Glossary of Opera Terms

The terms featured in this glossary have been selected for their varierty, their usefulness and for the way they might colour one's image of the world of opera. They are categorised into the following groups:




Baritone the lower male voice
Bass the lowest male voice
self-explanatory - the physically modified singer had his heyday of popularity in the 18th Century

Farinelli was one of the most adored castrati of this period, and
the practise largely disappeared by the early 19th century.

Countertenor a baritone whose technique enables mastery of the falsetto voice, giving him a range similar to that of a mezzo- soprano
Mezzosoprano the lower female voice, sometimes characterized more by a darker vocal colour than by a strong difference in the range of notes the singer is capable of producing
Physique du Rôle  
(fi-Zeek dew roll) 
the quality of bearing a general resemblance to the character being portrayed, whether it be a svelte sixteen-year-old, a great beauty dying of consumption, or, not to ignore the men, a tall, trim hero, thus limiting the degree of suspension of disbelief already inherent in opera
Soprano the high female voice which is then divided into different types, or fachs, ranging from the soubrette (lightest) to dramatic (heaviest/biggest sound), comprising in between: coloratura (the pyrotechnics specialist), lyric (sweet and steady), spinto (more bite) and combinations thereof (such as lyric-coloratura, lyric- spinto)

The categories of lyric and dramatic carry over into designations of mezzosopranos, tenors and baritones.

 the ring or edge of an operatic voice which allows it to soar through a wall of orchestral sound and fill the opera house
Tenor  the high male voice

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the location of the theatre designed by Wagner to house productions of his “music-drama-spectacles” (operas), the building of which was financially enabled by King Ludwig II of Bavaria, among other friends

Wagner devotees still make the pilgrimage there, particularly during summer festival time.

a group well-paid to applaud vociferously, strategically peppered throughout the audience,  to ensure the success of a particular singer or an entire production  
Those Who Know
Commedia dell’Arte
(ko-MED-ee-ah dell AR-teh) 
the form of theatre first popular in Italy in the mid-16th century, though descended from Mideaval forms, of farce-like plots that used set speeches and set characters as a basis from which much improvisation was expected, placing a great reliance on, and power in, the individual actors

It was one of the first forms of commercial theatre, used local dialects, and spread to England where it developed into pantomime, and to France where it grew into Comédie Italienne. 

Some familiar characters descended from commedia are harlequin/ arlecchino, scaramuccia/scaramouche, and punch / punchinella.
Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793) is credited with reforming commedia dell’arte by increasing adherence to the written text by the performers, tightening up the plots, and reducing the stock-ness of the characters, for by the 18th century the art form had lost some of its original vitality and diversity.

The setting of I Pagliacci is a commedia troupe preparing for the evening’s performance in one of the local villages they would have periodically visited, and the tragedy when real life intersects with the enactment of the ‘play’. 

Grand Opéra originally a 19th century French term to distinguish between opera set entirely to music, and opéra comique (not necessarily comic) which was opera with spoken dialogue

It came to mean the large-scale, elaborate productions of serious opera which the French loved, and which we know today.

the forerunner of the comic opera; one-act comic interludes performed between acts of a serious theatre piece, often including the stock characters and lazzi of commedia dell’arte (q.q.v.)
the jest-like, slapstick moves of the familiar, caricature figures in commedia dell’arte (q.v.); comic business
Mount Olympus/The Gods where the generally more affordable seats are located, up about seven stories or so, depending on which House; the cherished land for many a bare-pocketed tourist; where many opera devotees or samplers have had their first, early, or continuing opera experiences; from whence the performers may appear as dots, but the voices (generally) carry and the atmosphere is rich
Opera Buffa/Opéra Bouffe (BOO-fa/Boof)
comic opera, derived from the Italian tradition
Opera Seria
18th century Italian serious opera, the subjects of which were generally mythological/heroic-historical; nowadays, a term to distinguish itself from comic opera, opera buffa
Opera-Houses the first theatres opened specifically for opera:  Venice, in 1637; London, in 1656; Paris, in 1669; Rome, in 1671; Hamburg, in 1678.

Houses built in the 20th century are generally considerably larger than when much of the music for opera was written, hence one of the arguments in the growing, controversial debate on amplification, another point being improvements in the relevant technology.

Operetta light opera with spoken dialogue
Standing room

where the other most affordable viewing positions are located (ref. Mount Olympus)

This is no mere location, however.  To ‘go standing room’ is to experience a club of self-confessed devotees who swap opera gossip tid-bits while waiting on the queue, who argue the merits of certain singers over others, almost always comparing them, de rigueur, to the stars who graced the stages of yester-year.

Super Titles/Surtitles

a simultaneous translation of the opera text, or summaries of each scene, projected onto a screen above the stage, or even onto the back of the seat in front of each viewer, as is used at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, in which case it can be turned off

It is still a controversial innovation in opera world, due to the hazard of distracting attention from the performers who are busy expressing the words with body, soul and voice.  Yet it is sometimes credited with a resurgence in opera audience numbers across America.

Zarzuela (sar-SWAY-la/thar-THWAY-la)
a native Spanish brand of opera, usually short, comic and with spoken dialogue, dating from before the arrival of Italian opera, popular in the mid-17th century and revived in the mid-19th century

It was supposedly named after the palace outside Madrid where such performances were given.

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Aria  a song performed solo, often preceded by a recitative (q.v.), the title of which is usually the first phrase of text
Bel Canto
(bell CAN-toe)
literally, beautifully sung or beautiful song – a style emphasizing smooth line, lyricism of tone and phrasing, and even the agility necessary for effortless displays of vocal pyrotechnics, as opposed to the more declamatory, dramatic, straightforward style of verismo (q.v.), sometimes referred to as 'can belto' when not too pleasantly executed
the rapid, final section of an aria, especially in 19th century Italian opera, usually somewhat showy and of a particular rhythm
Cadenza the improvised phrase sung before the final chords of an aria – generally an opportunity to show-off with a display of vocal pyrotechnics or an emotive, long phrase, to make the most of a  climactic musical moment

traditional practises in opera related either to the treatment of the music, or to the stagecraft, based on custom or practicality

It is sometimes thought of in opposition to naturalism.

Interpolation the addition of an unwritten, usually rather high note into a musical phrase, especially at the end of an aria - a gesture of sheer bravura

Occasionally a whole aria can be interpolated, or inserted, into a role - not widely done these days.


the sung, almost spoken conversation (monologue, dialogue, or ensemble) in a freer rhythm and having less of a melodic line than the arias or ensemble pieces which surround it, which serves to propel the action of the drama forward

It can be accompanied by orchestra ("instrumented"), or by harpsichord/piano in which case it is referred to as dry, or secco (SECK-0).

Schadenfreude  (SHAD-en-FROY-de)

a most un-politique joy at a colleague’s misfortune

For example:  A fellow performer has flubbed a note, gained weight, fallen out of favour with a conductor, etc.   Such gloating no longer occurs, really….


literally, texture – where the main body of notes in a piece tends to lie

An aria without any particularly high notes, but with a high tessitura, may still be relatively taxing to the singer.

Valorizzare la Parola  (valori-TSAR-re la pa-RO-la)
giving full value to the sound and meaning of the words sung; not merely clear diction
literally, realism – a more direct singing style than that of bel canto (q.v.), where the driving emotion of the moment takes precedence over sweetness of sound and unnecessary vocal flourishes

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