ACT: A portion of an opera designated by the composer, which has a dramatic structure of its own.
ARIA: A solo piece written for a main character, which focuses on the character’s emotion.
ARTIST MANAGER OR ARTIST REPRESENTATIVE: An agent who represents artists by publicizing their talents, finding roles for them, negotiating their contracts and handling other business matters for them.
BARITONE: The male singing voice that is higher than bass but lower than tenor.
BASS: The lowest male singing voice.
BATON: A short stick that the conductor uses to lead the orchestra.
BEL CANTO: An Italian phrase literally meaning “beautiful singing.” A traditional Italian style of singing that emphasizes tone, phrasing, coloratura passages and technique. Also refers to opera written in this style.
BUFFO: From the Italian for “buffoon.” A singer of comic roles (basso-buffo) or a comic opera (opera-buffa).
BLOCKING: Directions given to actors for on-stage movements and actions.
BRAVO (BRAH-voh): Literally, 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 a group of performers.
CABALETTA (cah-bah-LEHT-tah): Second part of a two-part aria, always in a faster tempo than the first part.
CADENZA (kuh-DEN-zuh): A passage of singing, often at the end of an aria, which shows off the singer’s vocal ability.
CANZONE, CANZONETTA (Cahn-TSOH-neh, cahn-tsoh-NEHT-tah): A folk-like song commonly used in opera buffa.
CAVATINA (cah-vah-TEE-nah): The meaning of this term has changed over the years. It now usually refers to the opening, slow section of a two part aria. In Rossini’s time it referred to the entrance, or first aria sung by a certain character. Norma’s “Casta diva” is an example of a cavatina in both senses.
CHORUS: A group of singers, singing together, who sometimes portray servants, party guests or other unnamed characters; also the music written for them.
CHORUS MASTER: The one in charge of choosing chorus members and rehearsing them for performance. If there is a backstage chorus, it is usually conducted by the chorus master who is in communication with the conductor of the orchestra.
CLAQUE (klak): A group of people hired to sit in the audience and either applaud enthusiastically to ensure success or whistle and boo to create a disaster. In past years, leading singers were sometimes blackmailed to pay a claque to insure that claqueurs would not create a disturbance. Even now, a claque is sometimes used but rarely acknowledged.
COLORATURA: Elaborate ornamentation of vocal music written using many fast notes and trills.
COMMEDIA DELL’ARTE (cohm-MEH-dee-ah dehl-AHR-teh): A type of comic opera popular in Italy in the 16th to 18th centuries that involved improvisation using stock characters and gestures. The characters were often masked to represent certain archetypes.
COMPOSER: A person who writes music.
CONDUCTOR: The leader of the orchestra, sometimes called maestro.
CONTINUO (cohn-TEE-noo-oh): An extemporized chordal accompaniment for recitativo secco, usually by a harpsichord, cello or double bass. Opera seria continuo often used an ensemble of harpsichord and theorbo (member of the lute family). Opera buffa continuo used a single keyboard and string bass.
CONTRALTO (kuhn-TRAL-toh): The lowest female singing voice.
CORD, VOCAL: The wishbone-shaped edges of muscles in the lower part of the throat whose movements creates variations in pitch as air passes between them. Often spelled incorrectly as “chord.”
COUNTERTENOR: The countertenor is a natural tenor (or sometimes baritone) with an elevated range. With training and practice this higher range, similar to that of a woman alto, becomes the natural voice.
COVER: The name given to an understudy in opera; someone who replaces a singer in case of illness or other misfortune.
CRESCENDO (kri-SHEN-doh): A gradual increase in volume. Orchestral crescendos were one of Rossini’s trademarks.
CUE: In opera, a signal to a singer or orchestra member to begin singing or playing.
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 curtain call. Often, however, the bows are taken on the full stage with the curtain open.
CUT: To omit some of the original material from the score.
DA CAPO ARIA (DAH CAH-poh): An aria in the form ABA. A first section is followed by a shorter second section. Then the first is repeated, usually with added ornamentation.
DIAPHRAGM: A muscle beneath the lungs and above the stomach which acts as a trampoline does, pushing the air from the lungs at a desired rate.
DIRECTOR (STAGE DIRECTOR): A person who instructs the singer-actors on their on-stage movements and in the interpretation of their roles.
DIVA: Literally “goddess,” it refers to an important female opera star. The masculine form is divo.
DRAMATIC (Voice type): The heaviest voice, capable of sustained declamation and a great deal of power, even over the largest operatic orchestra of about 80 instruments. This description applies to all voice ranges from soprano to bass.
DRESSER: A member of the backstage staff who helps the artists change their costumes. The principal singers usually have their own dresser. Supers and chorus members share dressers.
DRESS REHEARSAL: A final rehearsal that uses 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: An extended musical passage performed by two singers. They may or may not sing simultaneously or on the same musical line.
DYNAMIC: The degree of loudness and quietness in music.
