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Modern Coloratura Music

Pierrette Alarie, Anna Maria Alberghetti, June Barton, Kathleen Battle, Patrice Michaels Bedi, Erna Berger, Judith Blegen, Marianne Blok, June Bronhill, Phyllis Bryn-Julson, Elin Carlson, Marilyn Cotlow, Trudy-Ellen Craney, Diana Damrau, Eirian Davies, Natalie Dessay, Zdzislawa Donat, Dorothy Dorow, Sibylle Ehlert, Renee Fleming, Hinako Fujihara, Elizabeth Futral, Goar Gasparyan, Karina Gauvin, Sylvaine Gilma, Edita Gruberova, Reri Grist, Ingeborg Hallstein, Elizabeth Harwood, Beverly Hoch, Ilse Hollweg, Eileen Hulse, Nedazhda Kazantseva, Evelyn Keller, Urszula Koszut, Aline Kutan, Hellen Kwon, Julia Lovett, Ute Mai, Valentina Maksimova, Mady Mesple, Janine Micheau, Adrienne Migliette, Eugenia Miroshnichenko, Edda Moser, Marisca Mulder, Celena Nelson-Schafer, Marni Nixon, Birgit Nordin, Jeanne Ommerle, Carolann Page, Miah Persson, Roberta Peters, Marlis Petersen, Helga Pilarczyk, Margaret Price, Angelina Reaux, Mado Robin, Gianna Rolandi, Nada Ruzdjak, G. Sakharova, Christine Schafer, Rita Shane, Lucy Shelton, Beverly Sills, Eleanor Steber, Ana Camelia Stefanescu, Joan Sutherland, Urszula Trawinska-Moroz, Olga Trifonova, Odette Turba-Rabier, Dawn Upshaw, Debra Vanderlinde, Elizabeth Verlooy, Elizabeth Vidal, Hope Wechkin, Carol Wilcox

John Adams, Dominick Argento, Samuel Barber, John Beckwith, Jack Beeson, Alban Berg, Leonard Bernstein, Louis Beydts, Laci Boldemann, Emmanuel Bondeville, Walter Braunfels, Philippe Capdenat, Henry Cowell, Paul Creston, Claude Debussy, Dorothy Dorow, Werner Egk, John Fernstrom, Rheinhold Gliere, Hans Werner Henze, Alan Hovannes, Enrique Granados, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff, Gyorgy Ligeti, Gian-Carlo Menotti, Patrice Mestral, Darius Milhaud, Luigi Nono, Boris Papandopulo, Jean Papineau-Couture, Clermont Pepin, Laurent Petitgirard, Francis Poulenc, Maurice Ravel, Phillip Rhodes, Ned Rorem, Henri Sauguet, Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stavinsky, Richard Strauss, Virgil Thomson, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Hugo Weisgall, Michael Zerbin

There is a CD issue of vocal chamber music by Gyorgy Ligeti, a contemporary Italian composer of some renown.  Normally something this avant-garde would never even make it on my radar screen, but I happened to be searching Tower Records online on the word "coloratura" and was intrigued by the description online that it contained the most difficult coloratura music ever written.  Well, the problem word in that sentence, it turns out, is "music." Goodness, this piece of music is totally bizarre, and unlike anything I've heard before. The first two times I played it through I despised what I heard; then I forced myself to listen to it a third time and found it merely unpleasant, the intended shock-value having worn off.  It is a freak show of vocal clucks, hoots, shrieks, whistles, whispers, heavy breathing, and growls for the soloist, a frenetic mockery of coloratura singing, and not a very clever one at that.  Most of the vocalism happens in gibberish and what few words can be discerned are German nonsense.  There are trills that intentionally turn into wild wobbles, and sustained siren notes that have no vibrato. There is an undeniable element of the virtuoso here -- a distinct aspect of much coloratura music -- and Sibylle Ehlert tries to navigate this ridiculous mine field without ruining her voice.  That may be the ultimate test here: retaining a healthy voice after singing this music.  The version recorded for this CD is a reduction into a chamber vocal piece entitled Mysteries of the Macabre of three arias of a character from the opera The Grand Macabre -- a crazy, tyrannical, wacky, shrill chief of police.  There are two complete recordings of the opera you couldn't pay me to take, the first with Eirian Davies and another with Ehlert.  May the guardian angels of vocal-health watch over them.

