You’re probably more familiar with opera than you think. After all, opera has influenced most other forms of popular entertainment—from Broadway musicals and Hollywood movies, to television commercials and classic cartoons.
When it comes to the ultimate sensory experience, nothing impacts your ears, eyes, mind and heart more than opera. Given today’s multimedia culture, it’s no wonder this all-in-one performance art continues to be popular. But before you hit the opera house, it pays to do a little homework to enhance your enjoyment of what you’re about to see.
Derived from the Italian word “opus,” which means, “work of art,” opera is a musical drama or comedy in which the actors sing rather than speak their lines. An opera tells a story which may come from one of many sources including history, current events, magic, the Bible, fairy tales, legends, literature, poetry and mythology – and can be funny, sad, scary, dramatic, mysterious, imaginary, or any combination of the above.
This art form is a combination of every art form: singing, orchestral music, acting, dancing, mime, costumes, scenic design and painting, lighting, and makeup design. An opera is structured like a play with acts, scenes, and a variety of vocal forms including arias (solos), recitatives (sung narratives that describe action and move the story along), ensembles (for two or more singers) and chorus (for a large group of singers).
The libretto is the text of an opera, and the librettist is the author of that text. The composer writes the music for the opera, and all of the music, vocal (for singers) as well as orchestral (for instrumentalists), is written in the score. The score reflects the mood, events, and emotions of the characters in the story.
Most people have preconceived notions about what an operatic experience is like:
“I won’t go to the opera because it’s only for rich people.” Not true! At Opera Naples we are committed to making the arts accessible to all by offering a range of ticket prices that will suit any budget. Students and teachers save even more, with 50% discounts offered in some seating sections!
“I won’t go to the opera because it puts me to sleep.” Only if you’re bored by murder, intrigue, magic, switched identities and star-crossed lovers! Seriously, opera is really exciting if you give it half a chance.
“Opera is a dead art form, so it’s not worth going.” Opera has continuously evolved as an art form, and composers today continue to experiment and invent new ways of using opera to entertain and to provide social commentary. In fact, the fastest growing opera audience in the U.S. right now is people in their twenties and thirties!
“I won’t go to the opera because it’s all sung in some foreign language that I can’t understand.” Yes, many of the most well known operas were written in Italian, German or French and are usually performed in the original language. However, Opera Naples, as well as most other companies in America, offer real-time translation projected above the stage so that the audience can follow the action as it’s going on.
Okay, so some of your preconceived notions are correct:
Opera is long compared to other forms of entertainment. Because all of the words in opera are sung, not spoken, it takes a longer time to move through the plot. You can usually expect to spend at least 3 hours at the opera house, including at least one intermission to stretch your legs, grab a snack and let your online friends know how awesome the opera is!
Everything is more dramatic because opera is basically a play set to music, despite the dialogue, questions, arguments and even moments of silence.
Opera is classical music. There are some exceptions, like The Who’s Tommy, a rock opera written in 1969, but you shouldn’t expect to hear guitars and drums coming out of the orchestra pit.
The Dawn of Opera:
Opera, as we know it, began in the Baroque period (1600-1750) by a group of Italian composers who decided to imitate the masters of theater – the ancient Greeks. The Italians believed that the Greeks had sung their plays, not spoken them, and thus decided to set their own stories to music. The Italians turned out to be wrong but they inadvertently created a totally new art form. Opera today remains very similar to what the Italians developed, consisting of two main components:
Recitatives, which contain dialogue set to music and generally propel the plot forward. The actors sing their sentences. It’s not a song, just tuneful talking.
Arias, which are more melodic and elaborate convey a certain feeling or action. These are the songs that are generally the showpieces for one of the principal artists, where thrilling music and vocal pyrotechnics abound. Choruses, where many people sing at once, may also be interspersed.
The Spread of Opera:
As opera made its way across Europe, styles began to change. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) helped bring German into the previously Italian-dominated opera scene. He wrote many operas, in both German and Italian that are very accessible because of their fast-moving plots, interesting stories, and beautiful music. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), another very famous composer of this period, wrote only one opera, Fidelio, which propelled German opera forward.
In the late 1700s, opera clearly separated into two genres: Opera Seria (grand, serious opera) and Opera Buffa (comic opera, meant more for the lower classes). Opera buffa eventually evolved into what became operettas (e.g., Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado), which in turn evolved into modern musical theater.
