Bel canto (Italian, “beautiful singing”), along with a number of similar constructions (“bellezze del canto”/”bell’arte del canto”), is an Italian opera term. It has several different meanings and is subject to a wide array of interpretations.
The earliest use of the term “bel canto” occurred in late 17th-century Italy, when it was applied to a sophisticated model of singing that was evolving there among practitioners of operatic and sacred music. The term did not become widely used, however, until the middle of the next century, which was the heyday of opera seria, the static but technically challenging da capo aria, and the now-extinct castrato voice.
In the mid-19th century, bel canto gained a more specific meaning when it was employed to distinguish what by now had developed into the traditional Italian vocal model from more forceful, less ingratiating styles of singing. These newer styles of singing had arisen as a result of 19th-century operas growing increasingly dramatic, pitting performers against louder and denser orchestral accompaniments in bigger theatres. Nonetheless, “neither musical nor general dictionaries saw fit to attempt [a] definition [of bel canto] until after 1900”. The term remains vague and ambiguous in the 21st century and is often used nostalgically to evoke a lost singing tradition.