After this debacle, I began to wonder what other modern music is out there for the coloratura soprano, and what if any of it might actually be singable and listenable? If Ligeti is (hopefully) the extreme at one end of the spectrum, what is the other end, and what makes up the bulk of the middle? What exactly makes coloratura music modern? And when did it begin?

Richard Strauss was the first composer to write what I would call distinctly "modern" vocal music for the coloratura soprano.  With Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos, he gave the world an entirely new, original, distinctive, and remarkable musical fabric to clothe the various aspects of the coloratura soprano's unique talents.  His was a new way of testing the high soprano voice with extreme challenges -- rapid and sudden harmonic modulations, melismas, unusual vocal twists and turns, long soaring phrases, circus tricks (trilling on high D, for example), and excessively demanding tessitura.  The music it is not only high, it exploits the tip-top register relentlessly.  [For a detailed discussion of Zerbinetta's aria and all of its known recordings, refer to Nick's article in the aria section].  Zerbinetta's music can be even more of a challenge to voices trained in the symmetrical melodies and tonality of the prevailing romantic bel canto works by Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini, or the earlier almost mathematical divisions of the classical and baroque works of Mozart, Handel, and Bach.  These pieces provide their own challenges to be sure, but Strauss built an entire new obstacle course.  Zerbinetta was a coloratura watershed, a new use of the coloratura soprano voice. This trademark style also gives musical life to the very short role of Fiakermilli in Arabella, Amnita in Die Scheigsame Frau, and his song Amor, and is hinted at in a few other operatic and lieder moments.

If Strauss is the starting point for modern coloratura music, where does it go from there? I started digging through my extensive collection of coloratura soprano recordings looking for pieces I'd judge to be modern in mode to see what I would find.  I am not an expert in this particular sub-genre, nor am I necessarily attracted to this music in and of itself (apart from it being coloratura-centric).  So what I found on my shelf were several arias, concert selections, and songs that had most often slipped rather inconspicuously into my collection by way of an adventurous soprano including a modern piece or two on an otherwise traditional recital record.  If an admired and trusted diva participates in a recording of new music, I suppose I'm more apt to investigate; there is something familiar there (the voice I know from other works) that will allow me a way into the music.  Occasionally curiosity gets the better of me from an article I encounter, a record review, or a recommendation from a colleague, and I do venture by choice into these risky and uncharted waters (hence the Ligeti).

I began my quest by continuing to test the so-called extreme.  One of the ur-modern composers who happened to find his way into my opera locker is Hans Werner Henze.  I had long admired Edda Moser in her several recordings of German operas, especially Mozart, and so had long ago acquired an enticing record of her singing his concert music. Henze heard Moser in 1966, and immediately latched on to her as his ideal high-voiced interpreter.  She performed under the composer's direction in concert for the BBC and in Europe.  She took over the role of Autonoe in his opera Die Bassariden from Ingeborg Hallstein for its premiere at the Berlin Opera.  I don't know that piece (there is recording on CD featuring Celine Lindsley as Autonoe).  Moser was the soprano soloist in his cantata The Raft of the Frigate Medusa recorded by DG, based on a true story I believe of a group of sailors stranded at sea after a shipwreck.  I don't have the recording, but recall hearing it several times many years ago. It was what first introduced me to Moser and her stunning high E's.  Also for DG, she made this phenomenal recording of three difficult Henze soprano cantatas, each sung in different languages.  Cantata della Fiaba Estrema was composed in 1963 for soprano, small choir, and 13 instruments.  It is a long piece at 23 minutes with lyrics from a poem "Alibi" by Elsa Morante. Henze's setting of Walt Whitman's "Whispers from Heavenly Death" is from 1948, for high soprano and eight solo instruments and is eight minutes. Being Beauteous for coloratura soprano, harp, and violincelli was composed by Henze in 1963 to Rimbaud's French poem from Les Illuminations.

