My most illustrious ladies and gentlemen,
Step out of your gondola
and come through the gate to Teatro San Cassiano. It isn’t any longer a theatre
for real. It’s been transformed into a garden. Nevertheless, in my mind it
still remains a theatre, inside the larger theatre of Venice.
So, imagine yourself walking through the same gate as the first paying opera-audience did in 1637.
Please, just watch your steps. The stones are all wet and slippery. We don’t want you to fall.
Listen… Can you hear the
noise from over there, the house next to the theatre? It’s the casino. Thank
God it’s full. It helps paying for our productions. But please, come in and
have a seat.
You are about to hear a short performance of a research-opera. It is a work in progress so you will be experiencing parts of the prologue and the second act. It is a research-opera-performance, investigating the singer’s process of interpreting vocal sounds of lamentation and madness composed in the 17th century.
In the cast you will find
MIND, BODY, VOICE and the CHORUS of OTHER.
In the second act we meet Arianna, first dressed in an Italian design, later on transforming into a French costume. The topic of this specific act circles around the concept of PURE with the title ‘PURE VOICE or PURIFIED FROM WHAT?’
In this research-opera I
carefully observe the singer’s first moment of holding the musical score in her
hand, until the actual moment of performance. My aim is to interpret the
singer’s immediate thoughts passing through her mind while making her voice
move and vibrate.
Practically, I write while I sing. I am encouraged by my Academy1 to be curious, creative and poetic. The only rule I need to follow is to document every move throughout the process.
I use an iPod for recording, my camera in one hand, a pen and paper in the other. The computer is set up on the desk ready for typing in any intuitive reflection, or to Google immediately on some weird analogy coming to my attention while singing.
I am myself the singer and
my own instrument. At the core of the study I am expected to research my own
During a research journey to Venice I walked the streets of Passion and Comedia. I was practically walking back in history in a pair of shoes made from scratch for my feet, crafted in the 21st century, based on a 17th-century model.
Since I am inviting you
into my most intimate chambers, I will let you know that before leaving Sweden
a perfectly fitted corset was made for me, again based on a 17th-century
model. As a scientific experiment on my fieldtrip, I tied my instrument into
this prison every morning for 10 days. The corset experience revealed totally
new dimensions of breathing which I had never noticed before. It had an impact
on the singing instrument, my voice, my way of thinking, vibrato, ability to
embellish – perhaps a corset would be an interesting component to add in a
A dress and a wig were made while in Venice, also based on a 17th-century singer’s portrait. All these external details have been important to observe with regard to posture, breath and gestures. An interesting aspect was the new sensation of space and freedom around the upper part of my chest as well as around the hips.
So this is my research
The dialogue is divided
into 3 steps:
This research project was
inspired by a paper from 2003 by Mauro Calcagno titled ‘Signifying Nothing: on
Aesthetics of Pure Voice in Early Venetian Opera’.2
The paper opened with the following
citation, made by a member of the Academia dell’Arcadia, Gian Vincenzo Gravina,
The philosopher remains confined to the schools, the poet to the academies; and for the people what is left in the theatre is only pure voice, stripped of any poetic eloquence and of any philosophical feeling.3
Calcagno points out the
significance of the female singer’s entry on stage within the new opera genre,
referring to her appearance as a symbol of NOTHING. He argues that her
appearance on stage justified the ongoing discourse on aesthetics with
reference to Nothingness, Singing of the Nightingale, Pure voice and
Signora Anna Renzi romana has caught my attention. She arrived in Venice after being banned from stage by the Pope in Rome. Her first appearance in Venice was in Francesco Sacrati’s opera La Finta Pazza (the False Lunatic) in 1641. She also interpreted the role of Ottavia for the first premier of L’Incoronazione di Poppea in 1643.
Her interpretations of
laments and madness was so impressive that a whole volume of glorifying poems
was dedicated to her in 1644, published by Accademia degli Incogniti. This
volume was called Le Glorie della Signora
Anna Renzi romana. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the same academy had
published another volume in 1634 with the title Le Glorie dell Niente.
Gulio Strozzi wrote of Renzi:
Our signora Anna is endowed with such life-like expression that her responses and speeches seem not memorized but born at the very moment. […] She transforms herself into the person she represents and seems now a Thalia, full of comic gaiety, now a Melpomene rich in tragic majesty.4
Within the CHORUS of OTHERS
I have included some philosophers who specifically explore the concept of
Nothingness. In my bag, along with the musical scores, I carry with me the
following word and citations:
Nothing includes in itself all that is possible and impossible.5
A list of figures of Nothing according to Accademia deli Incogniti:
Voice, dream, beauty, time, dust, darkness, sleep.6
Nothingness does not itself have being, yet it is supported by being. It comes into the world from fullness of self-contained being, which allows consciousness to exist as such.7
Nothing means liberation from the self.
