Here’s a handy list of special terms and phrases you may find useful when talking about opera. And watch this space for the all-audio version, coming soon!
Aficionado: Devoted fan or enthusiast. Although this word originally referred to lovers of bullfighting, it also applies to those obsessed with the bloody, violent heroism of opera.
Aria: A solo song for a single voice.
Banda: A group of musicians who appear onstage (in which case the players are costumed and given wigs and/or makeup) or in the wings or backstage. Popular in Italian opera.
Baritone: Male singer with an intermediate voice range. The most common voice among adult men.
Bass: Male singer with the deepest voice range.
Bel Canto: Literally, "beautiful singing." A popular kind of opera in which the other elements—orchestra, plot, poetry, scenic spectacle—take a secondary role so the vocalism of the singers can be center stage.
Bravo!: Literally, “Great!” A word shouted out by audience members to express appreciation of a strong performance. (If you want to be pedantically correct with your Italian grammar, shout "Brava!" at a single female singer; “Brave”—pronounced ‘brah-VAY!’—to more than one female singer, or "Bravi!" to a group including at least one guy.)
Cadenza: Derived from ‘cadence,’ a harmonic punctuation mark. A passage at the end of an aria when the orchestra drops out or holds a chord while the singer shows off, just before the final musical resolution.
Castrato (plural: castrati): A grown male singer, castrated in childhood, who sang as an adult the high treble notes of a boy soprano. Wildly popular in Italy in the 17th and 18th centuries. The last castrato died in 1922.
Cabaletta: The lively, galloping second half of a double-aria. See cavatina.
Cavatina: The slower first half of a double-aria. See cabaletta.
Chorus: A group of singers, usually sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses, who sing as a collective entity and are often asked to play many different roles in the same opera. Also, an impressive piece of music sung by the chorus.
Coach-Accompanist: Brilliant pianists who can imitate an orchestra with only ten fingers. You’ll find several of them at the heart of any opera company.
Coloratura: Vocal acrobatics consisting of rapid notes, runs, trills, crazy high notes, and other pyrotechnics.
Conductor: Person standing in front of the orchestra imitating a windmill. The conductor interprets the composer’s work by deciding exactly how fast and slow and loud and soft everything is, then cues each performer at the appropriate moment during the performance.
Continuo: A small group of keyboardists and instrumentalists—usually just 3 or 4—who accompany recitatives and intimate scenes in early opera.
Countertenor: Male singer who develops his falsetto so he can sing like a girl. Today, countertenors are often hired to sing roles written hundreds of years ago for castrati.
Da Capo Aria: Literally, “from the top.” Type of aria popular in the 18th century with music illustrating two sentences (usually contrasting). After you’ve sung the second, you sing the first one again, with more elaborate ornamentation.
Deus ex machina: Literally, “God from the machine.” A happy ending, de rigeur in opera seria, arising not from the choices of the protagonist but from some exterior force, such as a god who enters on a theatrical machine (resembling a cloud, a thunderbolt, a rainbow, etc.) and who rewards the good, punishes the wicked, etc..
Diva: Literally, "goddess." A leading soprano deified by her fans. Not always a compliment!
Duet: A piece of music sung jointly by two characters.
English Captions: Translations of the sung words, projected onto a screen above the stage. Also known as surtitles, supertitles, supratitles, and projected titles.
Ensemble: Literally, "together." Any piece in which more than one character sings at the same time: duets, trios, quartets, quintets, sextets, octets, nonets, concertantes, and choruses.
Entr’acte: A piece of orchestral music played before the curtain goes up on Act 2 (or a later act).
Falsetto: The high-pitched sound a male singer can make by ‘falsifying’ the voice, vibrating only part of the vocal chord.
Folk Opera: A kind of opera concerning not fancy people and aristocrats but the common clay of the nation. Usually extremely patriotic and upbeat, sometimes incorporating folk music or music written in imitation of folk music.
Gesamtkunstwerk: Literally, “collected art work,” a fusion of all the arts into one unified whole—music, poetry, drama, dance, and the visual arts.
Grand Opera: A kind of opera, popular in nineteenth century Paris, famous for elaborate pomp and pageantry. It features huge casts, ballet sequences, garbled history, and tragic stories with crazy endings.
