or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Queen Is Dead. Long Live The Queen.

Growing up, I had had some experience with classical music, but not a whole lot. Not enough, certainly. In 1984, after seeing the movie Amadeus, I was completely bewitched by the scene in which Mozart's mother-in-law's screeching is transformed into an aria. "What," I asked a musically-trained friend, "is that singing?"

"Coloratura," he said, and then proceeded to explain it to me.*

"I need more of it," I said.

Armed with the names of a few candidate singers, I headed to the nearest music store, discovered "Lucia di Lammermoor" by Beverly Sills, and was hooked. Something about the style of singing (called "bel canto", "beautiful singing" in Italian) resonated with even my untrained ears. I bought as many of her recordings as I could afford, went to the university library's music centre and listened to as much opera as I had time for. I own a half-dozen different versions of "Lucia"; I have dozens and dozens of operas, and have heard hundreds, but still, that very first one is the one I treasure; her interpretation of Lucia sets the standard. I have heard a great many singers in a great many roles, but Sills was always the North Star.

She changed me forever. And now she is gone.

* "Coloratura" is Italian for "colouring", and refers to a style of singing in which the musical line is heavily ornamented--coloured--with such vocal tricks as trills (little flickers of the voice alternating between two notes) and runs (moving from one note to another through a series of intermediate notes).

Not only sopranos can sing coloratura: the opening aria in Handel's "Messiah" is the difficult "Ev'ry Valley" for a coloratura tenor, and later is an aria for a coloratura bass, "Why Do The Nations". But coloratura is generally written for sopranos, whose high, light, flexible voices are particularly suited to the style. Some hate coloratura, finding it artificial, over-elaborate, and prone to abuse: musical comedienne Anna Russell joked that the only people who liked coloratura were other coloratura sopranos. But this, of course, is only a joke; a great many people are thrilled by the sheer difficulty of the style, the tightrope with its threat of a disastrous fall, which is why a truly great coloratura soprano, as Beverly Sills was, is generally the brightest star in the operatic firmament.

For a fine example of the style, go here and listen to the first track, "Myself I Shall Adore" from Handel's "Semele". The first repetition of the tune is sung relatively simply, and then the florid ornamentations kick in. There are a great many more examples on this page, and also this one. Do listen to "The Soldier Tir'd Of War's Alarms" on the lattermost page if nothing else: in this aria, Sills was absolutely unmatched in speed, flexibility and precision.


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