Pronunciation Guide: Opera Terms

apron - the forward part of the stage between the curtain and the orchestra pit

aria - a song for solo voice with instrumental accompaniment. Arias appear in cantatas, oratorios, and operas beginning in the 17trh century. Usually they emphasize musical expression more than the text. The text is often reflective, rather than descriptive of action. Arias are usually not strophic and they provide lyric interludes that temporarily pull the listener away from the action of the story.

ballad opera - a form of 18th century English operatic entertainment that consisted of spoken dialogue and musical numbers from popular music sources such as ballads, folk songs, and songs from other plays. The first example was The Beggar's Opera (1728) by John Gay, with music arranged by J. Pepusch. It was a satire of the Italian opera seria popular in London at the time.

baritone - a male voice with a range between that of the low bass voice and the high tenor. The usual span is between G and e'. Baritone parts may require either expressive, lyricial singing or they may be more heroic, as in the title role of Verdi's Rigoletto.

baroque - the period in music history that spans from approximately 1600 to 1750. This period saw the birth of opera through the efforts of the Florentine Camerata and the works of Monteverdi.The best known late baroque operas are those of G.F. Handel.

bass - the lowest male voice, frequently subdivided in several categories (see following entries). The range is between E and c'. This example is Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov.

basso buffo - a category of bass voice that specializes in comic roles, frequently seen in the operas of Mozart and Rossini. Dr. Bartolo in Rossini's The Barber of Seville is a famous example.

basso cantante - a type of bass voice that demonstrates a melodic, singing quality rather than a comic or tragic one. An example is King Philip in Verdi's Don Carlos.

basso profundo - the most serious of the bass voices. Sarastro in Mozart's The Magic Flute is an example.

bel canto - "beautiful song," the traditional art of Italian singing which emphasizes elegant phrasing, beautiful tone and brilliant technique; bel canto flourished in the early to mid-19th century, in the works of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti.

blocking - the moving of people around the stage by the stage director to set up the patterns that will be followed during the performance of the opera

cabaletta - a brisk aria in Italian opera, generally following a more solemn, thoughtful one; the cabaletta frequently refers to a contradictory or complimentary state of mind, and may even lead towards impassioned action from the character on stage. The term itself comes from the Italian"cavallo" which means horse: the accompaniment of the cabaletta frequently resembles the animal's galloping gait.

cadenza - a musical flourish, frequently made upon the spot by the performer, which occurs when an aria or a section of an aria seems to be coming to its close (its cadence spot); until the time of Verdi, cadenzas were expected to be improvised by the singer or the performer and were seldom notated precisely by the composer. The long passage between soprano and flute in the mad scene of Lucia di Lammermoor is an improvised double cadenza for those performers.

Camerata - a gathering of writers and musician who, in the late 16th century, regularly met to discuss art and experiment with form. In the years prior to 1580, the gathering assembled at the residence of Giovanni de Bardi, and after 1592, at the home of Jacopo Corsi. Vincenzo Galileo, the astronomer's father, was among them. Their deliberations led directly to the rise of opera as a combination of music, drama and stage spectacle. Jacopo Peri, a musician at the Medici court and a member of the Camerata, was the composer of Dafne (1597), considered to be the first opera.

cantabile - an expression (another one taken from "cantare") which asks the performer to sing or play in a sweetly singing manner.

cantata - a musical form, generally for chorus and soloists, based on a primarily narrative text; the most famous cantatas are those written by Bach, all of which take scriptural texts as their starting points--some are even for solo voice and instrument.

cantilena - a lyrical melody line, obviously meant to be sung or played "cantabile."

canzone - a short, lyrical operatic song; the term itself may have originated in Provence and could have referred to arias which have no narrative quality at all, but simply reflect the singer's state of mind. Cherubino's "Voi che sapete" in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro is called a canzone.

canzonetta - literally, a little "canzone;" Mozart used the words "canzone" and "canzonetta" frequently to differentiate between the more serious (and longer) arias and the shorter (and more conversational) solo work in his operas.

cavatina - a short, simple solo song, occasionally instrumental rather than vocal, that was popular in 18th century Italian opera.