The Whitman setting was Henze's first attempt to write a vocal composition in the twelve-tone system, and it is fairly accessible, I must say.  The pacing is so slow, with simple poetic phrases getting drawn out over many measures, that it is haunting and mystical. It is not excessive in range and has no coloratura demands.

Being Beauteous is more disjointed. Each phrase of the poem was written as a different arietta, joined by short instrumental interludes, or toward the end with only full pauses between them.  There are high staccato effects in certain of these sections, humming in others, and some very high lyrical suspensions over an essentially dissonant scoring (with varying rhythms for each section).  There are sustained high D's, E's, and an F. Moser is in her element and makes the piece very compelling with her incredibly plush and colorful tones, although it does tend to bore about half way through its 20 minute length.

The Fiaba Estrema cantata is fascinating to my ears and the real showpiece of the LP.  The beautifully harmonized choral interjections help to break up the long piece, and it is deliciously unmerciful for the soprano soloist.  Her first words "I love you" immediately soar to high C, and once up there in the stratosphere, she rarely comes down.  Moser pops out these never-ending laser-like notes in alt -- high D's and E's -- with tremendous clarity and ease.  The final phrase on the word "riposo" (rest) is suspended on a long pianissimo high E-flat, that resolves to an even longer pianissimo high D, which is the final thing you hear.  Magical. The Orfeo label just released a rare recording of the legendary Edita Gruberova singing this piece in her youth -- quite a departure from her usually Mozart/Strauss/bel canto repertoire. It was performed at the Salzberg Festival in 1975. I haven't managed to get a copy yet, but it is surely something to be heard. I was surprised to find out the light German coloratura Ilse Hollweg sang this piece at the Holland Festival in 1967. The performance is included on a Radio Nederland transcription LP set, which I have not heard (but would sure like to!).

I was surprised how many pieces I found in this modern realm were vocalises.  One worth hunting down is by Henry Cowell (1897-1965) as recorded in 1984 for New World Records by the modern vocal music specialist, soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson.  This is a lovely and fascinating piece of music written by Cowell while he was serving a prison sentence in California from 1936 to 1941 on a morals charge for homosexuality.  Ethel Luening (composer Otto Luening's wife and one of Cowell's staunchest supporters) commissioned the piece for a performance at the Yaddo Festival in New York.  This vocalise shows the influences of Cowell's interest in Oriental music.  The harmonies, intervals, and rhythms have an Eastern timbre, scored for piano and flute.  The vocalise is a full concert piece in three repeating sections, including a final da capo (structured as ABCABCA).  Very interesting is the syncopation effect asked for from the soloist in the B section, who is instructed by the score to accent using "sudden thrusts of the diaphragm." Bryn-Julson is ideal, simultaneously mysterious and smiling in a grueling sequence of turning coloratura figures and runs, not tremendously high, but very fleet. I actually heard this piece performed live in recital by a small chamber group named Sorelle here in Seattle in November, 2003 -- the soprano was Hope Wechkin -- it was a fascinating "listen."

Bryn-Julson also recorded a long secular cantata called The Lament of Michal, by Phillip Rhodes which was released as the reverse side to Rita Shane's marvelous full recording in 1970 of Strauss' Brentano Lieder with the Louisville Orchestra.  The pretentious cantata is in three tedious movements, the most notable being a section asking for high excursions from the soloist.

Paul Creston wrote a concert piece called Dance Variations.  I know of no commercial recordings, but there is a tape of Roberta Peters singing it during a broadcast from 1959. It is a vocalise, essentially, with different movements based on different dance rhythms.  It is a giddy piece, right up Peter's warbling alley.  I wonder if he may have composed it for her?

