OPERA TERMS GLOSSARY

Aria
generally defined, a piece of music (or 'song') for solo voice and orchestral accompaniment appearing in the context of an opera which expresses the innermost thoughts and feelings of an operatic character. Arias usually do not drive the action of the drama but are moments of reflection for the character. They provide an opportunity for lyrical expression in an opera. Depending on the historical period an opera was composed, certain forms and structures were often followed in the composition of an aria."
Arioso
a term loosely used to describe a piece for solo voice that is neither quite an aria nor recitative. An arioso did not normally follow any strict form or structure and, while 'melodic', never had the finely wrought melodic content expected of an aria."
Ballet
dance that tells a story, or dance within an opera which is part of the fabric of the story. The earliest French operas (17th century) included dance as an integral part of the theatrical experience, although Italian composers often included dance in their operas as well, as late as the 19th century."
Banda
an offstage band, collected instruments or small orchestra used in opera in order to heighten the illusion of music making within the drama of the opera. For instance, Verdi used a banda offstage in <em>Rigoletto</em> in order to convey a sense of reality about the party in the duke's palace which opens the opera."
Bel Canto
(Italian, ‘fine singing’) a term loosely used to indicate the elegant Italian vocal style of the 18th and early 19th centuries. The operas of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti are commonly considered examples of the bel canto style, although the term was in common usage earlier."
Baritone
the baritone is the most common male voice, lower in range than the tenor and more darkly-hued. Although a number of roles in the Mozart canon are best suited to the baritone (like Papageno, Count Almaviva in <em>The Marriage of Figaro</em>, Guglielmo in <em>Così fan tutte</em> or Don Giovanni), a distinction was not made at the time between baritone and bass. We have Verdi to thank for the 'discovery' and codification of the baritone voice-type, so excited was he about the particular color of this voice and its ability to portray many different dramatic qualities. The 'Verdi baritone' is now considered its own voice type, and the singer must have an incredibly dynamic quality, a dark color, 'bite' or 'snarl' in order to carry through the orchestra and the ability to sing lyrically when called upon. In other words, the Verdi baritone must have <em>everything</em>! Roles would include Nabucco, Rigoletto, Simon Boccanegra, Falstaff and Iago. In the Wagner repertoire, roles requiring similar qualities would include Wolfram in <em>Tannhäuser</em>, Kurwenal in <em>Tristan</em> and Gunther in <em>Götterdämmerung</em>. The French are represented by characters such as Escamillo in <em>Carmen</em> and Valentin in <em>Faust</em>."
Bass-baritone
a category used to describe those voices with a range between that of the baritone and the bass and referring principally to the requirements of the German repertoire, roles like Wotan in <em>The Ring</em>, Hans Sachs in <em>Die Meistersinger</em> and the Dutchman in <em>The Flying Dutchman</em>. The 'tessitura' or 'lie' of these roles is higher than what a bass can comfortably sing with occasional moments of probing into the bass register and the need for the darkness of color that the bass brings to a role. Other German roles would be Pizarro in <em>Fidelio</em> and The Baptist in <em>Salome</em>. Boris Godunov is a bass-baritone role as well."
Bass
although there are a number of sub-categories of bass, we will deal with the whole category here in a general way. It is, of course, the lowest and 'darkest' of the male voices and there are characteristic basses in serious operatic literature that are distinct from the comic bass or <em>basso buffo</em> roles. In Mozart, characters from the lower social strata, like servants, were relegated to basses: Leporello in <em>Don Giovanni</em> and Figaro in <em>The Marriage of Figaro</em> are good examples. The 'serious' bass, whose vocal color must carry a sense of nobility and wisdom, is represented by Sarastro in <em>The Magic Flute</em>. For the Italian (serious) repertoire, Fiesco in <em>Simon Boccanegra</em> is a wonderful example, as is Sparafucile in <em>Rigoletto</em>. But comic basses abound in the literature of Rossini: Mustafà in <em>The Italian Girl in Algiers</em> and Dr. Bartolo and Basilio in <em>The Barber of Seville</em>. These basses were expected to have as much vocal flexibility as the <em>leggiero</em> tenors and <em>coloratura</em> mezzos! The French repertoire makes fine distinctions between vocal types of basses, but certainly among the favorite roles are Méphistophélès in <em>Faust</em> and Friar Laurence in <em>Roméo et Juliette</em>. German literature also abounds in basses: Rocco in <em>Fidelio</em>, Hunding and Fafner in <em>The Ring</em>, King Mark in <em>Tristan</em> and Gurnemanz in <em>Parsifal</em>."
