2021-2022 Season

Opera Glossary

4 Sets of Lingo to Learn @Opera
by Pollyanna Eyler, dramaturg

Sprinkle this opera jargon into your conversations and converse like a pro!

4 Types of Opera:

    • grand opera – a production sporting elaborate sets and costume designs; typically with a large cast.
    • opera buffa – a comedic opera infusing supernatural elements to create high melodrama.
    • opera seria – a serious, formal opera, often tragic.
    • verismo –  a documentary style opera, exposing the realities of life.


4 Forms of Opera Music:

    • aria –  usually an emotionally laden solo, often containing a cadenza ending of high, fast notes.
    • belcanto – Italian for “beautiful singing.” (1600-1750) a Baroque Era style of opera singing with an emphasis on tone, volume, and controlling one’s breathing.
    • chorus vs. ensemble – while the chorus is a group of people singing together (either in parts or the same line), an ensemble refers specifically to a group singing parts (2 = duet; 3 = trio; 4 = quartet, etc).
    • singspiel vs. recitative – while singspiel is a German style of opera, with a mix of singing and speaking (often a fanciful opera buffa); recitative refers to any portion of an opera in which characters use speech-like singing to move the plot forward.


4 Opera Positions*

    • chorus master – rehearses with the vocalists, preparing them for the performance. 
    • coach conductor – conducts the opera orchestra and vocalists during the performance.
    • director – directs the vocalist’s acting and the performer’s and scenery’s placement and movements on the stage.
    • rehearsal pianist – it would be impractical to have an entire orchestra at every rehearsal, so a rehearsal pianist plays the accompaniment during the rehearsal process.

* Read about specific people in these positions in the bios.


Opera Vocal Types* – From villains to heroes and heroines, here’s 4 of each of the basic upper and lower ranges:

4 Higher Vocal Characters

  • soprano – highest female vocal range, a coloratura is an agile soprano voice able to sing runs and trills (often plays the young girl or heroine, sometimes referred to as the Prima Donna).
  • mezzo-soprano – female vocal range, lower than soprano (for mothers, servants, seducers, female villains, or trouser parts, women in men’s parts)
  • contralto – lowest female vocal range (for comedic roles, gypsies, witches, or other old female characters)
  • boy soprano – the treble vocal range of a boy’s unchanged voice in the soprano range (reserved solely for children’s parts)

4 Lower Vocal Characters

  • countertenor – rarely used today, this is the highest male vocal range, also reaching within a woman’s vocal range (mostly reserved for early operas and religious oratorios)
  • tenor – usually the highest male vocal range (often the love interest and/or the hero)
  • baritone – the mid-range and most common of male vocal range (could be any type of character, hero to villain)
  • bass – the lowest male vocal range; (either the villain or the king, unless opera buffa, then the fool or elderly)

* Read about your favorite vocalists in the bios.


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