What is… Coloratura?

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with one of classical music's technical terms, the coloratura

What is a Coloratura in music

A coloratura is an elaborate ornamentation of a vocal melody, in which an operatic singer will add decorative embellishments and flourishes.

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Coloratura is one of those rare musical terms that actually sounds like the thing it signifies. Simply pronounce ‘Coloratura’ and you can imagine the liquid runs, leaps, trills and roulades that abound in this kind of brilliant and (for some at least) beguiling vocal repertoire.

It also sounds as Italian as spaghetti vongole, which it surely should be, given that so much of the best coloratura writing is either by Italian composers or in the Italian language. 

So it comes as a slight stub to the toe to discover that ‘coloratura’ is probably an Italianification of the German word ‘Koloratur’. Certainly, German writers were using the term before the Italians took it up.

Whatever its linguistic origins, though, the kind of ‘coloration’ indicated here isn’t about vocal timbre – though it does seem to presuppose a light, rather than a full voice. It’s more about the ornamentation of a melodic line which in itself, without those bewitching decorations, could be rather plain. 

In fact, the first statement of the melody in some early 19th-century bel canto arias can sound bland, formulaic – which is one of the reasons it can take some of us so long to get this kind of thing.

This is just the introduction, the calling card you might say. The real business begins when the singer/composer begins to play with the line: bend it, stretch it, shake it, tease it into fabulous new shapes. GK Chesterton liked to talk about how beauty resided in ‘the bent bow’: two forces pulling in opposite directions creating the perfect curve.

That’s the kind of beauty you should hear in coloratura singing: the melody’s basic structure stretched almost to breaking point, yet somehow becoming even more beautiful in the process. 

Even Mozart, whose melodies are seldom plain, relished what you might call the divine absurdity of this kind of thing: the Queen of the Night’s stratospheric acrobatics in The Magic Flute, or the soprano in the Mass in C minor, drawing out the stressed ‘ah’ in ‘incarnatus’ to the point where the word itself (not to mention its meaning) is long forgotten.

In theory, all male and female voice types can achieve coloratura style, but when the voice isn’t specified, the soprano is implied, which given the richness of the repertoire, from Handel to John Adams, isn’t very surprising.

Outside comic opera, a striking amount of the finest coloratura soprano writing is associated with ‘mad scenes’ – perhaps there’s scope for a feminist dissertation here?

This article was first published in the July 2016 issue of BBC Music Magazine

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