Chorus
a group of singers with more than one individual singing each part. The choruses in opera usually represent collective groups such as soldiers, priests, peasants, nymphs of the woods and so forth, whatever is required by the story of an opera. The term also refers to the music sung by a chorus."
Coloratura
elaborate ornamentation in vocal music. The term is now widely used to denote certain passages of rapidly moving, elaborate vocal music in opera, operatic roles of which such passages are prominent and singers who specialize in them, e.g. coloratura sopranos."
Coloratura soprano
a female voice with an 'upper extension' of high notes and a light quality or color which allows the voice to be capable of rapid and highly ornamented passages. The roles of Lakmé, Lucia in <em>Lucia di Lammermoor</em> and Zerbinetta in <em>Ariadne auf Naxos</em> are examples of coloratura soprano roles. There are, however, roles that demand the upper extension and flexibility of voice yet with a heavier quality or darker color. These are dramatic coloratura roles. The role of the Queen of the Night in Mozart's <em>The Magic Flute</em> demands such a voice, as do the Verdi roles of Lady Macbeth and Abagaille in <em>Nabucco</em>."
Coloratura mezzo
these are roles which, while demanding the use of a lower register or part of the voice, are also required to be flexible and capable of singing highly ornamented, rapid passages. Many of the hero roles in the operas of Handel, originally sung by male castrati, can be successfully sung today by coloratura mezzo-sopranos (as well as by countertenors, yet another voice type popular today). Ariodante and Julius Caesar are such Handel roles. However, Rossini demanded similar qualities for his comic heroines, Rosina (<em>The Barber of Seville</em>), Angelina (<em>Cinderella</em>) and Isabella (<em>The Italian Girl in Algiers</em>)."
Contralto
the lowest of the female voice-types, this is an extremely rare bird and true contralto roles are few and far between. They include Erda in <em>Der Ring des Nibelungen</em>, Fidés in <em>Le Prophete</em> by Meyerbeer, Ulrica (<em>Un ballo in maschera</em>) and Katisha in <em>The Mikado</em>. Today, because of the lack of true contralto voices (with the remarkable exception of Eva Podlés), many of these parts are taken by mezzos who have a lower extension and a darker color with plenty of 'bite' to slice through the orchestra. (Even Rossini's heroines Rosina and Angelina were first scored for contraltos, though today these roles are essayed almost exclusively by mezzo-sopranos)."
Duet
the duet, a composition for two voices in opera with orchestral accompaniment, is the most popular type of operatic ensemble and has been used in opera ever since Monteverdi. The duet is used in opera especially for pairs of lovers but can also be used to express conflict between characters who are at odds with one another."
Dramatic soprano
the 'heaviest' or most darkly-colored of the soprano types. As the name implies, the requirements for this voice type go beyond the lyric repertoire because of the strenuous dramatic demands. In the Italian repertoire, Tosca, Butterfly, Aida, Norma and Leonora (<em>Il trovatore</em>) would be considered dramatic soprano roles. In the German repertoire, Brünnhilde, Sieglinde, Leonore (<em>Fidelio</em>) and Isolde would be considered dramatic soprano roles. The range for the dramatic soprano is generally somewhat lower than the lyric or lyric-<em>spinto</em>, but often she is called upon to sing high passages for dramatic emphasis, making these roles quite strenuous for younger singers."
