Introduction to opera

Music in opera

Explore the different voice types of opera singers and find out more about the role of the conductor.

Want to know what the difference is between a soprano and a mezzo-soprano? Ever wondered what a conductor actually does? Our beginner’s guide to Music in opera will fill in the blanks.


Voice types in opera


The highest female voice type usually sounds brilliant and silvery but can have great underlying warmth.

Sopranos usually sing the leading female role and can be anything from virtuous heroine to coquettish love interest.

Famous roles for sopranos: the title role in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Poppea in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea and Cio-Cio-San in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

Voice types in opera

Mezzo soprano

The second-highest female voice type usually sounds strong, slightly darker and velvety.

The most famous role for mezzo-soprano is Carmen in Bizet’s opera of the same title. Mezzo-sopranos often sing female villains and trouser roles – roles in which they embody men. (These are most of the principal roles in Baroque opera!)

Famous roles for mezzo-sopranos: Octavian in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, the Composer in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos and Cherubino in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro.

Voice types in opera


Contralto voices usually sound deep, full and rich. The lowest female voice is rare, and as only a few operatic roles are written for them, many contraltos also sing mezzo-soprano roles.

Contralto roles can be feminine in the traditional sense, but also frequently embody female villains or ‘trouser roles’ – roles written for men with higher voices (such as in Baroque opera).

Famous roles for contraltos: Mother Goose in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, Cornelia in Giulio Cesare, Hippolyta in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Lucretia in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia.

Voice types in opera


The second-highest of the male singing voices sounds rich, heroic and powerful.

Tenors are typically the heroes and noble love interests (usually of the soprano) in most operas.

Famous tenor roles include: Walther von Stolzing in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Don Ottavio in Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Count Almaviva in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia.

Voice types in opera


The second-lowest male singing voice is in the same range as the typical male speaking voice. It is a strong, full voice.

Baritones usually play villains, comic characters, fathers or complex characters that require the depth and power of the baritone voice.

Famous baritone roles include: Hans Sachs in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Figaro in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia and the title role in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

Voice types in opera


Basses have the deepest singing voices and are quite rare. Their voices sound guttural and robust.

They frequently play authority figures such as priests and fathers as well as villains.

Famous bass roles include: Baron Ochs in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, Osmin in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Wotan in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Voice types in opera


The highest male voice is similar in pitch to the female contralto and is very rare. The countertenor voice sounds ethereal and otherworldly, which is often reflected in their characters.

Countertenors frequently sing Baroque opera (similar to mezzo-sopranos and contraltos who sing the same roles as ‘trouser roles’) but there is also some modern repertoire for them.

Famous countertenor roles include: Oberon in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Orpheus in Birtwistles’ The Second Mrs Kong and the title role in Glass’s Akhnaten.

How do singers warm up their voices?

International soprano Danielle de Niese talks about techniques she often uses to warm up her voice and prepare herself for tackling challenging notes on stage at Glyndebourne and around the world.

She’s clear that, when doing these exercises, she doesn’t feel pressure to sound perfect. Her focus for these warm-up exercises are instead to warm up her instrument and she compares this to warming up a body as an athlete.

The conductor

What does the conductor do?

Learns the work from the score, with other musical background/context and research of performance history

Talks with the director about the style and concept of the production

Studies the production design and sets

Rehearses with principals, chorus and piano in director-led sessions on set in the studio and then on stage with piano through to piano dress rehearsal

Separate rehearsals with orchestra only (no singers) at the latter stages

Stage rehearsals with full company and orchestra to musically and dramatically coordinate the production and balance between stage and orchestra pit

Conduct the premiere and performance run, keeping the production and interpretation fresh, energised and flexible through to the final performance

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