The Guide to Opera Terminology

Act: A section, or piece, of an opera; it usually has its own dramatic structure

Apron: The front part of the stage that lies between the curtain and the pit

Aria: A long, emotional solo sung by the main character of an opera

Aside: A comment or speech made by an actor onstage to the audience that is supposedly not heard by the other actors on stage

Banda: Instrumentalists in an opera who do not play in the pit, but instead play either onstage or backstage as part of the crowd

Baritone: A male singing voice, higher than a bass but lower than a tenor

Bass: A male singing voice, the lowest in the scale

Baton: A short stick used by a conductor to lead the singers onstage as well as the orchestra in the pit

Bel Canto: A style of Italian singing or an opera written in such style that emphasizes phrasing, tone, and technique; literally means “beautiful singing”

Buffo: The comedian of an opera; comes from the Italian term for “buffoon”

Blocking: Directions given to the actors by the director to let them know where to go and what movements to make for each scene

Bravo: A term shouted at the end of an operatic performance; “bravo” is shouted for a male, “brava” for a female, and “bravi” for a group of performers

Cabaletta: A faster, more upbeat, second half of an aria

Cadenza: A segment at the end of an aria that shows off a singer’s vocal ability

Canzone: A folk song used in a opera, usually sung by the buffo in a comedic way

Cavatina: The slower, first half of an aria; in the past it referred to the first aria sung by a character; sometimes instrumental rather than vocal

Choreographer: The individual who makes up the dances for an opera

Chorus: The group of singers who act as extra in an opera; they may be townspeople, party guests, etc.

Chorus Master: The individual in charge of the chorus; he chooses the chorus members and coordinates their rehearsals

Claque: People who are hired to sit in an audience to clap and applaud during a performance

Coloratura: Fast notes and trills written for vocals

Composer: An individual who writes music

Comprimario: A supporting actor or actress

Concertato: Soloists and the chorus who sing in the second movement of a central finale to form the lyrical climax

Concertmaster: The individual responsible for coordinating the orchestra; the responsibility generally falls to the first-chair violinist

Conductor: The individual who leads the orchestra and singers

Contralto: A female singing voice in the lower vocal range

Costume Designer: The individual who designs and/or chooses the costumes in cooperation with the director

Countertenor: A male with a tenor or baritone voice who can elevate his voice to that similar to a woman’s alto voice

Cover: An actor’s understudy, or the one who replaces an actor if he is ill for a performance

Crescendo: An increase in volume which is done gradually

Cue: A signal by the conductor for a singer to begin singing or an orchestra member to begin playing

Curtain Call: The bows at the end of the performance

Da Capo Aria: A n aria that follows a particular pattern of having a shorter section following a longer section with the first section repeated, usually with some added flair and ornamentation

Director: The individual who decides what the actors should do onstage with blocking and how they should interpret their roles

Diva: An important female actress or star; a male is referred to as a “divo”; the term often has a negative connotation now

Double Aria: A aria having two parts, the slower cavatina, and the faster cabaletta

Dresser: An individual backstage who helps to dress characters between scenes; a principle character will often have his/her own dresser

Dress Rehearsal: The final rehearsal before the opening night of a show; the rehearsal should run just as a show would run with costumes, lights, sounds, and orchestra

Duet: A song performed by two singers or musicians

Embellishment: The act of adding notes to a melody line

Encore: Historically, a repeat of an aria when shouted by an audience; rarely is it done today; also refers to any time a performer will come back out and perform either the same piece or a different piece when the audience applauds enthusiastically enough

Falsetto: Singing above the natural range of a vocal range; usually this is done by a male comically to imitate a woman

Finale: Refers to either the final song or number in an opera or the final scene

Fly: A space either above the stage or to the sides of the stage where members of the backstage crew use ropes and levers to raise and lower curtains and other pieces onto the stage

Grand Opera: Refers to an opera without any spoken dialogue; utilizes a large orchestra and chorus

Impresario: The general director of an opera company or someone who financially sponsors theatrical entertainment

Interlude: A short piece of music, instrumental, played between acts or scenes in an opera

