Opera Glossary


ActA section of an opera, used by the composer to divide the work into dramatic sections often with breaks for the audience in between.
AriaLiterally "air" in Italian. A song for solo voice usually with instrumental accompaniment.


BandaMusicians who perform on the stage, in addition to those in the pit. Often as military players or a small group playing in a party scene.
BaritoneThe middle male singing voice, higher than a Bass but lower than a Tenor.
BassThe lowest male singing voice.
BatonThe stick held by the conductor which he uses to direct the orchestra.
Bel cantoThe literal translation is "Beautiful singing". More specifically a type of Italian singing style epitomised by Donizetti and Rossini during the first half of the 19th Century.


CadenzaA designated part of the music usually found towards the end of an aria where the singer can really show off. Sometimes improvised though more commonly prepared in advance, a cadenza is rhythmically free and full of ornamentation.
ChoreographerThe person who creates the steps for the dances within a production.
ChordA set of two or more notes heard together.
ChorusA large group of singers who sing together, portraying unnamed characters.
ClaqueThankfully now a thing of the past. A claque was a group of audience members who would cheer or boo for money, sometimes blackmailing singers into paying.
ColoraturaElaborate singing involving vocal runs, trills and leaps. One of the most virtuosic aspects of opera.
ComposerSpecifically, the person who writes all the music in an opera. More generally the composer usually provides the vision and drive behind an opera as well.
Concert MasterThe leader of the orchestra. Always a violinist who sits right at the front by the conductor. Plays the violin solos.
ContraltoThe lowest female voice. True contralto roles are relatively rare in opera.
CountertenorThe highest male voice, usually singing in the range of a contralto or mezzo-soprano. Achieved in most cases through the use of falsetto.


Da Capo AriaA very specific Baroque form of aria. Written in a ternary form, ABA, with the A and B sections significantly contrasting.
DirectorThe director is in charge of everything that happens on stage. He instructs the performers and provides the overall vision for the production. Also known as the Regisseur (in French and German houses).
Dress RehearsalThe final rehearsal in which all the production elements, including orchestra, sets and costumes, come together. The aim is to have one complete, unbroken run through before the audience comes for opening night.
DuetMusic written for two performers to sing together.
DynamicsThe musical term for volume.


EncoreA rare thing in opera. If a section is extremely well received by an audience they can shout "encore" which means they want to hear the section again. Rarely granted as it disrupts the flow of the opera.
EurotrashA pejorative term for revisionist opera direction. Utterly meaningless and wildly misused, if you hear someone use it, they aren\'t worth listening to.


GesamtkunstwerkA total, unified work of art according to the aesthetic ideals of Richard Wagner.


HarmonyThe use of multiple pitches, or chords, at the same time in music.


ImpresarioThe person in charge of running an opera company. The title is different around the world: "General Manager", "Intendant" and "Artistic Director" all variations you might hear.
IntermissionThe intermission or interval is the break period between Acts. A chance to stretch your legs and grab a glass of wine or icecream.


LibrettistThe person who writes the libretto.
LibrettoThe "little book" in Italian. The Libretto contains all the words and stage directions for an opera.


MarkTo sing softly, at less than full voice. During rehearsals singers may mark their parts to avoid straining their voices.
The MetThe shorthand name for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Mezza voceLiterally "half voice". Specified by some composers for a passage to be sung in a quiet, soft style.
Mezzo-sopranoLiterally a "middle soprano". Singing music lower than sopranos but higher than contraltos.


Opera SeriaA "serious" opera (the plural is opera serie). A popular genre of opera during the 18th Century. The characters were largely gods and ancient heros, the plots epic and formulaic.
OratorioA dramatic work for orchestra, chorus and soloists that unlike opera was principally written to be performed in concert. The genre is predominantly made up of works with serious religious themes.
OrchestraThe group of musicians who perform the music of the opera. During the Baroque period they were conventionally a string and woodwind group but over the history of opera the orchestra has expanded greatly to the modern standard which includes a full complement of brass and percussion.
OrnamentationDecorative additional notes such as trills and appogiaturas that enhance the basic melody.
OvertureThe musical introduction to the evening. The overture frequently includes elements of the score that is to follow. The German word is Vorspiel.


PatterA rapid flurry of singing, with many words crammed into the musical line.
PortamentoAn italian term for the vocal technique of sliding from one pitch to another continuously, rather than jumping between the two.
PrompterA person who sits in a small box at the front of the stage and gives cues to the performers. Something of a relic these days, many of the major houses no longer have a prompter, requiring the singers to actually learn their parts!
ProsceniumAlmost all opera houses are procenium theatres. The proscenium arch is the frame around the stage (often golden) that divides the audience from the performers.


RépétiteurA member of the music staff who rehearses with the singers using a piano before the later rehearsals involving the orchestra.


SingspielThe german for "song play". It was a popular form of theatre, mixing spoken drama with song, in 18th Century Germany. Several operas were written in this genre including The Magic Flute by Mozart.
SopranoThe highest female voice and the highest voice in Operatic performance.
SoubretteBoth a type of part and type of voice. These are flirty, sexy roles sung by sopranos with lighter, sweeter voices.
SpintoLiterally "pushed", an adjective to describe a voice with extra weight and depth e.g a spinto tenor.
SupernumeraryThe operatic name for extras. "Supers" are non-singing, non-speaking performances who act smaller roles or fill out the crowd scenes.
SurtitlesA translation of the libretto that is projected onto a screen above the stage, or on screens on the back of he chair in front of you. Also known as supertitles.


TenorThe highest natural male voice.
TessituraThe core range of a specific role. A soprano role might have a low tessitura, i.e. though it lies within the soprano range the majority of the part lies at the low end of the soprano range.
Through-composed operaOperas that consist of continuous music without breaks for recitive or spoken dialogue. Largely the standard from the 19th Century onwards (and popularised in 20th century musical theatre by Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Claude-Michel Schönberg).
Trouser roleAlso known as a pants part, these are male roles for female singers. Came to prominence in the 19th Century with the abandonment of Castrati.


VerismoLiterally, "Truth". A genre of opera from the late 19th Century. These are operas that depict everyday people in realistic trials and tribulations (though they still mostly involve love and death!)
VibratoThe oscillating quality that is present to some degree in all operatic voices. Used variously to support the voice, maintain pitch and for stylistic effect.
Vocal RangeA singer's vocal range defines the highest and lowest notes that they can sing.

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