About Opera

What is Opera?

Opera is a theatrical drama or comedy told in music through powerful, unamplified voices. Opera combines several art forms—vocal and instrumental music, theater, drama, visual art and often dance—into one complete theatrical experience. When successfully produced, an opera’s directing, singing, acting, stage setting, lighting, conducting and orchestral playing will create an unforgettable spectacle that can move audiences to tears or elation—or both. This powerful appeal made opera the most prestigious and lucrative genre for composers to write in for more than two hundred years. The most famous operas performed today come from the period between the composers George Frideric Handel (whose first opera was written around 1705) and Richard Strauss (whose final opera was premiered in 1942). Opera continues to be a prestigious and popular genre for composers to write in, and many new operas are performed every year. 

The Basic Elements of Opera

Singing Is The Primary Method Of Expression.

The most defining aspect of opera is that the majority of lines are sung instead of spoken. The characters express their thoughts and feeling in song rather than speech. Because it usually takes longer to sing something than to say it, however, the action may sometimes seem slower than in a play. Occasionally, even in an opera, characters may speak rather than sing, but the vast majority of lines will be sung.

Opera Combines Many Different Art Forms.

Much of the excitement of opera comes from its use of multiple art forms. Opera combines singing, acting, orchestral music, poetry, dance, mime, theatrical scenery, costumes and lighting in a unique art form all its own. The word "opera" itself is an Italian word derived from the Latin word "opus," which means work (as in work of art).

 An Opera Tells A Story.

As in a play, opera is performed on a stage with scenery, props and lighting, by actors wearing costumes, make-up and wigs to create a specific character, time, and place. While the actors sing their lines they are accompanied by a piano, small instrumental ensemble, or even a full orchestra, that may be either to the side of the stage or beneath the stage in the orchestra “pit.” Opera stories come from many different sources: mythology, the Bible, fairy tales, literary classics and history. Operas may be about mythological gods, historic heroes, royalty, or ordinary people from the past or present. The words sung in an opera are written down in a libretto (Italian for "little book"). The libretto is sometimes sung in a language other than English, depending on the nationality of the composer and librettist (the author of the libretto).

A synopsis, which is a summary of what happens in the story, may be read before attending an opera. The libretto and synopsis of most famous operas can be found in libraries; recordings on compact disc and DVD are also available. A synopsis is also usually provided in the printed program at a live performance; English translations of characters’ lines are often projected on a screen over the stage so that the audience can easily follow the story.

The Music In An Opera Reflects The Mood And Events In The Story.

The addition of music to telling a story tends to greatly increase the emotional intensity of a performance. Even if you cannot understand the words being sung, the music provides many clues. It reflects a character's feelings; it hints at a turn in the plot; it may even describe an event (a storm, for example). If something sad or frightening is about to happen, you may hear a warning in the music before the action takes place.

An Opera Is Structured Like A Play.

Most operas begin with an overture, which is an introductory piece of instrumental music that often presents musical themes heard in the opera. As in a play, an opera is divided into one or more acts and various scenes that contain a mixture of arias (one singer), duets (two singers), ensembles (more than two singers, such as trios, quartets, etc.), scenes with a chorus, and sung dialogue called recitative.

The Creative Team

Many people work together to create an opera production. Members of the creative team include the singers, the conductor, the stage director, and the designers (sets, lighting, costumes, wig and make-up). These careers often involve many years of study and hard work to master.

The Conductor

The conductor communicates information about the music and the timing of the show to the singers on the stage and to the orchestra through the gestures he or she makes, often using a baton. The conductor is usually addressed using the Italian term as “Maestro” or “Maestra.” The conductor trains for his/her work just like the singers. He or she must have a broad knowledge of singing, the orchestra, and music in general. The orchestral score, with approximately twenty staves (individual lines) of music, must be studied and mastered long before rehearsals even begin. The conductor uses the score as a guide as he or she coaches the singers and the orchestra toward a performance.

The Stage Director

An operatic stage director faces all the challenges of a theatrical stage director, plus a few special concerns. The opera must be staged to obtain the greatest emotional effect by moving the singers about with a natural flow that enhances the meaning of the story without interfering with the music. The composer has built the framework within which the stage director must work. Entrances, duets, fights, exits, shipwrecks, and all other stage “business” must take place within a specified number of measures or beats. Action must be compressed or extended as written by the composer. Like a conductor, a stage director must be completely familiar with the musical score. He or she must know Italian, French, German, or whatever language is being sung, as well as have a working knowledge of everything and everyone both on stage and backstage. He or she is also often the person working with the designers to make sure everything on stage is a cohesive whole.

