Compared to other opera languages like French, German, English, Russian, Czech, etc., Italian seems easy.
The language itself consists of only pure vowels, some of which are open and closed. There’s no mixed vowels like French or German, and no crazy consonants like Czech or Russian. And unlike English, for the most part, what you see is what you get.
This makes Italian a great first language to sing in because you can pick it up more quickly!
Because of its pure vowels, this helps singers create long, legato phrases with ease. The language is sensual and bright. In addition, Italian has the unique characteristic of having double consonants, which add much to a singer’s expression.
There’s also another tidbit to know about Italian diction that often is overlooked by singers. It’s a nifty hack that can make any non-Italian speaker, un vero italiano!
And that is raddoppiamento sintattico, also known as syntactic gemination, syntactic doubling, and most commonly known as phrasal doubling.
Sounds complicated and a little scary. It’s not. It’s just a fancy word for something that takes a little practice. Just like aesculus hippocastanum is just another word for chestnut tree!
Sure, lots of singers have heard of it but how does one actually use this to their singing advantage and to add that something special to their performance?
Ok, So What Is It?
Phrasal doubling is the practice of doubling the first consonant of a word to give it a certain emphasis for dramatic purposes.
It’s meant to be treated with respect, reverence, and class. Too much of it and you sound formulaic. Too little, and you don’t sound Italian.
It needs to be the accent flavor in your main course. It takes a long time to perfect but here are some guidelines that I use in my own singing:
- Must occur within a phrase, not on the first word
- Requires a vowel before it (so, the preceding word must end in a vowel sound)
- The vowel after the phrasal doubling is also given a slight emotional emphasis
These are just a few of my personal guidelines but for something more official, check this out.
Another handy resource is the Diction Police with coach Ellen Rissinger. She has a fabulous podcast with tons of informative episodes about this stuff. Here’s one where she mentions phrasal doubling.
Got that? Great. Now let me tell you my favorite way to use phrasal doubling.
Never The Same Twice
As musicians, we’re told to never sing something the same twice. When it comes to repeated text, variation is key, and phrasal doubling majorly helps me out when deciding how to differentiate between the repetitions. For instance, if I sing, ‘che bel’ multiple times, I choose one of the times to double ‘b’ of ‘bel’ for dramatic emphasis.
But how do you know which to choose?
The trick is that you don’t need to figure out when to use phrasal doubling; your character needs to figure it out. You know what I mean? When your character is excited, in love, mad, irritated, intense, etc. go for some phrasal doubling. If the information you’re saying is trivial, I’d skip it.
After a good amount of practice, you’ll get an instinct for when to use phrasal doubling. Once you reach a certain level of expertise, you can even use it on certain nights and not on others, depending on your character in the moment. I love doing this in the Barber, Don Giovanni, or any Italian role with lots of recitative.
However, I meticulously plan out my phrasal doubling in arias and ensembles. It can be hard to remember those moments or even any double consonants in Italian when learning a role. It’s so important that the first thing I do when learning a new Italian role is go through the score and write the “doubled” consonant below every double consonant I find:
Personally, this is the number one thing I listen for in Italian singing and I take it as a serious part of my own singing.
Phrasal doubling is the next level up. I write it the same way and I treat it the same way but with EVEN more emphasis. The double consonant is the same but the vowel after that is given extra emphasis, as well. That’s what makes it exciting and special.
La vita italiana
Another important component of singing Italian is the passion! The music and the language go hand in hand to achieve the utmost expression. The musical line is broken up with many double consonants and accents in order to give emphasis to what people are saying. As a performer, you can use this as an advantage.
Whether you’re singing a dramatic piece or some slapstick comedy, phrasal doubling can help paint the dramatic picture of your character. It’s just in the language.
If you’ve ever seen two Italians having a conversation about anything, you understand that phrasal doubling is just a way of life. You have to recreate that on the stage (maybe with less hand gestures!) by going even further than conversational Italian. That’s why I can’t stress enough how important phrasal doubling is to a singer.
When you think about it, singing requires beautifully spun legato phrases. Italian language seems to defy this logic at its core but that’s not the case. The real trick to singing beautiful Italian is spinning a beautiful phrase with the occasional break in the phrase for a double consonant to give emphasis to the emotions you’re feeling. I will add that recits are somewhat different because there are more words than in an aria but the phrasal doubling stays the same!
So, when you’re learning Italian, start off with the basics: Pure vowels and beautiful legato lines. Then, try to hang out with Italians and get an Italian diction coach. This will help to open your ears to the world of phrasal doubling. Benvenuto e in bocca al lupo!
What do you think? Did you find this article interesting, entertaining, or helpful? Feel free to chime in with a comment below.