The Ultimate Opera Dictionary

The premiere performance of the opera, L’Orfeo (The Legend of Orpheus) in 1607, composed by Claudio Monteverdi, proved to be the beginning of a new musical genre that swept the world and is considered the epitome of musical sophistication even today. A few earlier compositions by others were penned before 1607 but L’Orfeo is the earliest opera that still enjoys frequent production today; it is presented in Mantua every year on February 24, the anniversary of its premiere. Italy during the Baroque era gave us both opera and the orchestra, in an effort to revive the dramatic spirit of ancient Greek theater. The orchestra’s musical accompaniment first enhanced the drama on stage but soon gained equal importance in its own right. As the art form developed in Italy, so did the terminology that describes the art.

Apron - the area of the stage that projects forward of the curtain; also called the thrust stage.

Aria - a highly expressive song performed solo and usually accompanied by music. The first aria was sung in the 14th century; one popular aria of today is “Habanera,” from Georges Bizet’s Carmen.

Ballad Opera - usually involves a story, heavy with satire and often racy, that features characters of low class experiencing a shift in moral values. The spoken word is used more frequently than song, which is used as a tool to advance the plot. The first ballad opera, The Beggar’s Opera, written by John Gay in 1728 is thought to have been influenced by burlesque and vaudeville performance.

Baritone - the male voice sung in the mid-range, between a tenor and a bass. In Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Rigoletto, the lead character, Rigoletto, is a baritone.

Baroque - the heavily detailed style of opera written and first performed during the 17th and 18th centuries. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Vivaldi are composers of this era.

Bass - the lowest range male singing voice, usually classified as the range between second F below middle C to the E above middle C. The title role in The Marriage of Figaro, by Mozart, is sung in bass.

Basso Buffo - basso buffo (funny) roles are often allocated to the story’s male antagonist but minor characters also sing basso buffo as a means of comic relief. In Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, the character of Don Bartolo is sung in basso buffo.

Basso Cantante - translated to English as singing bass, this male voice is higher, more lyrical, and sung in a speedy vibrato. The character, Mephistopheles, in Charles Gounod’s Faust is performed as a basso cantante.

Basso Profundo - the very lowest male voice type, often described as projecting the voice as solidly as a wall. In Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio, the Rocco role is sung is the lyrical basso profundo style; the Grand Inquisitor role in Verdi’s Don Carlo is sung as dramatic basso profundo.

Bel Canto - “beautiful singing” typically refers to the smooth, rich, and sophisticated style of Italian opera of the mid-19th century. Three Italian composers - Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti, and Gioachino Rossini - are most closely associated with the bel canto.

Blocking - similar to choreography, blocking directs the actors’ movements on the operatic stage.

Burletta - these “little jokes,” or farces, were first used for comic relief between acts of an opera seria but proved popular enough to become a separate genre of light opera.

Cadenza - from Latin for “to fall,” the cadenza is a highly stylized solo sung at the end of a major scene or song; often done is free style to showcase a virtuoso performance. The female lead in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera sings a cadenza.

Counterpoint - two voices singing at the same time but using different lyrics and rhythms in a point-against-point style. Popular in the Renaissance and Baroque periods but also popular in contemporary music of all genres; the music of Johann Sebastian Bach frequently incorporates the counterpoint, as does the music of Irving Berlin. The Simon & Garfunkel song, “Scarborough Fair / Canticle,” is a familiar example of counterpoint singing.

Diva - from the Latin word for goddess, a diva is a highly-acclaimed female opera singer.

Duet - two singers performing at the same time; the counterpoint is a form of duet. The opera buffa, Tartuffe, written by American composer, Kirke Mechem, relies heavily on duets.

Falsetto - method of singing most often employed by male tenors; characterized by singing in an unnaturally high, or false, voice, usually for comedic effect.