The Designers

Every element the audience sees on stage (the sets, the costumes, the lights, the wigs and make-up) requires a person with special skills to plan and implement how that element is going to enhance the story of the opera. Set designers create sets that transport the audience to a different time and place, and that remain light enough to move around during scene changes and small enough to store in the theaters “wings” (space off to the side of the stage, out of the audience’s view). Costume designers must make each character unique through what they wear. Lighting designers take a theater that is normally completely dark and use electric light and color to create different settings (night vs. day) and moods (energized, spooky, etc.), and to draw the audience’s attention to different characters or locations on stage. Wig and Make-up designers can adjust an actor’s age, hairstyle, add distinguishing marks like scars and tattoos, and help further tailor the unique impression each character’s appearance makes on the audience. 

The Process of Producing an Opera

The process of producing an opera begins years before the audience arrives to enjoy it. The head of an opera company sits down with the company’s artistic director and decides what operas they’d like to produce for a given year, or season. They consider what operas they’ve recently produced, what operas their audience would most like to see, and operas that might be new or less familiar but that they feel are excellent. They then decide on the artistic team that will produce each opera and begin hiring designers, a stage director, and singers, renting sets and costumes, and coordinating schedules with the theater.

Singers are often hired to sing a role a year or more in advance and, in the world of professional opera, must have their roles memorized before the first rehearsal. If the role is new to them they need to not only learn all their notes but also all the words to their role, often in a foreign language. In addition, singers must learn the parts of the singers and orchestra around them so they’ll know how those elements relate to their own role. Voice teachers help singers with their vocal technique and vocal coaches help them with language, musical style, and character development. Coaches also play the orchestra score on the piano so singers can learn their parts in the context of the whole. Singers are always in the process of learning new roles so that they can work in many places, including other countries. This advanced preparation is crucial because there is rarely much time to rehearse once the cast, conductor, and director are assembled.

The design team is made up of a set designer, lighting designer, costume designer, and wig and make-up designer. Their job begins well-before the rehearsal process when they choose a look, a style, and a flow for the production with the stage director. They then work with the opera company to build or rent the sets, wigs, and costumes.

The cast of an opera isn’t assembled until approximately three weeks before the opening night. The singers, who are often chosen by audition, come from around the country and sometimes the world and may not have met each other before the first rehearsal. The conductor leads them through the music with piano accompaniment, showing them his or her interpretation of tempo and phrasing. The stage director shows them where and when and how to move around the stage and how to interpret the drama. This collaboration of conductor and stage director with the singers brings the opera’s plot and music to life.

The opera is staged in a rehearsal room first, using tape on the floor to let the singers know where sets and stairs will be. It moves to the theater’s stage just a few nights before opening. It is then that the orchestra is brought into the process, along with the technical aspects of theater such as lights, costumes, sets, and make-up. Technically and logistically, the opera usually comes together in just five days.

Once in the theater, a stage manager runs rehearsals. Although invisible to the audience, the stage manager is responsible for coordinating the efforts of the stage crew who work backstage (including props people, lighting people, stage hands, costumers, electricians, carpenters, and more), the singers (helping them time entrances, costume changes, and breaks), and conductor (letting him or her know when everything is ready to begin). Video and audio monitors make it possible to see the conductor and hear the orchestra throughout the backstage areas of the theater, and the stage manager can communicate with the singers in their dressing rooms using a PA system. Everyone must be in the right place, at the right time, in the right costume, holding the right prop through many changes and throughout a long drama that cannot stop once it’s begun.

Given that most operas are around three-hours long, in a foreign language, performed entirely from memory, and involve the coordination of many people and art forms, it is a truly incredible feat that they can be performed with only a few weeks of rehearsal and a few days of work in the theater. It takes a team of extremely skilled, very hard working people for opera to be successful.

Also, visit the Glossary of Terms to learn more about operatic vocabulary. Click on this link to learn more about operatic voice types: Operatic Voices.

Opera on Wheels
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