In a recent article, “Diction for Today’s Singer” (June 2019), the author refers to Italian as a language whose rules change according to which region the teachers or authors are from, or according to the region where they have been educated.
I contend that the idea of diction with multiple region-based versions, which even varies from teacher to teacher, is not only misguided, but also misleading. Indeed, how could students achieve proper pronunciation, if the language is based on discordant and volatile “regional” rules?
In Italy, we do have several regional dialects and accents, but we also have an official way of pronouncing standard Italian words, which is called “dizione italiana” (Italian diction). Traveling throughout Italy, people will notice many different accents, ways of pronouncing words, and even a different prosody of the language. But that is the everyday-life spoken Italian.
When singing in Italian, one should avoid regional dialects or accents (unless approaching specific repertoires, like Neapolitan or Venetian, to name a few). Instead, one should learn the Italian diction, which is codified and widely used in several fields. Italian singers, actors, and even good news anchors usually study the Italian diction, and work hard to learn it, and to make their own accent as standard as possible.
It is correct to say that Italian diction has many rules, and even more exceptions. However, these belong to the standard language itself, and do not change based on a teacher’s accent or origin. That being said, being native Italian does not guarantee perfect authoritative pronunciation.
When a singer wants to learn Italian, it is important to work with those that have studied also standard Italian diction. For example, in my hometown Padua (North-East of Italy) we pronounce the word “sempre” with a closed é [ˈsempre] but the proper standard pronunciation is with an open è [ˈsɛmpre]. As a singer and diction coach, I know I have to sing or tell my students the second version, not the first one just because I am from Padua.
As those rules do not change from teacher to teacher, likewise they should not change from textbook to textbook. In the past, there have been textbooks that, while overall based on standard Italian diction, have nevertheless mixed it with the pronunciation habits of renowned Italian singers, thus creating a sort of hybrid Italian “lyric” diction. Such works might have generated confusion among voice teachers and students. On this topic, I recommend the insightful article “Unstressed E’s and O’s in Italian Lyric Diction: A Comparison of Diction Texts,” by Andrew Adams.
As educators, who are responsible for future generations of singers, we strive to provide students with proper guidance through a quite confusing literature. Italian is a language easy to approach, but difficult to master. However, the codified standard italian diction offers a clear and structured path towards a functional, native-like pronunciation. Yes, non-native singers can achieve perfect Italian diction! And by benefiting from the intrinsic characteristics of the language, they will positively enhance their singing in Italian.