Dorothy Dorow is a singer who made a considerable reputation singing modern music.  She also made an uncharacteristic recording in 1976 for BIS of turn-of-the-century virtuoso showpieces in the domain of Galli-Curci and Tetrazzini.  Intermixed with intelligent and charming renditions of waltzes, variations, and bird songs by Adam, Benedict, Bishop, and others, is a modern song of her own composition. Apparently, she studied to become a composer and won some awards in that realm before concentrating on vocal performance.  Dream is a wordless piece she wrote for the album at the producer's request to provide some contrast to the twittering chestnuts and to showcase the four different flutes used by her accompanist, Gunilla von Bahr.  From Dorow's own notes: "The dreamy beginning leads to a movement of anguish and fear which calms down and is followed by a bossa nova calling up a glamorous Hollywood dream.  Then follows a tittering part which recedes." The voice hums, sighs, and coos in this musically remote piece.  Only the bossa nova section is melodic; the rest of the piece comprises swooping and whipped vocal lines up and down the scale. 

Gliere's famous vocalise Concerto for Coloratura Soprano was written in the 1940s for Deborah Pantofel-Nechteskaya -- it is modern music more by date than style.  It has a melodic hyper-sentimental quality that recalls the virtuoso vocal writing of Johann Strauss.  This is not to imply it is easy, by any means; it is very long and wide ranging -- a real showpiece in the old-fashioned sense.  Written as a wordless vocalise in two movements, it treats the voice as a featured solo instrument to the orchestra.  It has been recorded many times; I have studio and live versions by sopranos Eva Bandrowska-Turska, Erna Berger, Marianne Blok, Diana Damrau, Natalie Dessay, Goar Gasparyan, Edita Gruberova, Beverly Hoch, Eileen Hulse, Nedazhda Kazantseva, Aline Kutan, Valentina Maksimova, Eugenia Miroshnichenko, Gianna Rolandi, Joan Sutherland, and Elizabeth Verlooy.  All offer something rewarding.

Urszula Trawinska-Moroz sings a Concerto for Coloratura Soprano in three movements by Michal Zerbin. I know nothing of this composer (the notes on the CD are in Polish).  It is quite reminiscent of Gliere's better known concerto, but strikes me as more modern in its harmonies.  Trawinska is very good in this piece (was it written for her?) -- much better than in the other standard bel canto mad scenes and arias on the disc.  Does unfamiliar modern music reveal fewer flaws in a singer's technique?

Julia Lovett joins her lyric-coloratura with a pianist and clarinetist to form a concert trio known as The Ariel Ensemble.  They made a recital recording on the Orion label in the 1980s that contained Schubert's Der Hirt auf dem Felsen as the only traditional work on the program.  A few modern works written for them and recorded here disappointingly don't exploit Lovett's coloratura skills.  There are however three vocalises by Ralph Vaughan Williams that were completed in 1958 (the year of the composer's death), but not critically edited.  They are beautifully haunting duets between clarinet and soprano (no piano).  They require distinct flexibility and some range (to B-flat), perfect for Lovett's pure, pretty, well-schooled voice.  The Ariel Ensemble unearthed a small treasure box in this short set of wordless songs.

Another recording of the Vaughn Williams vocalise set was released in 1996 on the Cedille label by Chicago artist Patrice Michaels Bedi.  The short and beautifully sung cycle is more or less "filler" on a program devoted to song cycles by Dominick Argento. Argento has not neglected the coloratura soprano in his compositional oeuvre -- his operas frequently have a demanding high soprano role, such as the Lady with the Mirror in Postcards from Morocco and the titular character in Miss Havisham's Wedding.  Of the three Argento song cycles recorded by Michaels Bedi, only Songs About Spring is really designed for coloratura. Argento composed this set of five songs to e.e.cummings poems in 1951 for his wife Carolyn Bailey.  Three are decorative, jaunty waltz songs; the other two are reflective pastorals.  The high B-flats and Cs Argento asks for in the third and fifth songs show a hint of in discomfort in Michaels Bedi, but the overall performance is jubilant.  The final song, "when faces called flowers float out of the ground," is nearly as old-fashioned in feel as a waltz-ditty by Arditi, so although Michaels Bedi does not do it, it could easily end on a climactic, show-stopping high E-flat.  The other cycles, Letters from Composers and Too Be Sung Upon the Water, are quality works and well sung by Michaels Bedi, but not necessarily a hunting ground for ambitious coloraturas.

