Rough guide to opera

Opera is…

A dramatic art which uses music, singing, words and drama, movement, dance, set design, lighting and costume to tell a story! The emotional content is in the music as much as the words and drama, telling stories of love and hate, death and power. Opera doesn’t try to reflect real life like a TV drama (it couldn’t with all that singing!) but steps into the realms of deep human experience. In the overpowering combination of singing, music and visual spectacle it can evoke a strong response from an audience.


Opera was invented in Italy in the 1600s and has been popular ever since. The cost of opera (tickets can be pricey) is probably where it gets its ‘elitist’ image but although the first operas were for the aristocracy it quickly became the entertainment of the masses. For centuries it was where people went to socialise, hear their favourite singers and chat to their friends. Only in the late 19th century were audiences first expected to watch the performance in silence. Opera has become very expensive to put on as it involves a huge number of performers (soloists, chorus, orchestra, dancers, actors), and highly skilled staff behind the scenes making costumes, creating the set and running the show, who put together and rehearse each opera.


Obviously singers weren’t able to use microphones when opera was invented, and so opera singers have always had to develop large voices to fill the auditorium. At the same time they try to create the ‘perfect’ vocal sound which also has emotion and dramatic character. It takes years of training to crack this! Singers and the roles they play are classified by their vocal ranges.

The different voices are:

Soprano – Highest female voice, often plays the heroine, dies a lot

Mezzo-soprano – Not quite as high as a soprano

Contraltlo – low-pitched female voice, often more mature characters or mothers

Countertenor – Really high male voice, falsetto, like Justin Timberlake/Pharrell Williams; these were once the superstars of opera

Tenor – High male voice, from the 19th century became the hero character when countertenors went out of fashion

Baritone – Bit lower than a tenor

Bass – Right at the bottom. Often plays comic characters or those with dubious moral fibre

The chorus – A body of singers who sing and act to make the crowd scenes more plausible

Songs and dialogue

Traditional opera consists of different modes of singing:

Recitative (known as recit.) – Drives the plot and passages of dialogue through speech-like singing

Arias – Songs where the plot pauses for a character to reflect on their emotional state

Choruses – Rousing group numbers sung by the chorus

Ensembles – Where a number of soloists sing together. They are really useful dramatic tool and a great way to end an act, where each character can reflect on a situation from their perspective at the same time. Mozart wrote great ensembles!

The orchestra

Instruments have changed since the early operas of the 1600s, and the number of instruments in a standard opera orchestra has grown. By the time of Wagner (late 19th century) the orchestra was enormous and singers had to develop bigger voices in order to be heard. The orchestra is normally in the pit half under the stage, which helps stop them drowning out the singers.

Theatre music

The librettist – Writes the libretto (the script)

The composer – Writes the music

These two really need to have a good understanding of theatre and how to tell a story. It’s more than just writing music or words. It’s a hard job and what we now know as ‘the repertoire’ is the best of the bunch from the last 400 years. Till around the 19th century composers would churn out operas really quickly (in as little as three weeks sometimes), and the local opera house would always be performing a new piece. It’s actually a lot closer to how the popular music industry works today.

Opera – then and now

Opera has always reflected the time it was created in, and has often contained political and social messages. Many of them caused uproar and scandal and were closely censored by governments. When an opera is put on stage today it needs to be brought to life by modern artists; the key people are:

The director (who creates a concept for the production)

The conductor (who decides how to interpret the music, and makes sure everyone sings together during the show!)

The designer (who works with the director to infuse the ideas of the production into the stage design)

Even though some operas are hundreds of years old they can still be exciting and audiences can look at these works with a fresh eye.