It was during the Romantic period, (late 1700s to the mid 1800s), that we start to encounter the operas that are most familiar to and beloved by many of us. Operas became more melodramatic, prompted by the emotionalism that was developing in all of the European arts. Nineteenth century opera was dominated by two names: Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi. Wagner’s monumental works, including his four opera cycle known as The Ring, have come to define “German opera” for most people and these musical dramas were a stark departure from the bel canto style of the eighteenth century. Like Wagner, Verdi also took part in a new style of composition, verismo, which placed the characters in real world environments, rather than mythical or fantastic settings. Verdi, along with Giacomo Puccini are widely considered to be the most highly regarded opera composers of this period.
In the twentieth century, operas composed by Americans began to make their mark on the repertoire. One of the earliest and most popular examples is George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which premiered in 1935. Among other notable American composers, several giants of the music world loom, including Aaron Copland, Carlisle Floyd and Leonard Bernstein.Gian Carlo Menotti’s made-for-TV opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, made its debut on NBC on Christmas Eve in 1951 to an audience of more than five million people. Event to the present day, opera continues to break new ground through original stories (John Adams’ Nixon in China) and treatments of modern literature, such as Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking and Jennifer Higdon’s score based on Cold Mountain. One of opera’s greatest advantages is its ability to constantly reinvent itself into new forms, while maintaining its four centuries of historic significance.
The women: Female opera singers are generally categorized into two vocal ranges: soprano and mezzo-soprano. Traditionally, roles for the sopranos are the heroines and coquettes and the mezzo-sopranos are the mothers, gypsies and “trouser roles” in which they play male characters. Sopranos often are in the spotlight but the role of Carmen, perhaps the most familiar of all opera characters, is written for a mezzo.
The men: Male opera singers are also categorized by the range of their singing voices: tenor, baritone, and bass. The tenors are usually the leading man and sing some of the most memorable arias, while baritones and basses are relegated to the roles of evil dukes, fathers, bakers, and criminals. A good example of this is Verdi’s Rigoletto, featuring the Duke of Manutua (the tenor who sings the famous aria “La Donna e mobile”). Rigoletto the hunchbacked jester (a baritone) and Sparafucile (pronounces “Spa-rah-foo-CHEE-lay”) who is a bass and an assassin.
There are lots of options available to help you become familiar with particular operas:
Go online. There are thousands of pages on the Internet dedicated to opera, its history, and its performers. Use your favorite search engine or video service to learn the background of a certain title, and watch clips, which often include subtitled translations.
Check your local library. Most libraries have music catalogues that contain some opera recordings. Check one out!
Take a class. If you live close to a university, you may be able to participate in a regular or continuing education class on the topic of opera.
Ask someone! Whether you know it or not, you probably know someone who likes opera! Ask them for a recommendation on first operas, and what their favorites are. You might find yourself invited to a performance!
Here are a few of our recommendations for a good “first opera”:
Giacomo Puccini – La Boheme, Tosca, Madama Butterfly
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – The Magic Flute, Don Giovanni
Johann Strauss – Die Fledermaus
Georges Bizet – Carmen
Giuseppe Verdi – Rigoletto, La Traviata, Aida
- Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini
- La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini
- La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi
- Carmen by Georges Bizet
- The Barber of Seville by Gioacchino Rossini
- The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
- Don Giovanni by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
- Tosca by Giacomo Puccini
- Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi
- The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
- La Cenerentola by Gioacchino Rossini
- Turandot by Giacomo Puccini
- Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti
- Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo
- Cosi Fan Tutte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
- Aida by Giuseppe Verdi
- Il Trovatore by Giuseppe Verdi
- Faust by Charles Gounod
- Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss
- The Elixir of Love by Gaetano Donizetti
Many thanks to www.operaamerica.org Learning Center.
ACCELERANDO (Ah-che-leh-RAN-do): An acceleration or speeding up of the tempo of a particular aria, chorus or ensemble.
ACT: A portion of an opera designated by the composer, which has a dramatic structure of its own.
ARIA: A solo piece written for a main character, which focuses on the character’s emotion.
BALLET: A form of dance that tells a story.
BANDA (BAHN-dah): A small group of instrumentalists who play either on the stage or backstage, not in the pit, often as part of a crowd or military scene.
BARITONE: The male singing voice that is higher than bass but lower than tenor.
BASS: The lowest male singing voice.