Mady Mesplé was the preeminent French coloratura soprano of the 1960s and 70s, singing Lakme and the like all over the stages, studios, and airwaves of the world.  In addition to 19th century coloratura heroines, she sang many new operas and concert works, a few of which are included in a 3-record retrospective of her career called Un Portrait issued in 1986 by EMI.  One entire LP side is devoted to these excursions: Unité by Patrice Mestral and Croce e delizia by Philippe Capdenat.  The Mestral piece is over thirteen minutes of vocalise accompanied by a barrage of banging and clanging percussion. Typical of a performance piece meant to explore sonic boundaries, there is no discernible melody to be found in the score, just plenty of repeated, sustained high notes -- very high notes -- and empty coloratura effects. The Croce e delizia aria is much more accessible because it references traditional tonal scales for the soprano and quotes many lines directly from Verdi's "Sempre libera," as the title suggests.  Violetta's familiar phrases are mixed up and altered in odd ways to make an unconventional pastiche sung over a very unorthodox "ars nova" accompaniment.  It is actually quite a fascinating study in deconstructing a very well-known aria.  An adventurous soprano might program this in recital directly before or after a legitimate rendition of Violetta's aria and see what, if anything, happens.

In addition, Mesplé sings one of the best known and most beautiful modern coloratura pieces: Schoenberg's Herzgewächse, for soprano and a chamber ensemble of celeste, harmonium, and harp.  Relatively short at just over three minutes, it is a haunting piece, discordant and atonal to be sure, but inviting in its musicality and wide leaping vocal phrases which culminate on a long held pianissimo high F.  There are additional recordings in the current CD catalogue by Eileen Hulse, Christine Schafer, and Lucy Shelton, and previous LP versions to be hunted down by Marni Nixon for Columbia in 1956, Rita Shane for Columbia in 1965, June Barton for Decca/London in 1973, and Dorothy Dorow for Telefunken in 1978.

Alban Berg converted themes from his opera Lulu into a concert suite, and I have a recording by Kathleen Battle, made early in her career in 1983.  There are two vocal sections in the five movement suite which are Lulu's song from Act II and then a short setting of the Countess' last words to the dead Lulu.  Though the soprano's contribution is short in duration, it is challenging music in a high tessitura.  There are recordings currently available on CD featuring Renee Fleming with conductor Levine, Margaret Price with Abbado, Angelina Reaux with Masur, Judith Blegen with Boulez, and Hilda Pilarczyk with Dorati.  Battle's has always served me well enough for the few times I've wanted to pull it out; not ideal for the complete role, she is excellent in these excerpts.

A nearly forgotten 1920 opera Die Vögel by Walter Braunfel's just received its first complete recording a few years ago and it was a revelation.  Composed in a colorful late-romantic language, the principal soprano role is a nightingale -- literally.  Her music is luminous and unearthly -- laden with original musical themes and virtuoso gestures. Hard-core collectors knew the Nachtigall's prologue "Liebwerte Freunde" from a classic performance by Ingeborg Hallstein, which was an unlikely and admirable contribution to one of her first solo recital records from the mid-1960's.  The only other studio recording features Hellen Kwon on the complete set from 1996.  Kwon is admirable and singular, more detached and less smiling than Hallstein. The opera has had a small reawakening on European stages: a Web cast in March 2004 feature soprano Marlis Petersen as the nightingale in a bright accomplished performance.

