Glossary of Terms

Important Words in Opera

Accompaniment - An instrumental or vocal part designed to support or complement a principal voice, instrument, or group of voices or instruments. In an aria, the voice is the primary focus and the orchestra is the accompaniment.

Acoustics - The science of sound. The qualities of sound in an enclosed space.

Aria - An extended musical passage performed by one singer. It is used to express feelings or comment on the action and is accompanied by the orchestra. The action usually stops while an aria is sung.

Ballet - A form of dance that tells a story.

Banda - A small group of instrumentalists who play either on the stage or backstage, not in the pit.

Bel Canto - Literally “beautiful singing,” bel canto passages are lyrical, and often very florid.

Bravo - Literally “brave, courageous.” A form of applause when shouted by members of the audience at the end of an especially pleasing performance. Strictly speaking, bravo is for a single man, brava for a woman, and bravi for more than one performer.

Cabaletta - The final section of an extended aria or duet, generally short and brilliant, to display the voice and rouse applause.

Cadenza - An elaborate unaccompanied passage near the end of an aria designed to show off the voice. Originally used to close a number and improvised on the spot.

Choreographer - The person who designs the steps of a dance.

Choreography - A dance or the making of a dance.

Chorus - A group of mixed voices, or the musical passage sung by such a group.

Claque - A group of people hired to sit in the audience and either applaud enthusiastically to ensure success or whistle or boo to create a disaster. In past years, leading singers were sometimes blackmailed to pay a claque to insure they would not create a disturbance. Even now, one is sometimes used but rarely acknowledged.

Coloratura - A kind of vocal music that requires the singer to execute a variety of technically brilliant and difficult passages. These may be fast runs (scales), trills (rapid alternation of two notes), or other devices that embellish the vocal line.

Composer - The person who writes the music of an opera or other musical work.

Comprimario - A secondary role in an opera.

Conductor - The person who leads the orchestra and singers.

Cover - A replacement for a role in case of illness, as with an understudy in theater.

Cue - Signal to a singer or orchestra member to start.

Curtain Call - At the end of a performance all of the members of the cast and the conductor take bows. Sometimes this is done in front of the main curtain, hence the name. Often, however, the bows are taken on the full stage with the curtain open.

Diva - Literally “goddess,” it refers to an important female opera star. The masculine form is divo.

Dress (a wig) - To prepare a wig for wear.

Dresser - A member of the backstage staff who helps the artists dress in their costumes. While each of the principal singers usually has his or her own dresser, supers and chorus members share dressers.

Dress Rehearsal - The final rehearsal(s), using all of the costumes, lights, etc. While sometimes it is necessary to stop for corrections, an attempt is made to make it as much like a final performance as possible.

Duet - A song for two voices.

Dynamics - The degree of loudness or softness in the music.

Encore - Literally means “again.” It used to be the custom for a singer to repeat a particularly popular aria if the audience called Encore loud enough. While this is still done in countries like Italy, it is rare elsewhere.

Ensemble - Any extended musical passage performed by more than one player. Very often they are all singing different words and different musical lines. Duets, trios, and choruses are all ensembles.

Finale - Literally “the end.” The ending segment/song of an act or scene. It usually involves many singers and is very dramatic.

Fly, or Fly Tower - Sufficient space above the stage, i.e., if there is a fly tower, pieces of the set are often raised up or flown when they are not in use.

Forte - Literally “strong.” A dynamic marking meaning loud.

Interlude - An orchestral selection played between scenes in an opera. It is used to set a mood and even advance the story.

Intermission - A break between acts of an opera. The lights go on and the audience is free to move around. Intermissions usually last up to twenty minutes.

Leitmotiv or motif - A short musical phrase associated with a particular character or event.

Libretto - Literally “little book.” The text of an opera. The libretto is always shorter than a normal play because it takes so much longer to sing a line than to say it. The action is often interrupted for an aria which limits the length of the text even more.

Librettist - The person who writes the libretto, often a poet or playwright.

Maestro - Literally “master.” Used as a courtesy title for the conductor, whether a man or woman.

Mark - To sing very softly or not at full voice. A full-length opera is very hard on a singer’s voice so most mark during rehearsals.

Melody - The tune of a piece of music.

Opera - A drama set with music. Different than a play or musical for the orchestra is an equal partner with the singers. Literally the word opera is the plural of the Latin word opus, which means “work.” Like a play, an opera is acted on a stage, with costumes, wigs, scenery, etc. Almost all of it is sung, in contrast to an operetta or musical, where a great deal of the text is spoken.

Opera Buffa - A comic opera first developed in the eighteenth century. Each act usually ends with a large ensemble finale.

Orchestra - The group of musicians who are led by the conductor and accompany the singers.

Orchestra Pit The sunken area in front of the stage where the orchestra plays.

Overture - An orchestral piece several minutes in length played before the beginning of an opera. Usually, but not always, it contains some themes from the music of the opera.

Patter Song - A song or aria in which the character sings as many words as possible in the shortest length of time.

Piano - Literally “plane.” A dynamic marking meaning soft.

Prelude - Usually short in duration and without an ending, a prelude leads into an act without pause, as opposed to an overture which is longer and can be played as a separate piece.

Principal - A leading role or character in the opera.

Prima Donna- Literally “first lady.” The leading woman singer in an opera. Because of the way some of them behaved in the past, it often refers to someone who is acting in a superior, demanding and difficult fashion.

Production - The combination of sets, costumes, props, lights, etc.

Prompt - To help a singer who has forgotten a line. In some opera houses, the prompter sits in a box at the very front of the stage. It is not customary for opera houses in America to use a prompter.

Props (properties) - Small items carried or used by singers during a performance, such as fans, letters or a rope.

Proscenium - The front opening of the stage which frames the action.

Recitative - Sung dialogue that moves the action along by providing information. A recitative (or recit) usually has no recognizable melody and the singing is generally faster with a rhythm more like normal speech. Recitativo secco is accompanied only by a keyboard instrument such as a harpsichord, sometimes with added cello or bass.

Roulade or Run - A quick succession of notes sung to one syllable.

Score - The written music for a piece or group of pieces with separate lines for each instrument and each singer’s voice.

Set - The decoration on stage that indicates the place and overall world of the opera.

Sitzprobe - Literally “sitting rehearsal.” It is the first rehearsal of the singers with the orchestra, with the former seated, and no acting.

Solo - A piece or portion of music where only one performer has the melody.

Stage Director - The person responsible for directing the movement of the characters and creating the story on stage.

Supernumerary or Super - An “extra.” Someone who is part of a group on stage but does not sing.

Supertitles - Translations into English of the original words, projected on a screen above the stage.

Synopsis - A short version of the story of the opera, usually one or two pages.

Tempo - Literally “time.” The speed at which the music is played.

Trill - The rapid alteration of adjacent notes. A characteristic feature of coloratura singing.

Trouser role - A role which depicts a young man or boy, but sung by a woman. Also called a Pants Role

Verismo - Describes the realistic style of opera that started in Italy at the end of the nineteenth century.

Compiled from materials from San Francisco Opera and Manitoba Opera.

Links to other learning resources: Short Introduction to Opera and Operatic Voices

Opera on Wheels
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