Introduction to opera

A glossary of opera terms

Confused by opera terminology? From arias to vibrato, our glossary of opera terms will bring you up to speed.


A piece for one voice in an opera, ie a song for a solo singer. It derives from the Greek and Latin ‘aer’, meaning ‘air’.


The middle male singing voice, situated between the bass and tenor ranges. A baritone in opera often portrays either the villain, the tenor’s rival in love, or his best mate.


The lowest male singing voice. In serious operas, the basses usually play authority figures such as fathers, monarchs or priests, but sometimes they portray incarnations of the devil. In comic opera, though, the bass is often a buffoonish old man.


A passage, usually at the end of a musical number, in which singers perform a few improvised measures of vocally showy music to personalise their characters and show off their virtuosity.


Elaborately ornamented vocal music featuring runs up and down the scale, trills, wide melodic leaps and many fast notes per syllable, used both to depict a character’s heightened emotional state and to display a singer’s ‘athletic’ virtuosity. Many people would describe this as ‘typical opera singing’.


An accompaniment for dry or ‘secco’ recitative, written for a harpsichord or other keyboard instrument together with a bass instrument (eg a cello). It usually follows and comments upon the dramatic action.


The lowest female voice. Similar to mezzo-sopranos, they frequently embody female villains or ‘trouser roles’, ie roles written for men with higher voices (such as in Baroque opera).


The highest male voice. Countertenors frequently sing Baroque opera but there is also some modern repertoire for them.


Literally ‘goddess’, or an important female opera star, also sometimes called a ‘prima donna’ (‘first lady’).

Dramma giocoso

A sub-category of opera buffa that arose in the mid-18th-century and included sentimentality, pathos and sometimes even glimmers of tragedy amid the comedy and despite a happy ending. It also featured upper-, middle- and lower-class characters instead of just the latter.


Literally ‘little book’, the text sung in an opera or oratorio.


The middle female singing voice. Mezzo-sopranos often portray maternal figures, villainesses, or seductive anti-heroines. They also often assume ‘trouser roles’, characters meant to be men.


In opera, a solo instrumental part in a vocal number designed not just to accompany but to support the principal vocal part or to throw it into relief. Sometimes as flashy as the vocal part itself.


A play in musical form. An art form in which singers and instrumentalists perform a dramatic work that unites a libretto (text) and a musical score in a theatrical setting.

Opera buffa

A light-hearted genre of opera, originating in the 18th century, which depicts everyday characters contending with the familiar challenges and foibles of life in an amusing way.


A style of vocal music that follows the rhythms and pitches of ordinary speech. Syllabic recitativo secco (‘dry recitative’, accompanied only by continuo) is used to advance the action, while the more emotional recitativo accompagnato (‘accompanied recitative’, with full orchestra) ratchets up the dramatic temperature, leading to full-blown arias and ensembles.


The highest and most common female singing voice. Most often young romantic heroines of both comic and serious operas.


Projection of the opera’s libretto – often in English translation – on a display just above the stage.


The highest natural adult male singing voice. In 18th and 19th-century opera, leading tenors are almost always the romantic heroes, although there are a few cads among them.


The very rapid alternation of pitch between two adjacent notes, used as a virtuosic vocal effect.


A gentle vibration created by slight variations of pitch in a singing voice. This adds warmth, richness and expressiveness to its tone.

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