If you needed to learn one word to begin navigation of the Operatic world, I would submit that the word you needed would be “Coloratura”. It’s not a word that one encounters almost anywhere but in opera, but when you’re talking about opera, you hear it a lot, and if you don’t know what it means, you’re going to be very confused.
So what is Coloratura? Well, it is an Italian word, and literally means ‘coloring’. It is most often used in music, where it refers to vocal ornamentation, usually in sopranos and mezzo sopranos. It is all of that really impressive vocal work that makes the jaw drop, the eyes bulge and the hands applaud frenziedly. When you hear it, you can see how fitting the word ‘coloring’ is to describe it, as the wild, yet sophisticated decorations bring the vocal line vibrant new life. Trills, runs, and spectacular, sparkling high notes. A lot of it hardly sounds possible, and one might not believe it actually was possible if there wasn’t footage of such singing coming from a human body. It’s astonishing stuff, and even people who don’t enjoy opera can at least admire the amazing talent of singers who are masters of this technique. Let’s look at some, shall we?
Of course, you don’t have to watch the entire half-hour video (though it’s worth it), but if you want some highlights, I would suggest going to Lily Pons at 3:14, Anna Moffo at 5:19, and Joan Sutherland at 12:50. These singers really encapsulate the art of Coloratura. They sing the music accurately and beautifully all while making it look and sound positively easy, even though it most certainly is not.
One downside to coloratura is that, often, a singer must sacrifice the Drama in a scene in order to sing it well. This isn’t a problem in comedies, as it is easy to be bright and cheery while whistling out notes. But in tragedies and melodramas the lack of proper feeling can be a bit off-putting for the dramatically inclined. Watching the aforementioned Lily Pons, for example, you would never guess that the character is supposed to be terrified while she is forced to sing by her father. Ms. Pons just looks too… happy. But focusing on the complicated singing and on the acting is really too much for most singers who don’t possess superhuman powers. This is probably the main reason why true coloratura singers are on the decline these days, when there is a definite push towards drama over technique. I myself am more inclined to good acting and emoting than vocal accuracy, but it does pain the heart to see such talent on the decline.
The closest we come to that golden age of Coloratura Singers these days are singers like Diana Damrau and Natalie Dessay, who, while excellent, still aren’t quite a Sutherland, Sills or Anderson. But I suspect that the pendulum will swing again at some point, and we will be drowning in melismatic vocals once more.