Indications of Nothing being: Influence, Inspiration and Improvisation.8
Meeting the PURE VOICE of
Arianna, what could that possibly mean?
I walk out through the door of my house on the island, with a camera in my hand. The road is narrow; I walk between houses, boats covered up in the gardens, waiting for the snow to melt and for the summer to come. It’s cold and icy. Wintertime.
The road becomes a path and
soon under my feet, there are only rocks, shaped once upon a time by the ice. I
walk as far out as I can on the rocky shore. I start to sing.
Lasciatemi morire (Let me die)
How can I understand this
wish to die? What do I know… a life-loving being?
A woman calls me. She wants to die. Lasciatemi morire. Voglio morire, morire…. (Let me die, I want to die, to die…) Her voice tells me she has given up. She won’t listen to anyone, but to her own sorrow. Nothing can touch her, or heal her… At that moment she is in her self and in her own sorrow and pain.
She knows and she is aware
of her self. So when she senses happiness around her, she becomes mean and her
voice is transformed into a knife. And it hurts both me and herself.
Her voice is real and pure. A close experience of lament turning into madness. Yet never really mad. Feigned madness. Conspiratory false madness: La Finta Pazza.
Just as Arianna stood on
the shore of the island of Naxos, I stand here on the rocky shore of my island.
It is a real and physical experience of looking out for something I can never
reach. Something that I love.
It is a sensation of helplessness rushing through my body. Despair.
Based on my own experiences
I set a frame for vocal interpretation of Arianna’s pain.
What you will hear now is something a singer normally keeps far away from the audience. It is an exploration of sound, searching for an experience which I believe is a search for Nothing. A flow of Nothing. A Nothing where any thing can be. To me it is a drive of energy, where meaning looses itself, where anything is possible and impossible as suggested by Manzini in 1634. It is an intimate moment of an ongoing process – a preparation for a performance.
The voice exists between
the mind of the composer and the score – as a moving power in between. The
voice can surprise, sooth, love, hate, embody all emotions and passions.
When Mind follows Voice into an ornament inside my private study, there are no restrictions banning the instrument from anything.
So now I share this
documentation with you and I ask you to bear in mind that these are samples of
exploration and over vocalization.
Is it pure?
Like Renzi did in her performance of Deidamia’s mad scene in Francesco Sacrati’s opera La Finta Pazza, I walk in and out of realities.
Now I am myself, the singer;
Now I am the woman on the phone, desperate to die;
Now a woman without hope;
Now I hold a imagined knife, ready to kill all joy around me, in revenge;
I stretch my body, next minute I pull the muscles tight, tight, tight….
Meanwhile I consciously send a message to my neck and to my spine, allowing them to lengthen and widen. Just as I have been taught through many Alexander Technique lessons. I bare in mind the words of a master:
’Breathing is natural, not a technique’.10
Everything happens at simultaneously.
Now the trillo:
I had nothing else than the
physical trill in my mind. I did the repeated tapping throat sound again and
again, while observing where it would take me. The result choked me somehow. I
had not expected the outcome. Nothing was planned or made up. The madness grew
out of my voice and in to the body, or perhaps the contrary. I could do no more
than laugh at the end.
Arianna is now transformed into Ariane
Rochers vous êtes sourds
Vous n’avez rien de tender
Et sans vous ebranler
Vous mécoutez icy
L’Ingrat dont je me plains
Est un rochers aussi,
Mais helas il s’en fuit
Pour ne me pas entendre.12
Rochers vous êtes sourds,
your are cold as ice.
How can I bring life to your soul?
How can I animate – animer – with my throat? Bring life to a note?
singer, teacher and writer Benigne de Bacilly talks about animer – meaning: to move and stir – in connection to ornamentation
and coup de gosier (throat beating).13
French 17th-century airs have been with me closely for at least twelve years. But now I try to observe something new.
I invited a small group of
scholars and singers to a dialogue-seminar in Paris in March 2009. We gathered
around an improvised discourse departing from the question: What is PURE VOICE?
‘Purified from what?’ one of the participants said. This reply is now printed on my mind. This question added to Bacilly’s words on numbers and language, transformed my understanding of vocal expression in French airs. In fact I came to see the air as an intimate act of balancing between pure and unpure… Vocal suspensions teased by a forbidden unpure sound;
Desire and temptation slightly touched by vulgarity.
But never ever all the way.
This sensation was for me Nothingness in French design.
Ces voeux que tu faisois
Et don’t j’étois charmée
Que sont ils devenue
Lache et perfide amant?
Helas t’avoir aimé
toujours si tendrement
étoit une raison
pour n’être plus aimée? 14
My vision and perspective
for the future is to create a dialogue-forum between singers and theorists from
relevant fields, investigating the vocal sounds and interpretations of lament
and madness during 17th century.