BEL CANTO (Bell CAHN-tow): An Italian phrase that literally means “beautiful singing.” This style of singing emphasizes tone, phrasing, and complex coloratura passages; also the operas written in this style. Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma and Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor are examples of bel canto operas.
BUFFO (BOO-foe): From the Italian for “buffoon.” A singer of comic roles (basso-buffo) or a comic opera (opera-buffa).
BLOCKING: Directions given to the actors for movements and actions on the stage.
BOW, BOWING: The bow is the wand used to play string instruments. The concertmaster determines when the bows should rise or fall, and this bowing is noted in the score so that all move in the same direction.
BRAVO: A form of applause when shouted by members of the audience at the end of an especially pleasing aria or performance. “Bravo” is for a single man, “brava” for a woman, and “bravi (Bra-VEE)” for a group of performers.
CABALETTA: (cah-bah-LEHT-tah): The second part of a two-part aria, always in a faster tempo than the first part.
CADENZA: A passage of singing, often at the end of an aria and performed unaccompanied, which highlights the singer’s technical ability.
CANON: A musical device in which a melody is stated in one voice and then repeated by one or more other voices. The popular round Row, Row, Row your boat is a simple example.
CANZONE/CANZONETTA (Cahn-TSOH-neh, cahn-tsoh-NEHT-tah): A folk-like song commonly used in opera buffa.
CAVATINA (cah-vah-TEE-nah): The meaning of this term has changed over the years. It now usually refers to the opening, slow section of a two-part aria. In Rossini’s time it referred to the first aria sung by a certain character. Norma’s “Casta diva” is an example of a cavatina in both senses. See also SCENA.
CHORD: Several different notes sounded together.
CHOREOGRAPHER: The person who designs and often teaches the dancing and other coordinated movements during a performance.
CHOREOGRAPHY: The act of setting movement to music to create a dance.
CHORUS: A ensemble of singers who portray a variety of group characters. Their music often serves as commentary on the action taking place between principal characters, or is a reaction to that text.
CHORUS MASTER: The person responsible for musically preparing the chorus for the performances. If there is off-stage chorus music performed, it is usually conducted by the chorus master who is in communication with the conductor of the orchestra.
CLAQUE (Clack): A group of people hired to sit in the audience and either applaud enthusiastically to ensure success, or whistle and boo to create a disaster. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, claques could often make the difference between the commercial success or failure of a new work. Today, claques are much more rare, particularly in America.
COLORATURA (Co-lo-rah-TOUR-ah): From the Italian for “coloring.” Elaborately ornamented music that features many runs, leaps in intervals, and trills. A coloratura soprano is an artist who specializes in this music, and has an extended upper range that is very agile. Dame Joan Sutherland is an example of a coloratura soprano.
COMMEDIA DELL’ARTE (cohm-MEH-dee-ah dehl=AHR-teh): A style of presentation that began in Italy in the 16th century. Traveling players offered comedic plays that were occasionally improvised using stock characters and gestures, and this style was adopted into operatic form. The characters were often masked to represent certain archetypes.
COMPOSER: The person who writes the music.
COMPRIMARIO (cohm-pree-MAH-ree-oh): A secondary or supporting role or a person singing such a role.
CONCERTATO (cohn-cher-TAH-toh): A large ensemble of soloists and chorus generally found as the second element of a central finale, to which it forms the lyrical climax.
CONCERTMASTER: The “first chair” violinist who plays occasional solos and is responsible for coordinating all of the string section musicians. The concert master works with the conductor in determining the bow markings, to ensure the uniformity of sound throughout the sections.
CONDUCTOR: The leader of the orchestra, also referred to as “Maestro”. The conductor also leads the singers during rehearsals and performances, giving cues for entrances and the pace of music.
CONTINUO (cohn-TEEN-you-oh): An extemporized accompaniment made up of chords usually played by a harpsichord, cello or double bass.
CONTRALTO: The lowest female singing voice.
COSTUME DESIGNER: Works with the set designer to prepare costumes which are appropriate for the style and period of the production. Often oversees the construction and fitting of the costumes.
COUNTERTENOR: The countertenor is a natural tenor (or sometimes baritone) with an elevated range at the top. With training and practice this higher range, similar to that of a mezzo-soprano, becomes the ‘natural’ voice.
COVER: The understudy in opera who prepares a role and attends rehearsals in order to step in for a singer who must suddenly withdraw from a performance.
CRESCENDO (Creh-SHEN-doe): A gradual increase in volume.
