As I was researching this writeup, I came across a humorous definition. A coloratura soprano is "a singer who has great trouble finding the proper note, but who has a wild time hunting for it."

Coloratura is a musical term for a style of singing characterized by colorful ornamentation. It is also a term given primarily to soprano vocalists who specialize in this style of singing. The style is particularly important to (and its development coincided with) opera, given that opera singing not only involves the words themselves, but the musical expression of the vocalist to convey emotion. Related to coloratura is fioratura, taken from the Italian word for "flower", which is the "flowery" written line in many operatic arias, which coloraturas often sing.

The etymology of the word comes from the Latin coloratus, meaning to color. The word "coloratura" is Italian, though there is also the German word "Koloratur." It means that a singer "colors" the music with her voice, in the sense that a "plain" melody is embellished by the singer to add to the life and character of the piece. This is primarily done by extensive use of vibrato and trills, roulades, cadenzas, both written and improvised. These vocal embellishments are done both with great speed and greater control, and require a very well-trained and strong voice.

Modern vocal music has changed in style over time. While a beautiful singing voice was always important in vocal music (even in the plainsong and plainchant of ancient music), the development of opera at the end of the sixteenth century gave the voice a much more important role not only as an instrument but as a means of expressing the emotional content of the music. During the baroque period, the emphasis was on musical complexity, and this was reflected in vocal compositions as much as in instrumental ones. Finally, during the bel canto period of early nineteenth century opera, the emphasis moved to vocal and emotional dynamism, meant to showcase the beauty of the human voice and the story behind the music, above and beyond the beauty of the melody alone.

I'm afraid my classical collection is weak in the vocal and opera department, but one recent example of a coloratura soprano is the Italian soprano Cecilia Bartoli. Her recent release The Vivaldi Album is a good example of this style, as the coloratura style is well-suited to Antonio Vivaldi's baroque compositions. Other coloratura sopranos in recent times include French soprano Lily Pons, who sang with the Metropolitan Opera from 1930 to 1958, and the American soprano Beverly Sills, who also sang with the Met until 1980.

American Heritage Dictionary
Oxford Dictionary of Music
Cecilia Bartoli, The Vivaldi Album, Decca 289 466 569-2

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