In Venice I realized that I was being embraced by foreign embellishments, voices, and curious realities of all kinds. Ornaments from the east and from the Mediterranean sea cover art and architecture all over this magical island.
What sounds did Anna Renzi hear when she came to Venice?
Did Venetian traders bring music along with their merchandise?
The link has already been made between Baroque music and folk music, but in my opinion it has not really been explored enough vocally within the art form of opera.
I argue that the words like
transformation, over vocalization, pure voice, singing of the nightingale and
Nothingness, carry a similar message through the vocal ornaments of Persian
singing and a Sephardic chant, as through a female voice from the early 17th
century opera – all voices being symbols of Nothing.
Bacilly, Benigne: L’art de bien chanter, 1668 translated to English by Austin B. Caswell, A Commentary upon the Art of Proper Singing, The Institute of Mediaeval Music, LTD, 1968.
Caccini, Giulio: Le Nuove Musiche, 1601, S.P.E.S. 1983.
Cavalcante Schuback, Marcia: Sá Lovtal till Intet . Essäer om filosofisk hermeneutik. Glänta produktion, 2006, Logos, Pathos nr.5.
Calcagno, Mauro: ‘Signifying Nothing: On the Aesthetics of Pure Voice in Early Venetian Opera’, The Journal of Musicology, Fall 2003, Vol. 20, no. 4 (2003), 461–97.
Manzini, Luigi: Il Niente, 1634, in Calcagno (2003), 468.
Rosand, Ellen: Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice. The Creation of a Genre. University of California Press, 1991 (2007).
Sartre, Jean-Paul: Being and Nothingness. An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology. 1943 (Routledge, 2008).
Strozzi, Giulio: Le Glorie della signora Anna Renzi romana, Venice, 1644.
Monteverdi, Claudio: ”Lamento d’Arianna”, Lasciatemi morire, 1608; 1623 Firenze, IT: Fn, RR 238.
Lambert, Michel: "Plainte d'Ariane", Rochers vous etes sourds, in: Airs de Monsieur Lambert Non imprimez 75 simple 50 doubles, Bibliotèque nationale de France, Rés. 584, fol. 111v–112v.
Le Brun, Charles: Méthode pour apprendre a dessiner les Passions (1668)
Photos: Elisabeth Belgrano & Miranda Luna Belgrano.
Singing of the Nightingale,
Lasciatemi morire Elisabeth Belgrano
Ornament samples: Esclamazione & Trillo, Elisabeth Belgrano
Rochers vous etes sourds, Elisabeth Belgrano
Birds, in: Endless vision., Hossein Alizâdeh & Djivan Gasparyan (Persian singing)
Keter (Crown) in: Juderia: Ladino Meets Flamenco, Yasmin Levy
Elisabeth Belgrano has specialized in Baroque singing since 1992. She has trained with some of the most eminent instructors and performers of early music, including Jessica Cash, Jill Feldman, Emma Kirkby, Agnès Mellon, Jakob Lindberg, and Stephen Stubbs. In 2000 she was awarded a Master of Fine Arts in Music at Göteborg University in Sweden with an emphasis in Baroque performance. Ms Belgrano has performed and recorded with various vocal ensembles in Europe including the Stuttgarter Kammerchor, Collegium Vocale, and La Chapelle Royale.
During recent years, Ms Belgrano has dedicated her career to research and creation of concerts inspired by women and salons in Europe during the 16th & 17th centuries. One of the programmes, Eclatante Amarante – a portrait of the French singer Anne Chabanceau de La Barre (1628–1688) is the result of research carried out at Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, while invited as a guest at Centre Culturel Suédois (SI), and it was recorded in 2003.
Together with musicologist Catherine E. Gordon-Seifert, she was in 2005 invited to present a lecture/recital on rhetoric & passions in French 17th century airs, at the Society of Seventeenth Century Music conference, as well at the Longy School of Music in Boston. In 2005 Ms Belgrano, Prof. Gordon-Seifert & Stephen Stubbs received the prestigious Noah Greenberg Award for ‘outstanding performance project’ from the American Musicological Society, for their recording project The Lyric Art of Bénigne de Bacilly: From Drinking Songs to Spiritual Airs (the first recording of Bacilly’s songs and airs).
She has performed with Santa Fe Pro Musica, as well as the Albuquerque Baroque Players in New Mexico, and has been invited to perform at various venues in Europe and in the United States, including a concurrent event at the Boston Early Music Festival in 2001 and a special invitation to the Bloomington Early Music Festival in 2004. Her PhD thesis, Passionate Women’s Voices on Stage, is an interdisciplinary study combining practice-based research in the performance of 17th-century vocal laments and mad scenes with the science and history of emotions, gender studies, cultural studies and phenomenological hermeneutics.