CUE: In opera, a signal to a singer or orchestra member to begin singing or playing. Cues are also used for stage entrances and exits, and to change lighting during a scene.
CURTAIN CALL: At the end of a performance (and occasionally an act) all of the members of the cast and the conductor take bows. Sometimes this is done in front of the main curtain, hence the name. Often the bows are taken on the full stage with the curtain open.
DA CAPO (DAH CAH-poe) ARIA: An aria in the form “A-B-A,” where the first section is followed by a shorter second section, and then the first is repeated, usually with added ornamentation.
STAGE DIRECTOR: The person who instructs the performers in their movements on-stage and in the dramatic interpretation of their roles.
DIVA (DEE-va): a female artist of extraordinary talent. The masculine form is “Divo.”
DOUBLE ARIA: An aria that consists of two parts. The first part (the “cavatina”), is usually slow and the second (the “cabaletta”) is faster. There is often recitative between the two sections.
DOWNSTAGE: See STAGE AREAS
DRAMATIC: (Voice type) The heaviest voice, capable of sustained declamation and a great deal of power, projected over even the largest opera orchestra. This description can apply to all voice categories from soprano to bass.
DRESS (a wig): To prepare a wig for wear during a performance or rehearsal.
DRESSER: A member of the backstage staff who helps the artists put on and remove their costumes. Principal singers often have an exclusive dresser. Supers and chorus members usually share dressers or assist each other.
DRESS REHEARSAL: The final rehearsal, using all of the costumes, lights, etc. The objective is to run straight through the opera under show conditions.
DUET: An extended musical passage performed by two singers.
DYNAMICS: The degree of loudness or softness in the music. See PIANO and FORTE.
ENCORE (ON-core): To repeat a piece of music. In the past, it was the custom for a singer to repeat a popular aria if the audience called “encore” loudly enough.
ENSEMBLE: Two or more people singing at the same time, or the music written for such a group.
FALSETTO: A method of singing above the natural range of a voice.
FINALE: The last musical number of an opera or the last number of an act.
FLY/FLY TOWER: A high space directly above the stage where pieces of the set can be raised up or “flown” out of sight when not in use.
FORTE/FORTISSIMO (FOR-tay/For-TEE-see-moe): – Loud/very loud.
GRAND OPERA: Strictly speaking, means opera without spoken dialogue. It is commonly used to refer to operas that use a large orchestra and chorus and grand themes.
HELDEN: – German prefix meaning “heroic”. It can apply to other voices but usually used in reference to a Heldentenor.
INTERLUDE: A short piece of instrumental music played between scenes or acts.
KEY: The specific tonality of a piece of music, indicating the precise pitch, which is to serve as the tonal center.
LEGATO (Lay-GAH-toe): A smooth line of music with no noticeable breaks.
LEITMOTIF (LIGHT-moe-teef): A short musical phrase associated with a particular character or event.
LIBRARIAN: The person in charge of preparing the music for the orchestra. Scores are usually rented. They have to be annotated to reflect cuts and other changes for a given production.
LIBRETTO: The text or words of an opera.
MAESTRO (mah-EHS-troh): Literally “master,” used as a courtesy title for the conductor. The masculine ending is used for both men and women.
MAKEUP DESIGNER: Stage makeup often has to be specially designed and applied to make the singer assume a different appearance. Even if the singers appearance doesn’t need to be changed, stage makeup has to be designed for the lighting used for the show.
MARK: To sing very softly or not at full voice. Many singers will occasionally “mark” during the rehearsal period to conserve their voices for the dress rehearsal and performances.
MELODRAMA: In a technique that originated with the French, short passages of music alternate with spoken words.
MELODY: The tune of the music.
MEZZO-SOPRANO: The middle female singing voice, lower than soprano, but higher than contralto.
OPERA: Italian for ‘the work’. A libretto acted and sung by one or more singers to an instrumental accompaniment.
OPERA BUFFA (OH-peh-rah BOOF-fah): An opera about ordinary people, usually, but not always comic, which first developed in the eighteenth century.
OPERA SERIA: (OH-peh-rah SEH-ree-ah): A “serious” opera. The usual characters are gods and goddesses, or ancient heroes. Rossini was one of the last to write true opere serie.
OPERETTA or MUSICAL COMEDY: A play, much of which is spoken but with many musical numbers. See also SINGSPIEL below.
ORCHESTRA: The group of instrumentalists or musicians who, led by the conductor, accompany the singers.