Intermission: A break during the show, generally between acts, to give patrons the opportunity to stretch their legs or get a drink; usually lasts 15 or 20 minutes

Leitmotiv: A recurring musical sound that precipitates the appearance of a particular character or event

Librarian: The individual in charge of obtaining and preparing the musical scores for the orchestra; the librarian will note cuts or additions as needed

Libretto: Refers to the words in an opera

Lyrics: The sung words in a song

Maestro: Refers to the conductor; comes from the word “master,” but refers to male and female

Magic Opera: An opera that utilizes magic and often uses animals during the course of the show; the plot usually involves the rescue of one of the main characters

Makeup Designer: he individual who decides upon and applies the makeup for a theatrical production

Mark: The act of singing more softly than usual in order to save ones voice; an actor will “mark” his or her voice during rehearsals other than dress rehearsals

Masque: A theatrical performance that blends music, poetry, song, and dance

Melodrama: A passage of work that involves alternating dialogue with song

Mezzo-Soprano: A female singing voice, lower than a soprano but higher than an alto

Number Opera: Refers to an opera with various elements such as arias, recitative, ensembles, etc.

Opera: Comes from the Italian word “work” and refers to a theatrical performance that is sung rather than spoken

Opera Buffo: A performance that focuses on ordinary people; sometimes it is comedic in nature

Opera Seria: A performance that focuses on gods, goddesses, and heroes; considered a “serious” opera

Orchestra: The group of musicians who play in the pit and accompany the singers on the stage; led by the conductor

Overture: The musical introduction to a theatrical performance; many times it will be a combination of many of the songs of the show

Parlando: Singing that sounds like ordinary speech that may occur in the middle of an aria

Patter song: A song in which an actor sings an excessive number of words in a short amount of time

Pit: The area in the front of the stage or under the front part of the stage in which the orchestra sits during a theatrical performance; many times the pit can be covered by the stage when not in use

Pizzicato: The act of plucking the string of a stringed instrument rather than bowing

Prima Donna: T he leading lady in a theatrical production; the male counterpart is referred to as the “primo uomo”; often refers to sometimes who is overbearing and demanding due to a history of past leading men and women

Principal: The major singing role in a theatrical production

Production Manager: The administrator of a production; he or she will coordinate the designers, director, conductor, and all others necessary to ensure the success of a production

Prompt: An individual sometimes placed in a box at the very front of the stage who is responsible for feeding actors their lines in case they are forgotten

Props: Refers to all items used by actors on the stage

Property Manager: The individual responsible for making decisions on the props for a production; he will acquire or make any props needed for the show

Recitative: A song that is sung in a conversational style

Répertoire: A block of performance of pieces that a company can perform without any further preparation; usually part of a season of shows

Rigger: The individual who works on the ropes, lifts, and other technically physical aspects of a theatrical production

Roulade: A quick run of notes sung on a single syllable

Score: The written piece of music for a theatrical production

Set Designer: The individual responsible for designing and creating the set of a theatrical production

Singspiel: Refers to a German opera; contains spoken dialogue and many times has a comic or sentimental plot

Sitzprobe: Refers to the first rehearsal that the singers have with the orchestra; there is no acting, the singers practice only their songs; the term means “seated rehearsal”

Soprano: A female singing voice of the highest vocal range

Stagehand: An individual who works backstage during a production; he may be responsible for lights, sound, the fly gallery, or moving set pieces

Stage Manager: The individual in charge of all technical aspects and the technical crew of a production; this would include light changes, entrances and exits, and sound effects

Strophic: An aria in which text is sung with the same music repeated

Supernumerary: Refers to an individual who is onstage during a number but does not sing

Supertitles: Used during foreign operas, they are the texts projected on a screen above the stage

Synopsis: A summary of the plot of the production

Tenor: A male singing voice of the highest vocal range

Tremolo: Refers to a rapid reiteration of pitch

Trio: A song performed by three singers or musicians

Trouser Role: A role of a young man or boy that is sung by a female

Vibrato: Refers to a wavering of frequency of pitch while singing a single note

Zarzuela: A Spanish musical theatrical production in one to three acts that blends music and dialogue that deal with daily life, but with satire