Abstract

A vogue for coloratura dance arias began in the 1850s. This emerging genre combined melismatic singing with two hugely popular social dance genres: the bolero and the waltz. Scholars have observed an association between these social dances and a certain euphoric feminine sensuality, but the connection between this youthful ebullience in dance and virtuosic female vocality has been largely ignored. Dancing was notorious in the nineteenth century because of its dangerously arousing and vertiginous effects. As dances increased in speed and difficulty, so too did the singing of sopranos in midcentury Paris. In exploring relationships between dance, femininity, and singing, this article situates coloratura dance arias in the Paris of Napoléon III's Second Empire, a city sometimes condemned for its decadent materialism or dismissed because of its political impotence, in spite of its cultural, architectural, and technological importance.

I argue for a connection between coloratura and the female body in precisely the era when the venerable singing style became the almost exclusive domain of the female singer and, simultaneously, reached its apogee in a Paris devoted to all the joy and glamour it could afford. Specific performers such as Marie Cabel and Caroline Carvalho were key to the success and even creation of these dance arias. These sopranos were certainly objectified in a problematic manner, but they were also “envoiced” (Carolyn Abbate's term) as wielders of a compelling musical power: coloratura. In providing virtuosic and luxurious expressions of femininity, these coloratura dance arias established a new sense of female vocality in the aural imagination of the Second Empire.

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