Opera is storytelling on its most epic scale, told through music and words. On stage, the performers act and sing with the accompanying music being played by an orchestra below the stage in an area called the pit. You might think this is like a musical but there is a big difference: the singers are not amplified and the orchestra – which is much larger than orchestras in musicals – plays live. The resulting sound is much bigger and truly thrilling.
In addition to the solo singers, most operas also have large crowd scenes performed by the chorus (sometimes up to and even over 100 people) and many operas also have dance scenes. To get an idea of what is involved, have a look at The Royal Opera’s Opera Machine.
Opera singers are highly trained over many years to be able to produce the kind of sound which can project over the orchestra. Most start learning their craft in childhood and progress through college and graduate training schemes.
Members of an opera chorus also go through this rigorous training and some also perform smaller solo roles and “cover” (or understudy) principal roles. Covering roles is a major part of the training for young soloists as their voices develop. Luck occasionally leads to a big break if a principal singer cancels and a cover has to step in at short notice. Luciano Pavarotti made his Royal Opera debut in London in 1963 stepping in to sing the role of Rodolfo in Puccini’s La bohème for an ailing Giuseppe Di Stefano.