

I Medici

La Bohème (not the famous one)

Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945) composed operas such as:

Cavelleria rusticana

L'amico Fritz



Inspired by the Naturalism movement in literature, verismo composers usually selected stories about more average contemporary people, such as Mascagni's Cavelleria rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) and Puccini's La Bohème (The Bohemians). The stories usually centered around themes of lust, jealousy, revenge, and greed, sometimes resulting in murder, like in Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci. Compared to Verdi and the bel canto composers, these themes were sometimes shocking to the operas' contemporary audiences. People were used to seeing more "higher minded" characters and stories onstage, so verismo opera would probably feel like a guilty pleasure in comparison.

The music of verismo operas is also much different than the previous bel canto style. While bel canto music is organized into recitative (speech-like sections that further the plot) and aria (the set-piece sections that feel like a "song"), verismo music is more through-composed. While there are certainly sections that can be excerpted and performed as a stand-alone piece, there really are not delineations from one section to the next. This is due in part to the fact that while bel canto operas use strophic text in the aria sections, verismo opera text does not follow a predictable pattern. Unlike most bel canto music, there is not usually any coloratura in verismo music either.

"Mi chiamano Mimi" from Puccini's La Bohème sung by Mirella Freni

Verismo singing is usually a more declamatory style with some extended techniques such blending singing with shouting, shrieks, sobs, and laughter. The best example of this is probably "Vesti la guibba" from I Pagliacci.

"Vesti la guibba" from I Pagliacci sung by Mario Lanza

You will hear a lot of shouting, shrieking, sobbing, and laughing mixed in the singing in Gianni Schicchi. Gianni Schicchi also exemplifies the verismo style subject matter in that it deals with greed and a bit of crime, but it deviates from the normal verismo style in that instead of portraying 19th century people, Gianni Schicchi is about people in 1299. Both Gianni Schicchi and Il Campanello have been updated to current times for New Moon Opera's production, but they are no less hilarious!

Join us April 5-7 for a trip through Italian opera history, from bel canto to verismo!


Tickets available here:

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