A Glossary of Opera Terms

Compiled by Tison Pugh

aria - a song for solo voice with instrumental accompaniment. Usually arias emphasize musical expression more than the text. The text is often reflective, rather than descriptive of action. Arias usually provide lyric interludes that temporarily pull the listener away from the action of the story.

baritone - a male voice with a range between that of the low bass voice and the high tenor. Baritone parts may require either expressive, lyricial singing or they may be more heroic.

bass - the lowest male voice.

coloratura - a type of soprano, generally, but also the description of singing which pertains to great feats of agility--fast singing, high singing, trills, embellishments and so forth.

comprimario - a singer who takes the secondary character roles in an opera, from the Italian which means "next to the first"; confidantes, maids, servants, messengers and medical personnel generally fit under the heading of comprimario roles.

contralto - the lowest female voice; the term itself comes from two Italian words which signify against ("contra") the high ("alto") voice.  In baroque operas, the contralto generally represented a certain character type on stage: either comic or spooky and other worldly, or just plain matronly.

countertenor - a high male voice, generally singing within the female contralto or mezzo soprano range; popular in the baroque period, the
countertenor frequently portrayed young, virile men or innocent, blushing adolescents--the voices were generally quite powerful, and not
considered effeminate. This vocal range is sometimes referred to as "male alto."

diva - a female opera star of great rank or pretension; the original Italian word means "goddess."

entr'acte - a musical composition played between acts or between scenes within an act of an opera.

grand opera - opera which is sung from start to finish, as opposed to opera which may have spoken dialogue; grand opera frequently treats serious, dramatic subjects.

imbroglio - operatic scene in which diversity of rhythm and melody create chaos and confusion; the original meaning of the Italian word was "intrigue."

intermezzo - a short musical entertainment, which in its earliest manifestation might be played between the acts of a longer, more serious
operatic work; the intermezzo was almost always of light hearted character, and never involved more than three or four singers.

leitmotiv - a short musical passage, sometimes no more than three or four notes, which instantly calls to mind a character or situation in a
musical drama.

libretto - the text of an opera; the literal translation is "little book," which reminds us that in a Broadway show the texts of the songs are called the "lyrics" while the spoken text of the rest of the play is called the "book."

maestro - a title of courtesy, given, especially in Italy, to conductors, composers and directors; translation (from the Italian), "Master."

marking - the practice used by many singers to save their voices in rehearsals; singers will sing in what seems to be a mere whisper, or transpose the vocal lines so that they don't have to sing extremely high or low notes. This is done as a vocal protection--singing too strenuously, or without getting the voice properly warmed up can lead to vocal strain and severe throat problems.

mezza voce - literally, "medium voice," literally; when singing mezza voce, the singer reduces the volume so as to intensify the emotion. When marking, singers use a kind of mezza voce, but not for dramatic purposes; in performance, it should be intentional.

mezzo soprano - the female voice range which lies between the soprano, which is the highest, and the contralto.

operetta - light, frothy musical entertainments which generally do not pertain to terrifically important subject material; spoken dialogue, dancing, practical jokes and mistaken identities seem to be the trademark of the operetta form.

orchestra - the group of musicians which accompany a staged presentation; in early operas (from 1600 to about 1750) the orchestra might consist of a few strings, pairs of oboes, bassoons, flutes, trumpets and continuo (see above). The orchestra grew from the time of Mozart through Beethoven, Berlioz, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini and Richard Strauss so that nowadays an opera orchestra can easily consist of 90 to 100 players.

overture - the instrumental introduction to a musical drama or oratorio; frequently the overture will incorporate musical themes that will later be heard in the course of the opera.

polyphony - literally, "many voices"; the mixing together of several melodic lines in a pleasant fashion.

prelude - the instrumental introduction to an individual act within a musical drama, whether opera or operetta; some composers use the words overture, prelude and entr'acte interchangeably.

prima donna - the female star of an opera cast; in Verdi's time it was considered a matter of course to differentiate the roles in terms of their dramatic and vocal importance, such as "Prima Donna," "Seconda Donna," "Terza Donna" and the like. It did not until recently come to describe the personality of the singer, rather than the importance of her role in the opera.

range - the division of the human voice, according to six basic types: soprano, mezzo soprano, contralto, tenor, baritone and bass.

soprano - the highest range of the female voice; the soprano voice ranges from lyric (a light, graceful quality) to dramatic (obviously fuller and heavier in tone).

sotto voce - a musical direction which asks the performer to sing, or play "under the voice," or in a subdued manner. Singing sotto voce can be compared to declaiming in a stage whisper and can be very effective in a large theatre.

supernumerary - a performer who appears in a non-singing role; a "super" might have a solo walk on to deliver a message, or might be included as part of a large processional, for example. In the old days, supers were often referred to as "spear carriers."

tempo - the speed of a musical passage or composition; the tempo may range from very slow ("largo" in Italian, "langsam" in German) to extremely fast ("presto" in Italian, "schnell" in German).

tenor - the highest natural male voice.