Intermezzo: A piece of orchestral music played in the middle of an opera (popular in verismo opera).
Leitmotif: Literally, "leading motive." A musical idea (as brief as three notes, or as elaborate as a full symphonic subject) associated with a character, prop, situation, or some other element of the story, which reappears and changes as the story unfolds. The leitmotifs are the themes of the opera.
Libretto: Literally, "little book." A publication with all the words in an opera.
Liebestod: Literally, "love-death." The final aria in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, in which Isolde dies (of medically obscure causes) and is united with her dead lover Tristan. More generally, popular type of ending to late-nineteenth century operas, in which lovers are united by death.
Maestro: Literally, "master." A polite way to address a conductor or another bigwig at an opera company.
Mezzo-soprano: Female singer with an intermediate voice range.
Motif: A musical idea that appears again and again in an opera. Unlike a leitmotif, a motif does not evolve or change.
Music Drama: A kind of opera, promoted by Richard Wagner as the solution to everything that was wrong with the world, in which the music is there to serve the drama—not the other way around.
Opera Buffa: Literally, "buffoon opera." A kind of Italian opera with silly characters in ridiculous situations, fun, bubbly music which functions as a laugh track, and happy endings.
Opéra Comique: A kind of French opera, popular throughout the nineteenth century with the bourgeois classes. Often features spoken dialogue, humor, and sentimental happy endings.
Opera Seria: Literally, “Serious opera.” A kind of Italian opera with noble, heroic characters facing—and overcoming—formidable problems. Normally ends happily; see deus ex machina.
Operetta: Literally, “Little opera.” A kind of entertainment, popular between about 1850 and World War I, using music to ornament or decorate a light-hearted drama.
Orchestra pit: The area jutting out from beneath the stage, where the orchestra is to be found.
Orchestration: The assignment of different instruments to different musical lines. Normally a later stage in the composition process. (Some composers just make indications and let others figure out the details.)
Overture: An elaborate piece of music played by the orchestra before the opera begins. In some cases it tells the story or introduces the themes of the opera, but sometimes it doesn’t have much to do with its opera.
Pants Role: Male character sung by a woman, often a mezzo-soprano. Also known as “Trouser Role.” (Long ago it was unusual to see women’s legs in public; thus the appeal of this casting choice.)
Patter: Lots of words sung very quickly, one note per syllable, or all chattered away on the same note. A popular form of declamation in comic opera.
Prelude: A really short overture or entr’acte which sets the scene and begins telling the story musically.
Prima donna: Literally, “first lady.” The soprano with the most arias. Also refers to any demanding, egotistical colleague who you wish were not on your team.
Quartet: A piece of music sung by four characters simultaneously.
Quintet: A piece of music sung by five characters simultaneously.
Recitative: Connective tissue music, good for speedy plot exposition or warming up for a big aria. In earlier opera, accompanied by harpsichord or continuo, not orchestra.
Score: A publication with all the notes (and words) in an opera. A “full score” shows the music played by each member of the orchestra; in a “piano-vocal score,” all those orchestral parts are arranged to be played by one pianist.
Sextet: A piece of music sung by six characters simultaneously.
Singspiel: Literally, “Song-Play.” A kind of German opera, popular beginning in the late 18th century, featuring spoken dialogue, humor, and happy endings.
Soprano: Female singer with a high voice range.
Supernumerary: A “spear carrier” or non-singing extra; often servants, soldiers, or hordes of unidentified people who fill the stage for crowd scenes.
Supertitles: Translations of the sung words, projected onto a screen above the stage. Also known as English captions. surtitles, supratitles, and projected titles.
Tenor: Male singer with a high range.
Trio: A piece of music sung by three characters simultaneously.
Trouser Role: Male character sung by a woman, often a mezzo-soprano. Also known as “Pants Role.” (Long ago it was unusual to see women’s legs in public; thus the appeal of this casting choice.)
Verismo: A kind of opera, popular in late nineteenth century Italy, full of blood-and-guts realism, gritty situations, lowlifes knifing each other, and wildly passionate vocalism.