ORCHESTRATION: The art of writing for the orchestra. Decisions about what instruments should play which parts of the music can affect the sound of a composition a great deal.
OVERTURE: The orchestra’s introduction to an opera that shows the mood or tone of the opera.
PANTS ROLE: See TROUSER ROLE
PARLANDO (pahr-LAHN-doh): A style of singing like ordinary speech. It can occur in the middle of an aria.
PIANO/PIANISSIMO: Softly/very softly.
PIT: A sunken area in front of the stage where the members of the orchestra sit, often partially covered by the stage floor.
PIZZICATO (pit-tsee-CAH-toh): When a string instrument is played by plucking the strings instead of using the bow.
PRELUDE: Usually a short introduction without an ending, that leads into an act without pause, as opposed to an overture which is longer and can be played as a separate piece.
PRIMA DONNA: Literally “first lady”, the leading woman singer in an opera. The term for the leading man is “primo uomo.”
PRINCIPAL: A major singing role, or the singer who performs such a role.
PRODUCTION: The combination of sets, costumes, props, lights, etc.
PRODUCTION MANAGER: The administrator responsible for coordinating the sets, costumes, rehearsal facilities and all physical aspects of a production.
PROPERTIES: “Props” are small items carried or used by singers during the performance, such as knives, handkerchiefs, candles, etc.
RECITATIVE (Re-si-ta-TEEV): The sung words which often come before an aria or ensemble. The purpose of recitative is to advance the plot.
RÉPERTOIRE: The stock of pieces a singer or company has ready to present.
RÉPÉTITEUR (reh-peh-ti-TEUR): A member of the music staff who plays the piano for rehearsals and, if necessary, the piano or harpsichord during performances. Frequently coaches singers in their roles and assists with orchestra rehearsals.
ROULADE or RUN: A quick succession of notes sung to one syllable.
SCENA (SCHAY-nah): Literally “a scene.” A dramatic episode which consists of a variety of number types with a common theme. A typical scena might consist of a recitative, a cavatina and a cabaletta.
SCORE: The written music of an opera or other musical work.
SET: The background and furnishings on the stage.
SINGSPIEL (ZING-shpeel): German opera with spoken dialogue and a comic or sentimental plot.
SITZPROBE (ZITS-proh-bah): German for “seated rehearsal,” it is the first musical rehearsal of the singers with the orchestra.
SOPRANO: The highest female singing voice.
SOUBRETTE: Young female character with a light soprano voice.
SPINTO (SPEEN-toe): (Voice type) Lyric voice that has the power and incisiveness for dramatic climaxes.
STAGE AREAS: Refers to the various sections of the stage. “Stage left” and “stage right” are as seen by those on stage, not in the audience. Upstage is at the back, and downstage at the front.
STAGE DIRECTOR: The one responsible for deciding the interpretation of each character, the movements of the singers on stage, and other things affecting the dramatic progression of the opera.
STAGE MANAGER: The one in charge of the technical aspects of the entire opera during rehearsals and performances. Cues all light changes, sound effects, entrances (even of the conductor) and everything else that happens. Assistant Stage Managers assist with entrances and preparations during rehearsals.
STROPHIC: Refers to an aria in which all stanzas of the text are sung to the same music.
SUPERNUMERARY: An “extra.” Someone who is assigned a part on stage but doesn’t sing. It is commonly shortened to “Super.”
SUPERTITLES: Translations of the words being sung which are projected on a screen above the stage.
TEMPO: The speed of the music.
TENOR: The highest adult male singing voice.
TESSITURA: Literally “texture”, it defines the average pitch level of a role. Two roles may have the same range from the lowest to the highest note, but the one with a greater proportion of high notes has the higher tessitura.
THROUGH-SUNG: An opera in which the music is continuous, without divisions into recitative and aria.
TREMOLO: (Italian) Wavering of pitch while singing a note. It is usually inadvertent as opposed to a trill (see below). It is also called vibrato.
TRILL: Very quick alternation of pitch between two adjacent notes. See coloratura.
TROUSER ROLE: A role that depicts a young man or boy, but is sung by a woman.
VERISMO: Describes the realistic style of opera that started in Italy at the end of the nineteenth century.
VIBRATO: See Tremolo
VOCAL COACH: An instructor who coaches singers, helping them with the pronunciation, singing and interpretation of a role.
WIG DESIGNER: Designs and oversees the creation of the wigs used in a production.