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Karaoke from Hell

A new way to learn 'early opera'


Baroque Opera Studio

The Problem

Singers like to use recordings as an aid to learning music. But for 'early opera', especially the music-dramas of the beginning of the 17th-century - Monteverdi's Orfeo, Peri's Euridice, Cavalieri's Anima e Corpo, Landi's La Morte d'Orfeo and many others - ALL the existing recordings change the composers' notated rhythms. Most of them treat the 'recitative' as rhythmically 'free'.


Although singers believe that they are making the music 'more expressive', the actual result is consistently that the composer's notated contrasts are reduced. Long notes are sung too short. Fast notes are sung too slow. The music becomes boring!


New Research

Andrew Lawrence-King's research into Early Opera for the Australian Centre for the History of Emotions has revealed the need to REDEFINE RECITATIVE (read more here). 


Recitar cantando  is not the boring, rhythmically unstructured bit in-between the nice tunes. Literally, it is 'acting in song'. The secret of acting is dramatic timing, and the dramatic timing of song is musical rhythm.


As Caccini tells us in Le Nuove Musiche, Rhythm is a high priority in this style. And as Dowland tells us, early 17th-century Rhythm is controlled by Tactus, the long, slow, steady pulse. 


"Tactus directs a Song in Measure"


A Solution

MIDI recordings based on Andrew Lawrence-King's ediitons of early operas have the tempo set at a typical Tactus speed of minim = MM60. Changes to triple-metre are in accurate Proportion. And the composer's rhythms are there, as an aid to accurate learning.


Even if a modern singer would like to interpret the rhythms freely, surely the starting point should be the composer's notation, not some other singer's free interpretation.


But when one compares the notated rhythms to the lazy, boring, reduced-contrast versions on most recordings, the variety, sparkle and dramatic contrast of the original are shown in their true colours.


Of course, many period sources mention that the Tactus might change from one section to another, according to the affetto (emotion). So at an agitated moment, when the composer already writes fast notes, the tempo might also be increased, resulting in even greater contrast. (This is of course the opposite of most modern recordings, where singers slow down for fast notes).


What you get

  • The whole opera, to sing along to

  • The composer's notated rhythms

  • Tactus at MM60

  • Accurate proportions for triple-metre

  • New editions based on original prints

What you don't get

  • The text - and this should be your highest priority!

  • Meantone - sorry!

  • Change of Tactus according to the affetto

What to adjust

Karaoke from Hell is not a complete performance, it's just a learning aid. It's like a neutral transcription of an original printed score: it gives you useful information, but it leaves you to deal with that information intelligently, and according to the advice of period sources. Here is ALK's summary of how to apply that period advice as you prepare for a rehearsal today.


  1. Learn the text first, paying attention to Good and Bad syllables, single and double consonants and the meaning of every word.

  2. Control rhythm by the Tactus - minim = MM60 in recitative.

  3. Within that steady beat, make Good syllables slightly longer than notated, Bad syllables slightly shorter.

  4. Shorten last notes considerably, and don't accent or vibrate them.

  5. Exaggerate the contrasts in note-values already notated.

  6. Word by word, change the colour of your voice to correspond to the meaning of the word.

  7. Section by section, try changing the Tactus according to the affetto. This should produce the result of further exaggerating notated contrasts in note-values.


The Last Word


  • Before you decide to change the composer's rhythms, try first to understand WHY he has written the note-values in the original score. There are very few mistakes in Monteverdi's, Cavalieri's, Peri's or Landi's work. And any printing errors have already been corrected in ALK's editions. 


  • Oh, and by the way, don't ornament. All the period sources agree that you shouldn't ornament recitatives. It's fine to ornament arias, but check your ornaments against period sources, don't follow CDs. In particular, the trillo should speed up towards the final note, not slow down.


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