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A colortura soprano is a singer, usually female, who sings pitches at the top of the human vocal range. Coloraturas have great flexibility in their voices, in contrast to other types of sopranos. This lets them sing passages with complex runs or leaps with beautiful agility and lightness. People use the classification primarily with opera singers, but it applies to singers of all music types, because it is a description of vocal quality, not of the genre in which the singer performs.
Although all coloraturas have vocal agility, a spectrum exists regarding their range and the exact tonal features of their voices. Coloratura sopranos thus can be divided broadly into lyric and dramatic singers, and further divided into three subcategories which include spinto, leggero and sfogato coloraturas.
Lyric coloraturas don't have as much "weight" to their voices as dramatic coloraturas do. The most common type of soprano, lyrics generally have a slightly higher range, bottoming out at C4 compared to the B3 of dramatics. The upper range for both usually is around F6. Dramatic coloraturas are not quite as common as lyrics, because producing the power necessary for dramatic effect requires thicker vocal cords. Thicker cords translate to a loss of flexibility in most cases.
Sfogato coloraturas are fairly rare, and can easily can achieve pitches above F6. These singers often become well-known for their ability to reach into the true altissimo register, which begins at G5.
A coloratura leggero is another type of lyric soprano and is characterized by voices with a very warm sound. The price of this warmth is loss of extreme upper pitches, as the range for coloratura soprano leggero singers usually peaks around E6.
A spinto coloratura soprano has a vocal quality somewhere between lyric and dramatic coloraturas. These coloraturas can be thought of as either heavy lyrics or lighter dramatics. Another generalization is to think of the spinto coloratura soprano as having the vocal color usually reserved for the next lowest vocal range, but this doesn't always hold true.
Often the line between the different coloratura soprano types is rather blurry. Some coloratura soprano singers, particularly leggeros and spintos, are able to switch back and forth with ease from lyric to dramatic roles. This is largely a matter of having just the right thickness in the vocal cords to handle both light and heavier singing. Furthermore, singers do have limited control over how "weighty" they sing. Sometimes by consciously refusing to "push" so much during vocal production, a singer can transition to sing lighter pieces.
A major consideration for coloraturas is that vocal categorization sometimes changes with maturity and age. Female singers generally do not have full vocal maturity until their late 20s or early 30s, so coloraturas usually can sing higher and lighter when they're young. When hormones change and the voice truly settles, however, the coloratura may lose a pitch or two off her range and develop more warmth in her tone, losing some flexibility. This does not at all mean the coloratura has to stop performing. It simply means they have to find musical works and roles more appropriate for their changed voice.
Male coloratura sopranos are gems of the musical world. Historically, male coloraturas existed because women were not allowed to sing in particular settings such as the church. The ability of the male to reach a high range often was preserved via castration, a practice that is no longer popular. Modern coloratura male sopranos usually have been trained to reach consistently into the falsetto register, using it with unusual power. These singers generally specialize in creating authentic period music, but they also sing in all-male groups that want to perform works using soprano, alto, tenor and bass parts.
To me, the best coloraturas have the upper range, along with a lightness of tone that make their voices more flute-like. The advantage of this is that even a casual listener can understand what they are singing.
For instance, "How Beautiful Are the Feet" from Handel's "Messiah" is a soprano aria -- and most Handel sopranos almost have to be colorturas to get the range. Most English speakers who like the piece know the words to this aria, and a good coloratura sings so that even those who do not know the words can understand them. Sometimes this is difficult with singers who blur their words and do not enunciate clearly. Of course, that may be more of an issue with training than the singer's actual voice.
Sarah Brightman in her younger years was probably the beau ideal of a coloratura, and although her voice has matured, it is still beautiful.