As in any area of human activity, words sometimes take on specialist meanings which can be off putting if you are not in the know. Here is a brief A-Z glossary of some commonly-used opera terms. Help us expand it by sending us your suggestions.
Aria: A solo song within an opera during which the action stops leaving the character free to express their feelings. It is often a test of the singer’s ability, after which there can be thunderous applause!
Baritone: the middle of the male voice types (see The singing voice).
Baroque: the period musical history covering approximately 1600 – 1750 from Monteverdi to the death of Johan Sebastian Bach.
Bel Canto: Italian for ‘beautiful singing’ this style is noted for its richly decorated style demanding great virtuosity and flawless vocal technique. It appeared around the enf of the 17th century and was popular right up to the end of the 19th. Composers associated with this type of singing include Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi.
Bass: the deepest male voice (see The singing voice).
Coloratura: an elaborate melody characteristic of the bel canto style, as well as describing the interpreter of such music (e.g. a coloratura soprano). A fine example are the two Queen of the Night arias in Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
Contralto: the deepest of the female voice types (see The singing voice).
Countertenor: the highest of the male voices achieved by using a falsetto technique.
Intendant: a title used most commonly in Germany referring to the chief executive of an opera house.
Leitmotif: a musical theme associated with a character, object, feeling, idea or place. Richard Wagner is especially known for using leitmotifs.
Libretto: Italian for ‘little book’ – the text of an opera.
Mezzo-soprano: the middle of the females voices (see The singing voice).
Opera buffa: Italian for ‘comic opera’. A style popular from the 18th to the early 19th century featuring more common characters and language, sometimes in local dialect, often with the ‘basso buffo’ or comic bass at its centre e.g. Dr Bartolo in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville).
Opera seria: Italian for ‘serious opera’. A style that predominiated in the 18th century and, in contrast to opera buffa, deals with gods and heroes in mythical settings, for example Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.
Operetta: is a term for a light opera that tends to be romantic like The Merry Wives of Windsor or Die Fledermaus.
Tenor: a high male voice (see The singing voice).
Soprano: the highest female voice (see The singing voice).
Surtitles (also supertitles): captions displaying the text of an opera above the stage.
Synopsis: outline of the plot.
Verismo: Italian for realism. A style of opera which flourished for about twenty years from 1890 marked by melodramatic, often violent plots with characters drawn from everyday life and with passionate solos and emotionally charged harmonies and melodies. The leading exponents were Pietro Mascagni (Cavalleria rusticana) and Ruggero Leoncavallo (Pagliacci), and perhaps most well known, Giacomo Puccini.