Opera Terms

The Pirates of Penzance, 2007
Photo: J. Reeder

Opera Terms

Below are some terms often used when talking or writing about opera. If you have one you’d like to see added to this list, please contact us!

A capella: Vocal music performed without instrumental accompaniment.

Act: A major partition of the opera. Most operas have more than one act for both dramatic intention as well as pacing for the singer. A frequently performed one act opera is Richard Strauss’ Salome.

Aria: Any melody performed by a single singer. The term is used to describe a self-contained piece for one voice. This is usually with orchestral accompaniment.

Baritone: The male voice that lies between bass and tenor. Often a baritone will be an authority figure.

Bass: A male singer who sings in the deepest vocal range. Many times a bass voice characterizes opera roles such as villains, devils or “God-like" beings.

Bravo: An exclamation, from the Italian language made by an audience member after an enjoyed or otherwise successful performance. Derivations on the word include: Brava (used when directed at a female character) and Bravi (used when directed at an entire ensemble of singers).

Buffo: The term opera buffa was at first used as an informal description of Italian comic operas. Buffo traits can be associated with comedic characters such as Dottore Bartolo in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

Chorus: A musical ensemble of singers comprised of sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, tenors and basses. Frequently, opera choruses are themselves major characters in the plot generally commenting on the action or promoting plot development.

Composer: The individual responsible for writing the music, both the orchestral parts and vocal parts. The composer works closely with the librettist to set the words to the music. In rare cases, the composer is also the librettist (Richard Wagner did both jobs frequently for his operas).

Conductor: The conductor is the person leading the orchestra and the singers through the performance to create a cohesive ensemble. This is the individual who spends all of their time with their back toward the audience!

Designer: These individuals are the creators of the scenery, the costumes, the lighting and the wigs/make-up. They closely collaborate with the stage director and the producer to jointly create a cohesive production. Often these individuals will spend years of conceptual time prior to bringing their creation to the stage

Ensemble: Any time two or more individuals are singing or playing together it is considered a musical ensemble and requires complex coordination.

Finale: The culminating selection of an act or scene, often bringing important dramatic conclusion to a plot point.

Leitmotif: A recurring musical theme that has symbolic references in either plot or specific character. This is a function generally used in the romantic German opera literature and associated most popularly with Richard Wagner. Leitmotifs can appear in opera or orchestral music; a good example would be the opening chords of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony that repeat in variation throughout the work.

Libretto (librettist): This is the actual sung text of the opera. A librettist can create an original work or it can be based upon a historical or mythical account. Librettists work closely with composers to accurately portray the emotion that propels the story forward.

Mezzo-soprano: The lower female voice category made most famous by characters such as the title character in Carmen and Amneris in Aïda.

Orchestra Pit: This is an area generally in front of the playing stage that tends to be sunken below stage level where the orchestra resides during performance. Occasionally an opera company will create different scenarios for orchestra placement.

Overture: A musical introduction featuring thematic material from the opera, generally it is the last segment of an opera to be composed.

Trouser role: A male role that is played by a female singer. This happens when the character portrayed needs to be very youthful and sound like a boy with an unchanged voice.

Prop: Anything that enhances the visual scenery, for example: a couch, a brush, a spear. These are portable items that characters carry with them or use to propel the action.

Recitative: Music that is “sung-spoken," generally to lead into an aria or ensemble. It is text set to music, generally not thematic in nature that propels the dramatic material. The recitative has undergone many incarnations from early baroque opera through the bel canto era.

Scenic/Set: The visual surroundings that are walls, doors or backdrops. It sets the location for the opera.

Soprano: The highest female voice, usually the leading female character on the stage

Tenor: The highest male voice in the standard repertory, often the hero and the lead male voice.


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