Igor Stavinsky's Le Rossignol (The Nightingale) is a one-act opera based on Hans Christian Anderson's fairly tale.  Set in an Oriental milieu, the atmospheric music shows the influences of Asian motifs.  The titular character is sung, of course, by the coloratura soprano, and is given some beautiful and unusual birdcall figures.  There have been five complete recordings of the work starring Janine Micheau, Reri Grist, Phyllis Bryn-Julson, Olga Trifonova, and Natalie Dessay.  All are superb: Micheau (in French) and Dessay are the most expressive and sensual, Grist is the most sweetly bird-like, and Trifonova the most idiomatic.

Modern art songs that use a coloratura to depict a nightingale's warblings are Rimsky-Korsakoff's vocalise "The Nightingale and the Rose" and Granados "The Maiden and the Nightingale;" both with hints of evocative modernism.  Each has been recorded too frequently to mention all the warblers here.  Several British composers of the 20th century wrote songs about birds with a modern tint including Britten, Head, Delius, and Bax.  In 1983, Elizabeth Harwood recorded a beguiling recital of art songs for high soprano by these gentleman on the Conifer label.

There is a rare non-commercial transcription disc from a CBC broadcast of a recital program in which Canadian coloratura Pierrette Alarie sings three song cycles by her compatriots, quite possibly composed for her.  Jean Papineau-Couture's Quatrains is the most interesting and I think difficult of the group, consisting of six short and widely varying treatments of poems by Francis Jammes.  Five Poems of the T'ang Dynasty by John Beckwith has a serene sensibility, with an appropriate undercast of Oriental mysticism.  The third set of songs, Cycle-Eluard by Clement Pepin, is somewhat mundane and doesn't exploit the florid gifts or high register of Alarie's delicate coloratura voice.

Avoid at all costs Leonard Bernstein's contemporary song cycle I Hate Music.  I've never heard an interesting recording -- it is musically and thematically inane.  Coloratura sopranos choose it for recitals I fear by default -- due to Bernstein's cache, and a lack of other credible repertory in the song cycle format for them to sing. For a discussion and survey of other more or less modern song cycles for coloratura sopranos (by Debussy, Strauss, Milhaud, Rorem, and Beydts) refer to my article in this section of the site.  While on the subject of Bernstein's, I should mention his popular "Glitter and Be Gay" from Candide as a wonderful showpiece, written in a very flamboyant style and ubiquitous in concert and recordings.

Like some of the pieces I've included in this survey, Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is not a coloratura composition per se, but because of its sweet, suspended high lyricism, lyric-coloratura sopranos have found it congenial and clung to it.  Written on commission from Eleanor Steber in 1947, it is a gorgeous setting of a section of James Agee's "A Death in the Family" beautifully evoking the innocence of early turn-of-the-century middle-class life in America. I've never come across a weak recording of this piece, which says something about it's skillful composition.  My favorite recording is the classic one by Leontyne Price, but Dawn Upshaw, Kathleen Battle, Karina Gauvin and, of course, Steber, offer wonderful interpretations.

Modern, but registering fairly mild in musical character, are Menotti's one-act comic operas The Telephone and The Medium.  The Telephone, a two-character comedy of manners, is not always done by a coloratura soprano, but it has moments in it that are relatively high and agile -- the section "Hello, Margaret, It's You" is a sort of giddy laughing song to high C-sharp. Only a few sopranos have recorded this opera, first Marilyn Cotlow for Columbia records.  A CD version is available starring Jeanne Ommerle and I also have a live performance dub featuring an appropriately flighty June Bronhill. The aria alone appears in concert program recordings by Eleanor Steber and Ana Camelia Stefanescu.  The character of the young girl Monica in The Medium is given a delightful and very popular waltz aria that she sings to the mute, Toby.  It is a gracious, sweet, and potentially moving piece of musical innocence with some florid elements meant to conjure Monica's playfulness.  It has been recorded by Evelyn Keller, Anna Maria Alberghetti, Judith Blegen, and Patrice Michaels Bedi in complete recordings, and Renee Fleming and Marisca Mulder in recital programs.

