Opera Terms


A song for one voice which allows a character to express their innermost thoughts and feelings – like a soliloquy in a Shakespeare play. Arias don’t drive the action forward; they are moments of reflection.



A male singing voice that lies between bass (lower) and tenor (higher).



The lowest male singing voice.


Bel Canto

From Italian for ‘beautiful singing’. A term loosely used to indicate the elegant Italian vocal style of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The operas of Gioachino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti are commonly considered examples of the bel canto style.



A group of singers with more than one individual singing each part. The choruses in opera usually represent groups such as soldiers, priests, peasants, nymphs of the woods and so on – whatever is required by the story. The term also refers to the music sung by a chorus.



The lowest female singing voice, between the female mezzo-soprano (higher) and the male tenor (lower).



A high-lying male singing voice equivalent to the female singing voices of contralto and mezzo-soprano.



A song for two voices. This is the most popular type of operatic ensemble. It has been used since the earliest operas in the 17th century. Duets are used especially for pairs of lovers, but can also effectively express conflict.



A piece sung by more than one member of the cast. Although the term 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.



The last part of an opera, or of an act of an opera. The finale is often a formal, extended ‘piece’ in which the plot works itself out.


Grand Opera

Mainly associated with opera in the 19th century. Giuseppe Verdi’s operas are especially good examples of grand opera: almost always tragic plots with no recitative or dialogue, they are often characterised by magnificent sets and costumes representing glamorous or exotic settings within a context of social, historical or geographical significance. Battles, conquests or political upheavals often feature, all supported by impressive orchestral forces.



A short instrumental passage or self-contained piece that is often used to cover a change of scene or to move dramatically from one mood or atmosphere to another.



A short melodic ‘idea’, sometimes of only a few notes, which is used by a composer to signify someone or something. Richard Wagner developed the leitmotif to give unity to his works. In the four operas of The Ring Cycle there is a leitmotif for every character, every significant emotion, every prop (the sword, the Tarnhelm, the Rhinegold) and elements of nature (river, fire, forest, the forest bird).



All the words 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, including at Scottish Opera.



A female singing voice that lies between contralto (lower) and soprano (higher).



Opera comes from the Latin word opera, meaning ‘a work’. A musical dramatic work in which the performers sing some or all of their parts: a union of music, drama and spectacle, with music normally playing the dominant role. There are many forms of opera in Western art, and even more forms of sung drama outside the Western classical tradition, particularly in Asia and Southeast Asia, and in some Native American cultures. The art form first developed in Ancient Greece, where the chorus was used as a group of speakers to comment on the action. However, Italy is acknowledged as the true cradle of opera as we know it today. Hence the Italian language gives us almost all the operatic terminology in current use.


Opera Buffa

From Italian for ‘a joke’ (ie buffoon). The term was first applied to the genre of comic opera as it rose to popularity in Italy and was exported across Europe through the 18th century. Plots feature ordinary people in everyday situations: the class consciousness of the time decreed that only aristocratic characters could carry the weight of a serious plot, whereas low-born characters were restricted to the comedy roles.


Opéra Comique

This was developed in France in response to opera buffa. Despite its name, the plots are not always wildly hilarious, although a happy ending is invariably achieved, and the format includes spoken dialogue (not unlike operetta).


Opera Seria

From the Italian phrase dramma per musica used to characterise the noble (royal and superhuman characters abound) and serious genre of opera that reached the height of its popularity during the 18th century. However, it is not a term that opera audiences of the time would have recognised. They just called it opera: it was only labelled as opera seria by later musicologists and historians.



Having its heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, operetta features light-hearted and frothy subject matter wrapped up with pretty tunes and brightly coloured sets and costumes. Often seen as the bridge between opera and musicals, the narrative structure has substantial amounts of spoken dialogue (even some entirely spoken roles). The musical accessibility – combined with the low cost of sheet music – of the most popular songs from these shows enabled millions of ordinary people to enjoy singing them at home.



A piece of music that acts as an introduction to an opera. In effect, the overture gets everyone in the mood for what’s in store. Most overtures use bits of the ‘best tunes’ which the audience will hear in full later in the performance. Sometimes the composer introduces a particular theme or concept that will recur throughout the opera – friendship, betrayal, unrequited love.



An operatic device that allows the singer to explain the plot between the arias, duets and choruses. Described as melodic speech, it is very lightly accompanied by the orchestra (often only a harpsichord or similar). This is the exception to the rule of music as the dominant partner: in recit, understanding the story is of key importance. There are no especially famous examples of recitative. By its very nature, it is there simply to carry the plot forward.



Musical notation reproduced on large sheets of paper. In performance, individual players have their own music to read but the conductor has the entire orchestral score, showing the notes played by each instrument in the orchestra.



A German-language music drama, popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, incorporating spoken dialogue with musical ensembles, including ballads or popular songs. The plots are generally comic or romantic, often with a magical or fantastical twist.



The highest female singing voice.



The highest male singing voice – though also see Countertenor.



This refers to the ‘lie’ of a role. If the tessitura 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.



A work that is continuous in texture, with no individual ‘numbers’. Wagner’s operas are examples of through-composed works. In a Mozart opera, it is a relatively simple matter to perform an individual aria or duet, as these are often separated by recitative. Selecting just one song from a Wagner opera would be much harder, as songs, ensembles or interludes are woven together to create an artistically cohesive whole.


Trouser Role

A male character role performed by a female singer (usually a mezzo-soprano). Examples of mezzo-soprano trouser roles include the title role in George Frideric Handel’s Julius Caesar or Idamante in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Idomeneo. Originally, these roles were written for singers known as castrati (singular: castrato) – male singers in the 17th and 18th centuries who underwent surgical procedure in order to preserve the boy treble range of their voices. As the popularity of this type of singer faded, female singers took over the roles. There are some trouser roles deliberately written to be performed by a female, usually in order to exploit the many opportunities this gender confusion brings to the plot. Examples are Mozart’s cheeky pageboy Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro and, more recently, Johann Strauss’s Russian millionaire Orlovsky in the operetta Die Fledermaus.



From Italian for ‘realism’. A movement in Italian literature and music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries reflecting the naturalism or realism made popular by the French novelist Émile Zola. Stories tend to be about characters from the ‘lower’ social strata and the moral ambiguities they face due to their position in society.