ENCORE: Literally means “again.” It used to be the custom for a singer to repeat a popular aria if the audience called “encore” loudly enough. This is still done in the middle of an opera in countries such as Italy, but it is rare elsewhere. Soloists frequently give encores at the end of a concert but not an opera.
ENSEMBLE: Two or more people singing at the same time, or the music written for such a group.
FALSETTO: A method of singing above the natural range of the male voice. Often used in opera for comic effects such as a man imitating a woman.
FINALE: The last musical number of an opera or the last number of an act.
GENERAL DIRECTOR: The head of an opera company. The one ultimately responsible for all artistic and financial aspects of everything in which the company is involved.
GRAND OPERA: Strictly speaking, opera without spoken dialogue. It is usually used to refer to opera which uses a large orchestra and chorus and grand themes.
HELDEN: Prefix meaning “heroic.” Applicable to other voices but usually used in Heldentenor.
IMPRESARIO: A person who sponsors entertainment. In opera, the general director of an opera company.
INTERLUDE: A short piece of instrumental music played between scenes or acts.
LEITMOTIV (LEIT-moh-tif) or MOTIF: A short, recurring musical phrase associated with a particular character or event.
LIBRETTO: The text or words of an opera.
MAESTRO (mah-EHS-troh): Literally “master;” used as a courtesy title for the conductor. The masculine ending is used for both men and women.
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. During dress rehearsals singers try to sing at full voice for at least some of the time.
MELODRAMA: In a technique which originated with the French; short passages of music alternating with spoken words.
MEZZO-SOPRANO: The middle female singing voice, lower than soprano, but higher than contralto.
OPERA BUFFA (BOOF-fah): An opera about ordinary people, usually, but not always comic, which first developed in the 18th century.
OPERA SERIA (SEH-ree-ah): A “serious” opera. The usual characters are gods, goddesses or ancient heroes. Rossini was one of the last to write true opera serie.
OPERETTA or MUSICAL COMEDY: A play, some of which is spoken but with many musical numbers.
OVERTURE: An orchestral introduction to an opera.
PARLANDO (pahr-LAHN-doh): A style of singing like ordinary speech. It can occur in the middle of an aria.
PATTER SONG: A song or aria in which the character sings as many words as possible in a short
amount of time.
PRIMA DONNA: Literally “first lady;” the leading woman singer in an opera. Because of the way some have behaved in the past, it often refers to someone who acts in a superior and demanding fashion. The term for the leading man is primo uomo.
PRINCIPAL: A major singing role, or the singer who performs such a role.
RECITATIVE: Words sung in a conversational style, usually to advance the plot. Not to be confused with aria.
REDUCTION: In a piano reduction, the orchestra parts are condensed into music which can be played by one person on the piano.
RÉPERTOIRE (REP-er-twahr): Stock pieces that a singer or company has ready to present. Often refers to a company’s current season.
RÉPÉTITEUR (reh-peh-ti-TEUR): A member of the music staff who plays the piano for rehearsals and, if necessary, the piano or harpsichord during performances. They frequently coach singers in their roles and assist with orchestra rehearsals.
SCENA (SCHAY-nah): Literally “a scene;” a dramatic episode which consists of a variety of numbers with a common theme. A typical scena might consist of a recitative, a cavatina and a cabaletta.
SCORE: The written music of an opera or other musical work.
SERENADE: A piece of music honoring someone or something.
SEXTET: A piece for six singers.
SINGSPIEL (ZING-shpeel): German opera with spoken dialogue and usually, but not necessarily, a comic or sentimental plot.
SITZPROBE (ZITS-proh-bah): Literally, “seated rehearsal,” it is the first rehearsal of the singers with the orchestra and no acting.
SOPRANO: The highest female singing voice.
SOUBRETTE: A pert, young female character with a light soprano voice.
SPINTO (Voice type): A lyric voice that has the power and incisiveness for dramatic climaxes.
SURTITLES: Translations of the words being sung, or the actual words if the libretto is in the native language, that are projected on a screen above the stage.
TENOR: The highest common adult male singing voice. (Countertenors are uncommon.)
TESSITURA: Literally “texture,” it defines the average pitch level of a role. Two roles may have the same range from the lowest to the highest note, but the one with a greater proportion of high notes has the higher tessitura.
TRAGÉDIE LYRIQUE: Early form of French opera that recognized a distinction between the main scenes and divertissements consisting of choruses, dances, etc.
TREMOLO: The quick, continuous reiteration of a pitch.
TRILL: Very quick alternation of pitch between two adjacent notes.
TRIO: An ensemble of three singers or the music that is written for three singers.
TROUSER ROLE: A role depicting a young man or boy but sung by a woman.
VERISMO: Describes the realistic style of opera that started in Italy at the end of the nineteenth century. Although the peak of the movement was past by the time of Puccini, his operas are a modified form of verismo.
VIBRATO: A natural wavering of frequency (pitch) while singing a note. It is usually inadvertent as opposed to a trill.
VOCAL COACH: A member of an opera company who coaches singers, helping them with the pronunciation, singing and interpretation of a role.