Another contemporary American opera in a generous tonal and traditional mode is Jack Beeson's comedy Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines.  Written in 1975, it is a charming work set in the opera milieu in New York in the late 19th Century.  The leading soprano Aurelia Trentoni is a coloratura nightingale in the mold of Adelina Patti and is given several prima donna moments.  The most wonderful is her entrance aria wherein she describes to a pack of admiring reporters her troubled childhood and subsequent rise to operatic heights.  It is a marvelous piece of singing about singing, complete with sample solfeggio and vocalizzi. Carol Wilcox is glamorous perfection in the complete recording made by RCA from its premiere in Kansas City.

The opera Lord Byron by Virgil Thomson was recorded by the Koch label featuring soprano Debra Vanderlinde. Her character's short mad scene "God Bless You My Love" is a very effective piece of modern coloratura writing with rigorous filigree to a high E.

A particularly fiendish aria was written for Madame Tse-tung in John Adam's Nixon in China.  Her fierce and majestic ravings in the aria "I Am the Wife of Mao Tse-tung" were recorded by Trudy Ellen Craney in the complete recording of the opera.  It is not a florid aria, but very declamatory in an extremely high tessitura. The only other recording I know of is one I picked up on an independent label of soprano Elin Carlson (accompanied only by piano); she does well in this small-scale version.  Incidentally, the character of Pat Nixon is also written for a high soprano, and she has a lyrical aria movingly sung over Adams enthralling minimalist textures by Carolann Page in the same recording.

Alan Hovannes wrote several pieces for coloratura soprano, some written for and performed by his wife, Hinako Fujihara.  The ones I've heard are dreadful affairs -- unpleasant music sung by what sounds like a very old woman who was probably never trained in the classical manner in the first place. In my collection are two vocal selections from his cantata The Martyrdom of Saint Paul, sung at their world premiere performance in 1981 in New York by Rita Shane and Musica Sacra.  Two short religious-tinged arias have a lovely impressionistic accompaniment and even, balanced vocal line comprised of rising and falling intervals.

Natalie Dessay sings several great 20th Century arias on her French Arias CD. Milhaud's Medee is a strange and haunting piece for Creuse with very modern tinged chords, but it is gorgeous.  There is the well-known Fire Aria from Ravel's L'Enfant et les sortileges, a vocal depiction of the element of fire as a sort of hyper-temperamental diva, spoiled, willful, and petulant.  I also have this piece in recordings by Roberta Peters (on an old RCA LP recital with piano), Zdzislawa Donat, Odette Turba-Rabier, Sylvaine Gilma, G. Sakharova, Adrienne Migliette, Ute Mai (in German), and Elizabeth Vidal.  There are short arias from Bondeville's L'Ecole des maris -- I have also a rare recording of this by Mado Robin -- and Poulenc's Les Mamelles de Tiresias (a fairly shrill and risque fragment). The recital ends with the best of this modern lot -- Sauguet's Les Caprice de Marianne.  It is a gorgeous ode to mysterious "amour." The complete opera was released on CD from a mid-60s recording featuring the glamorous Andreé Esposito

Variations on an Old Viennese Song was composed in 1937 by Werner Egk for Erna Berger to interpolate into the lesson scene in The Barber of Seville.  It is an awesome and elaborate concert aria, unusually orchestrated for piano obbligatto.  Studio recordings by Berger and Ingeborg Hallstein are treasures.  There is also a poor sounding private capture of Roberta Peters singing it in recital in 1968 (with piano only).