Floritura - a intricate song with dramatic peaks and depth that takes the female voice from high C to very lowest depths of her range. The role of Abigalle in Verdi’s Nabucco is said to be so challenging, thanks to the floritura it contains, that legendary soprano, Maria Callas, would not take on the role once her reputation was firmly established.

Imbroglio - a plot that involves a series of complicated twists, confusion, and embarrassing situations; from the verb “to embroil.” Pasquale Anfossi’s opera buffa, L’Imbroglio Delle Tre Spose (The Cheat of the Three Spouses), is a good example.

Libretto - the libretto, little book, is the written text of the opera, including plot, lyrics, and stage directions.

Maestro - usually refers to the conductor, or “master” of the orchestra for an operatic performance but can also describe a distinguished member of the orchestra as well.

Mezzo Soprano - this “middle” soprano voice falls between the high soprano and low contralto female ranges. The role of Carmen in the Bizet opera of the same name is both a dramatic and lyrical mezzo soprano.

Opera Buffa - an operatic comedy about everyday, ordinary characters. Critics claim the last true opera buffa was Crispino e La Comare (The Cobbler and the Fairy), a collaboration of brothers Luigi and Federico Ricci which premiered in 1850 in Venice.

Opera Seria - an operatic melodrama in “serious” style especially popular with the aristocracy, members of which often joined the cast. The opera seria dealt with heavy-minded mythological or classical subjects of interest to the upper classes but the genre went quickly out of fashion after the French Revolution. Joseph Haydn, Georg Friedrich Handel, and Mozart were popular composers of opera seria.

Operetta - the “little opera” is a form of opera light in both theme and music, with the plot conveyed by the liberal use of spoken word; operettas are usually rather short in length, too. Johann Strauss, Jr., composed a significant number of operettas, with Die Fledermaus (The Bat) becoming his most-often performed example. 

Opus - in Latin, the word means “work” or “labor” and refers to an individual piece; its plural form is opera. Many composers number each opus instead of giving it a name. The opera, Samson and Delilah, is Opus 47 from Camille Saint-Saens.

Oratorio - an extensive musical composition that includes an orchestra, choir, and solo performances; unlike an opera, the oratorio does not include theatric performance, character interaction, costumes, or props. Oratorios are usually of a religious nature; George Frederick Handel’s Messiah is an excellent example.

Polyphony - a musical composition that involves two or more voices singing in harmony but with separate melodies.

Prima Donna - this “first lady,” or lead female singer of an operatic performance. Leontyne Price, famous for her portrayal of the title character in Verdi’s Aida, was the first African-American to become a prima donna at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City; Maria Callas and Beverly Sills are other prima donnas of recent note.

Prime Uomo - the “first man,” or lead male singer, usually a tenor, of an operatic performance; some famous prime uomos include tenors Enrico Caruso, Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, 

Proscenium - Latin for “front of the scenery,” a theater’s proscenium is the archway that defines the front part of the stage forward of the curtain.

Recitativo - a song delivered in the style and rhythm of speaking instead of the flow of singing. The invention of the recitativo style is attributed to the Florentine musician/composer Vincenzo Galilei, astronomer Galileo Galilei’s father. Rossini’s opera, The Barber of Seville, and his La Cenerentola contain recitatives.

Soubrette - a female actor playing a supporting role; usually portrayed as a young flirtatious ingenue in a comical or sexually provocative fashion, such as the stereotypical chambermaid. Soubrette roles are most often associated with operettas and comic operas, such as Franz Lehar’s operetta, The Merry Widow.

Tenor - the highest singing range for mature male opera singers. Almost all leading roles for men in opera call for tenors, such as the role of Tristan in Wilhelm Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.

Twelve Tone - a musical technique, also called dodecaphony, that incorporates all 12 notes in a chromatic scale, where each note is a half step different from the next. The twelve-tone technique, invented in the 1920s by Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg, avoids emphasizing any single note while utilizing each note an equal number of times.

Vibrato - a technique applied to singing and playing music that uses slight, rapid variations (vibrations) in the pitch of a sustained note for dramatic effect.