Italian “Ah”

A question received about “Italian ah” causes me to think back about the uncertainty that I also used to have about that vowel and the stages I went through to reach an answer. It is a basic, and thorny, question.

When I went to CCM as a freshman in 1951, young Mr. Kockritz taught a course called Language Orientation. I think it was a new course, one semester long, and the only diction course I ever had. I no longer have any materials from that class, not even the textbooks: Thurwanger for French and Wilcke for German. Mr. Kockritz was certainly in the forefront of diction teachers, and I heard other voice teachers refer to his new, unproven class quite condescendingly.

My last interaction with Mr. Kockritz was at the NATS convention in December 1970, when Colorni’s book had just come out. The NATS Bulletin offered me a chance to review it.  I didn’t like the book because of the pervasive use of open E and open O in unstressed syllables, but I felt uncomfortable challenging a New York teacher whose work was published by the prestigious G. Schirmer. So I buttonholed Mr. Kockritz and asked him what he thought of the new book. I quote: “It’s a bad book.” He had exactly the same objection as I had. So I wrote my review (NATS Bulletin, Feb/Mar 1971). I don’t know whether Ms. Colorni noticed the review, but the book is still alive on the market.

Now, to the question of Ah. I don’t recall what Mr. Kockritz taught, but when I went to the University of Colorado at Boulder, I came under the influence of Berton Coffin. He and Ralph Errolle agreed on /a/ in Phonetic Readings of Songs and Arias and in Errolle’s Italian Diction for Singers.  Previously, I may have used a cursive letter, which stands for a darker color of Ah, just because it is quicker to write. But I changed over to bright Ah because I realized that Italian Ah is closer to the French bright Ah rather than the dark Ah.

If you do not know the difference between the two Ah’s under discussion, that is not surprising.  I did not know them apart when I began voice study.  We do not distinguish them from each other in English, using one or the other in various regional dialects.  Most forms of American English use the dark Ah “as in father”.  In some American speech the bright Ah /a/ occurs as the first part of the “Eye” diphthong:  If you say “I like icing,” bright /a/ will probably be heard three times.

As you point out, Wall uses the dark script Ah in Italian, as do some others. Why the disagreement? First, the two Ah’s are allophones, that is, you will be understood whichever one you use. Secondly, voice teachers have their tonal preferences. Did Joan Sutherland ever sing a bright vowel in her whole life? And yet, she was a great proponent of Italian opera, as much admired in Italy as elsewhere. Personally, I like the bright vowel, but some teachers think it is vocally disagreeable, if not dangerous.

This touches on a question about the philosophy of diction pedagogy. Especially if you are teaching a class that includes the students of other teachers, do you teach what you believe is vocally optimum for singers or do you teach what is heard from native speakers? I choose the latter, because I believe that a student’s teacher should make the decision about what is best for that student without interference from me.

The first really scientific work written by an Italian on fonetica italiana came out in 1999 in two books by Luciano Canepàri, published by Zanichelli: Dizionario di Pronuncia Italiana and Manuale di Pronuncia Italiana. Since I choose to study the language as it is spoken, those books have become my final authority. Canepàri uses the bright Ah /a/. I am convinced that it will become the standard, no matter how voice teachers may teach vowel modification that will darken the standard vowel.

At a NATS convention I picked up Moriarty’s 2008 revision of Diction. He still uses script Ah and does not reference Canepàri among dictionaries. I also bought David Adams’s 2008 A Handbook of Diction for Singers, 2nd edition. He knows Canepàri and he uses bright Ah. In the “Preface to the First Edition” (page xiii) you will find some of the same statements I have made above.

A final observation: The “IPA community” that you refer to is something that we may have soon but not quite yet. One can hope. In the meantime, most singers are quite unaware of the International Phonetic Association, as they are unaware of us. I joined the Association for several years and read some interesting articles in their journal.

I had a telephone conversation several years ago with the vice-president of the Association, and he was perfectly unaware that singing teachers make use of the IPA. Nor did he seem much interested.  After all, we singers use only a few of the hundreds of languages in the world, and those few have been long and thoroughly studied.

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2 Responses to Italian “Ah”

  1. Danute Petrauskaite says:

    Dear John,
    I would like also to know your e-mail address or phone number because it would be nice to discuss with you about music of Darius Lapinskas . Is it possible?

    Danute Petrauskaite
    Klaipeda University

  2. Danute Petrauskaite says:

    Dear John,
    I am musicologist from Lithuania. I knew about you from Laima Rastenyte, the wife of the composer Darius Lapinskas. She told me that you performed “Five Chinese Poems” and “Haiku” by Darius. Is it true? Where I can listen the sound records of these compositions? Do you have the notes of “Haiku”? I would be very thankful to you if you can help me.
    With the best regards from Baltic coast,
    Danute Petrauskaite
    Klaipeda University

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