Dramatic mezzo
this voice type was often used, especially in the 19th century, to portray older women, mothers, witches and evil characters. Verdi made much of this voice type: Azucena (<em>Il trovatore</em>), Eboli (<em>Don Carlos</em>) and Amneris (<em>Aida</em>) are all dramatic mezzo roles. In the French literature Carmen stands out. Lighter mezzo roles exist in the German repertoire, like Octavian in <em>Der Rosenkavalier</em>, Cherubino in <em>The Marriage of Figaro</em> (although the role is sung in Italian), Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus and the Composer in <em>Ariadne</em>. Heavier mezzo roles, true dramatic mezzo roles, in the German repertoire include Brangäne in <em>Tristan und Isolde</em>, Kundry in <em>Parsifal</em> (although sometimes sung by a soprano) and Klytemnästra in <em>Elektra</em>."
Dramatic tenor
also called <em>tenore di forza</em> in Italian, Chénier and Alvaro in <em>La forza del destino</em> are dramatic tenor roles that require a <em>spinto</em> quality, able to carry over heavy orchestral textures with ease. The <em>tenore robusto</em>, however, must carry with it a certain baritonal 'weight' and color: Otello is such a role, and Ernani and Manrico were originally considered as part of the <em>robusto</em> tradition even though the roles are not always cast that way today."
Ensemble
a piece sung by more than one member of the cast of an opera. Although the term 'ensemble' can technically refer to a duet, trio, quartet, quintet, etc., it is often used specifically to refer to any sung portion of an opera in which a number of characters are expressing different emotions simultaneously or, as in a Rossini finale, are expressing perplexity or confusion in the face of an impossible situation."
Finale
the last part of an opera, or of an act of an opera. The finale is often a formal, extended 'piece' at the end of an act during which the principal characters in the opera have the opportunity to dramatically evolve to a climax point or to the completion of the drama."
Grand Opera
Strictly speaking, means opera without spoken dialogue. It is usually used to refer to opera which uses a large orchestra and chorus and grand themes."
Heldentenor
this is the dramatic tenor of the German repertoire, a voice type that must have a distinctive 'ring', weight and spin to portray heroic roles such as Lohengrin (on the lighter side) and Tristan or Siegfried (on the heavier side). One must not forget Florestan in <em>Fidelio</em>, a heroic German role that was a forerunner to the musical and dramatic demands of the Wagnerian roles."
Interlude
a short instrumental passage or self-contained piece that is often provided by a composer to cover a change of scene or to move dramatically from one mood or atmosphere to another."
Leitmotif
a short melodic 'idea', sometimes of only a few notes, which is used by a composer to signify someone or something in an operatic story. The German composer Richard Wagner developed the leitmotif to give unity to his sprawling, mythologically inspired music dramas like <em>Tristan</em> und <em>Isolde</em> and <em>Der Ring des Nibelungens</em>. In this epic four-part opera, there is a leitmotif for every character, every significant emotion, every prop (the sword, the tarnhelm, the Rhinegold), elements of nature (the river, fire, the forest, the forest bird) and every psychological state the exerts an influence on the drama which, when fully developed, provide a complex musical fabric through which Wagner weaves the story. But other composers followed his example and it is not unusual to hear composers using the leitmotif 'system' even today."
Libretto
the complete text of an opera, but literally the "little book" that was published for operatic audiences beginning in the 18th century so that they could read the poetry during the performance (or prepare prior to a performance). Libretti are not regularly published anymore, now that audio recordings of operas come with complete texts and supertitles are provided in most opera houses."
Lyric soprano
a female voice that is 'silkier' in texture or quality and has a lower range than the coloratura. The role of Micaëla in <em>Carmen</em> is a lyric soprano, as is Pamina in <em>The Magic Flute</em> and, although a bit more demanding, Mimì in <em>La bohème</em>. Heavier lyric roles might include Gounod's Juliette or Marguerite in <em>Faust</em>, Rusalka, the Countess in <em>The Marriage of Figaro</em> and Violetta in <em>La traviata</em>, although the latter role makes great demands in terms of both coloratura and dramatic heft."
Light-lyric tenor
depending on the repertoire, these voices are often called <em>leggiero</em> tenors or &quot;Rossini&quot; tenors. Roles include Almaviva in <em>The Barber of Seville</em>, Ramiro in <em>Cinderella</em> and Lindoro in <em>The Italian Girl in Algiers</em>. The voice has, like the coloratura soprano, an upper extension of high notes and a lightness of quality that allows for rapid passagework and florid ornamentation."
