Secco Recitative: A Guide to Learning Operatic Dialogue

Last week, I wrote an amazingly well-received post about learning operatic roles. The response was truly positive, inspirational, and warming. Thank you to everyone who shared, and for those of you who haven’t read it yet, you can find it here.

My favorite part of reader response is the feedback I receive. For this particular post, one wonderful reader asked me the most obvious follow-up question in the world: What about secco recitative?

I was extremely fortunate in my graduate years to have the opportunity to take a class on this exact topic (yes, it took a whole class to learn this skill!), so I will do my best to relay the basics here.

First of all, what is secco recitative? Recitative, or “reciting” as it loosely translates from Italian, is the spoken/sung portion opera. It can be accompanied or loosely accompanied by instruments and are most easily recognizable in Baroque and Mozart operas. These are the moments where the plot moves along. You can see an example in the video below (ending at 34:52). These recitatives are known as secco recitative, or “dry reciting” due to the lack of music that goes with it. And they are terribly hard to learn! Why is that, you ask? Because we, as singers, want to sing everything, but recitative is supposed to represent spoken dialogue.

Now onto the process! Learning secco recitative must focus on the language first, before the notes. No exceptions! The whole point is that this is a spoken language, and composers are generally smart enough to write music based on the natural inflection of the language. Therefore, if you try to learn the music first, especially when you don’t know the language, you’re putting the cart before the horse.

When you are looking at the language, the first thing you need to do is translate. This includes translating in your native language if there are any old-timey words you don’t know. You also must do this yourself in order for your understanding of the language to work. I only recommend using other people’s translations when you absolutely cannot find a word or phrase.

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As I mentioned in my last post on learning roles, translate word-for-word, then poetically. WordReference.com, as I discuss in my video post here will help you out. Also, for a limited time only, if you subscribe to my posts, you will receive a FREE translation worksheet, helping you create the most effective and easy translations ever! Seriously, you’ll be the envy of all your singer friends.

Once you have your translations, make sure you know how to pronounce the words correctly. A coach or a language tutor can be a big help here (I also offer this service for those who are interested via Skype!). Be sure to take special note of word emphasis. At this point, start working on speaking the text in a conversational way. What are you saying? Who are you saying it to? Start by speaking the translation first, so you get comfortable saying the text in your native language, then switch to the original language.

Finally, when all of that language work is done (and I mean all of it!), you can start learning the notes, but keep those translations nearby! As I said earlier, composers wrote their music so the notes should generally reflect the natural pattern of speech. It should be kept in mind though that the rhythms a composer writes can sometimes be a little too square for the language. This is because composers still had to fit recitative within a prescribed meter. You need to know what the rhythms are, and you need to do them correctly, but you can mess with the tempo so that it sounds more conversationally rhythmic.

If you are working on a duo or group scene, rehearse by speaking and then singing both the translation and the original language with your group, much like you did by yourself. Be sure you’ve translated their text too! It’s a conversation, so you should be able to know what they’re saying. Practice by speaking over the end of each other’s lines, and think about how fast or slow your character would speak in any given moment. In real conversations, we would normally vary our speeds and entrances as well. Listening to recordings of your scene and working with a coach will help build you ear for the conversational nature of recitative.

This may all seem overwhelming, but recitative is the time where you really get to speak as your character. Take advantage of that and learn all you can about who you are through these moments of action. After all, recitative is often where the action lies, and you wouldn’t want to miss that.

Are there any other steps you would add? Do you have any specific problems with learning recitative or with translation? Again, when you subscribe to my mailing list, you will receive a FREE translation chart to help you make the most of your translations. Don’t miss out!

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