An A-Z guide to opera

April 17, 2019

Do you need to brush up on your opera terminology? Read our guide to help you know your contraltos from your countertenors and you arias from your elbow.

Aria a piece for one voice i.e. a song for a solo singer. Such as Summertime from Porgy and Bess. Arias allow a single character to express an idea or emotion. They do not drive action forward but are more of a moment of reflection.

Baritone the middle of male singing voices, situated between the bass and tenor. A baritone frequently portrays the villain. Some of the best known baritone roles in opera were created by Mozart, including Count Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro, and the title role in Don Giovanni.

Baroque opera the first ever operas from around 1600 by Baroque composers such as Monteverdi and Cavalieri.

Bass the lowest male singing voice. The basses are usually authoritative figures, such as priests, fathers, and monarchs; in comedic operas, the bass is often a foolish old man.

Bel Canto  the Italian for ‘beautiful singing’. A term used to indicate the elegant Italian vocal style of the late 18th and 19th centuries, such as in the operas of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. Our 2013 performance of Bellini’s  I Puritaniis picture below.

I Puritani by Vincenzo Bellini, performed in 2013 at Grange Park Opera

Cadenza a passage, usually towards the end of a musical number, in which singers perform a few improvised measures of vocally showy music to show off their technique; a brilliant flourish.

Chorus a group of singers with more than one singing part. The chorus in operas usually represents groups such as soldiers, peasants, nymphs and so on.

Contralto The lowest female singing voice. They are usually female villains.

Countertenor  the highest male voice, usually found in Baroque opera.

Duet  a song for two voices. This is the most common type of group singing in opera. Duets can express conflict or romance between lovers.  

Grand Opera a genre of 19th century opera, often in four or five acts and accompanied by large casts and orchestra and magnificent sets. They are often based on important historical events, such as Don Carlo, from our 2019 season and Faust by Gounod.

Clive Bayley as King Filippo II of Spain in our 2016 production of Don Carlo 

Libretto the opera’s text. Many composers worked with the same librettist, much like songwriters and lyricists.

Mezzo-soprano the middle female singing voice. Mezzo-sopranos often portray maternal figures, villainesses or anti heroines.   They often take on the “trouser role”, characters meant to be men.

Operetta a light opera, in terms of music and subject. The boundaries of musical and opera are often blurred in operetta.

Soprano the highest and most common singing voice. Sopranos are most often young romantic heroines of both comic and serious operas. Joyce DiDonato, who is performing for us on 11 July, is a world famous soprano.

Surtitles projection of the opera’s libretto above the stage, usually an English translation.

Tenor a male singing voice that lies between the countertenor and baritone. In 18th and 19th century opera, leading tenors are frequently the romantic heroes. Luciano Pavarotti was a tenor.

Trouser role a male character performed by a female singer (usually a mezzo-soprano).  Hänsel from Hänsel & Gretel from this season is a trouser role and will be sung by Caitlin Hulcup.

The set of Hansel & Gretel from RNCM