Laci Boldemann's Notturno was recorded by Birgit Nordin in the mid-1970s (best known as the Queen of the Night in Bergman's film).  It is altitudinous and lyrical, but discordant and hard to recommend.  Another Swedish offering is a lovely set of songs by John Fernstrom called Songs of the Sea, sung luminously by soprano Miah Persson on a BIS CD.  It is pleasant, soothing music with some vocal swells and ripples, which Persson dispatches easily.

There is a zany wild ride of piece called "Scena di Rona" by the Croatian composer Boris Papandopulo recorded for the Jugaton label by Nada Ruzdjak that Nick Limansky shared with me a few years ago.  From an opera called Rona, written in 1955, it has a flamboyant circus aura, with adventures in tight rope walking and vocal trapeze artistry in alt by the soprano.  Ruzdjak is shockingly virtuosic.

A truly grueling/dazzling piece of very contemporary coloratura writing was recorded by Celena Nelson-Schafer in Petitgirard's opera Joseph Merrick dit Elephant Man.  The aria, called appropriately and generically "The Coloratura's Aria," is just about the most fiendishly written five minutes one can imagine.  Even though I have not seen the complete opera, this is clearly designed as a sort of hallucinogenic coloratura showpiece meant to be over the top -- and it is quite literally: I counted over 25 high E's sung in a frenetic, unrelenting manner.  When the final note arrives -- a high G in altissimo -- it almost seems a relief.  If one can use the common critical phrase "tosses off" when referring to this aria without being institutionalized, I would venture to say that Miss Nelson-Schafer tosses it off.

I also want to mention three live dubbings I have of Beverly Sills' forays into modern music.  One of her first roles at New York City Opera was The Coloratura in the world premiere of Weisgall's Six Characters in Search of an Author.  The music is fairly accessible and tonal.  The Coloratura is not a very large role (it is an ensemble cast), but she has a few featured moments.  She enters late for rehearsal of some new opera with a little dog named Toto and is stereotypically the temperamental diva; but ditzy, flighty and flirtatious (as a grossly stereotypical high coloratura might be seen to be).  She is depicted as of German descent and has lines like "do you think this aria is high enough for a soprano?" and "if it is anything in the upper register, I understand it" -- the last phrase taking her up to a high F.  Sills is fine in the role, but cuts the high F.  The fabulous Elizabeth Futral sang the role in the only studio recording from 1994 on New World, based on a Lyric Opera Chicago production for its young artists program.  She sails to the F with abandon.

In 1965, Sills sang Intolleranza in Boston.  Sills was brutal to composer Luigi Nono in her biographies calling him an "unpleasant snail," and the opera a "sophomoric piece of polemic garbage." This torturous political spectacle is very abrasive, thematically and musically.  The high soprano solo consists almost entirely of obnoxious in-your-face high notes.  It to Sills' credit she sounds powerful and appropriately shrill, as well as accurate, on pitch, and inherently expressive (despite the composer's intentions).  Incidentally, a commercial recording on CD of a 1993 production features Ursula Koszut in the Sills role.  I haven't heard it, nor do I wish to.

Lastly, as a 50th birthday present, Cyril Magnin (a wealthy Sills devotee) commissioned Menotti to compose an opera for her and serve as her farewell to the City Opera.  It ended up another mad queen: La Loca.  It was a notoriously rocky process -- Menotti was very late with the score and difficult to work with, so Sills, working with Tito Copabianco, basically refinished the incomplete elements and pieces she was given into something sustainable on stage.  She reworked her mad scene into an almost silent acting tour de force (there was so little music written for it).  The world premiere in San Diego in 1979 was broadcast and shows a very tired sounding Sills desperately trying to make this ramshackle evening work.  She almost succeeds through sheer force of will, and offers some very compelling singing.  The music is dreary, disjointed, and repetitive, with some very thin high D's for Beverly.

Remember these are only the items that have made it into my own collection, mostly by happenstance.  I am sure that are many other modern coloratura pieces that have been recorded -- some interesting, some horrid, all likely very challenging.  It would be a very risky business to go about discovering which is which -- and I will leave that up to others more adventurous than I am.

John Carroll

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