Lyric tenor
with not quite the high register of the light-lyric tenor, this voice category is well represented in the 19th century repertoire with Elvino in <em>La sonnambula</em>, and Nadir in <em>The Pearl Fishers</em>. Depending on the taste of the impresario or general director of a company, some of the Mozart roles can be sung by lyric tenors: Ferrando in <em>Così fan tutte</em>, Tamino in <em>The Magic Flute</em>, even Don Ottavio in <em>Don Giovanni</em>, although this is usually cast heavier."
Lyric-dramatic tenor
these roles, while still essentially lyric, demand some dramatic color and fire: Rodolfo in <em>La bohème</em>, the Duke in <em>Rigoletto</em>, Alfredo in <em>La traviata</em> and Faust are to be included."
Mezzo-soprano
the mezzo is the lower-ranged female voice type. Throughout opera history the mezzo has been used to convey many different types of characters: everything from boys or young men (so-called <em>trouser</em> roles), to mothers or mother-types, witches, gypsies and old women. There are sub-categories of mezzo-sopranos that can be easily identified:"
Number Opera
this is a term for an opera consisting of individual sections called ‘numbers’ which consist of the arias, duets, ensembles and recitatives that make up the entire opera. A number opera is distinct from any opera that is 'through-composed', or that has a sense of continuity from its beginning to its end. Rossini's <em>The Barber of Seville</em> is a number opera; Verdi's <em>Otello</em> is a continuous whole, with no 'numbers' or individual sections that stand alone."
Opera
(It., from Lat. <em>Opera</em>, plural of <em>opus</em>, ‘work’) The most narrow definition of opera is that it is an art form in which a drama is sung rather than spoken. But there are many forms of opera in Western art, and even more forms of sung drama <em>outside</em> of the Western canon, particularly in Asian and Southeast Asian cultures as well as in some Native American cultures."
Opera Buffa
the term <em>opera buffa</em> was first applied to the genre of <strong>comic</strong> opera as it rose to popularity in Italy and abroad over the course of the 18th century."
Overture
an instrumental or orchestral piece that acts as an introduction to an opera or other theatre work."
Prelude
a short or medium-length instrumental number for orchestra acting as an introduction to an opera or other theater work. Wagner preferred the term 'prelude' to 'overture' in his music dramas, but even Verdi often made a distinction between overtures, which introduced and developed thematic material to be used in the body of an opera (e.g. <em>La forza la destino</em>), and preludes, which were shorter and less developed (e.g. <em>Aida</em>)."
Recitative
(from the Italian, <em>recitative</em>)–a type of vocal writing in opera which mimics speech or 'recitation'. This imitation of normal speech patterns existed from the time of Monteverdi and the other early creators of opera. In Italian practice, two forms of recitative evolved: <em>recitativo secco</em>, accompanied only by a keyboard instrument (harpsichord or fortepiano) which conveyed everyday dialogue leading to more dramatic moments (aria); and <em>recitativo accompagnato</em>, which was accompanied by orchestra and used to convey noble speech, or the speech of noble, royal or mythological characters."
Soprano
the highest of the female voice types, the soprano has always had a place of prominence in the hierarchy of vocal types. In the operatic drama, the soprano is almost always the 'heroine' or protagonist of an opera. As is true of the other voice types, there are sub-categories of soprano, a few of which are listed here:"
Tessitura
a term used in reference to the ‘lie’ of a role: if a <em>tessitura</em> is said to be high, this may not mean that any individual note is particularly high but rather that the role on the whole tends to lie in the upper area of the voice."
Through-Composed
a term used in opera to refer to a work that is continuous in texture, with no individual ‘numbers’."
Tenor
the highest of the male voices, the tenor has as many sub-categories as the soprano."
Verismo
(It., ‘realism’) a movement in Italian literature and music reflecting the naturalism or realism of a style made popular through the novels of Émile Zola. Stories tended to be about characters from the 'lower' social strata and the moral ambiguities that these characters face because of their position in society. <em>Cavalleria rusticana</em> and <em>Pagliacci</em> are perfect examples of Italian <em>verismo</em> operas."