classical - the period in music which comes after the baroque period and before the romantic; the dates are roughly 1756 (which is the birth of Mozart) to 1830 (three years after the death of Beethoven). Although the period is not as long as the baroque period, it represents the greatest standardization in orchestral form and sonority; even composers who lived beyond 1830 continued to use the standard "classical" orchestra of pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, strings and timpani.

coda - the last musical thoughts in a composition; instrict formal terms, a piece might contain exposition (which sets forth the principal themes of the work), development (which uses that material in new and varied fashions), recapitulation (where the principal material is restated almost verbatim), cadenza (for a last minute vocal improvisation, sometimes based on the early materials in the work), and coda (where one last little idea is put forward by the composer).

coloratura - a type of soprano, generally, but also the description of singing which pertains to great feats of agility--fast singing, high singing, trills, embellishments and so forth. Some coloratura sopranos during this century have been Lily Pons, Roberta Peters, Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills. This example of coloratura is Marguerite's "Jewel Song" from Gounod's Faust.

commedia dell'arte - a style of dramatic presentation popular in Italy from the 16th century on; the commedia characters were highly stylized and the plots frequently revolved around disguises, mistaken identities and misunderstandings. The principal commedia characters are Pierrot, Harlequin and Colombine. Operatic spoofs of the commedia characters can be found in Leoncavallo's Pagliacci and Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos.

comprimario - a singer who takes the secondary character roles in an opera, from the Italian which means "next to the first"; confidantes, maids, servants, messengers and medical personnel generally fit under the heading of comprimario roles.

continuo - the small group of instruments that accompanies the recitatives in baroque music; as a general rule, the continuo group comprises cello and harpsichord or organ, although in some of the larger works of Monteverdi (Orfeo, The Coronation of Poppea ) the continuo group can comprise a dozen or more instruments.

contralto - the lowest female voice; the term itself comes from two Italian words which signify against ("contra") the high ("alto") voice. In baroque operas, the contralto generally represented a certain character type on stage: either comic (a sort of female basso buffo), or spooky and other worldly, or just plain matronly. Marian Anderson and Maureen Forrester have been legendary contraltos in the concert and operatic world.

counterpoint - the putting together of two or more independent musical lines; when the same musical tune is repeated several times, in different vocal ranges, the result can be a fugue or a round.

countertenor - a high male voice, generally singing within the female contralto or mezzo soprano range; popular in the baroque period, the countertenor frequently portrayed young, virile men or innocent, blushing adolescents--the voices were generally quite powerful, and not considered effeminate. This vocal range is sometimes referred to as "male alto."

Deus ex machina - literally, "god out of a machine," a literary or staging device which refers to some last-minute salvation of a tricky situation by a god or goddess who has been watching the entire plot unfold from afar. In the baroque period, elaborate scenery was devised whereby a particular god (more often than not Amor, the god of love) would descend from above the stage in a little cloud or carriage.

director/producer - depending upon the locale of the producing company, the person who creates the staging for a play or an opera; in America this person is called the director, or the stage director, as opposed to the conductor who leads the orchestra. Throughout Europe, this person is known as the producer while the orchestra conductor is frequently called the director!

diva - a female opera star of great rank or pretension; the original Italian word means "goddess."

dramma giocoso - an opera which combines serious elements, enacted by aristocratic personnages, with comic relief, played out and commented upon by earthier peasant stock. The most famous example of dramma giocoso is Mozart's Don Giovanni, although the composer himself never actually called it such--only Lorenzo da Ponte, the librettist, did.

duet - a musical composition for two performers.

embellishment - the addition of extra notes to an already established melody line; in the days of Handel, and again in the flourishing of 19th century Italian bel canto, the process of embellishing a vocal line whenever it is repeated was the standard practice. Some composers, like Bach and Mozart, wrote out their own embellishments--others trusted the instrumentalists and singers to add their own.

entr'acte - a musical composition played between acts or between scenes within an act of an opera.

entrée - a musical composition, used mainly in the French baroque period by its greatest practitioners, Rameau and Lully, which has a martial, aggressive quality; the entrée generally was played to introduce an important character or group of characters. In some French baroque works, such as Rameau's Les Indes galantes , each act was called an entrée.

falsetto - the technique of singing whereby the tone produced has a light, "head voice" quality; this use of a "false" voice, which is what the term really means, enables a bass or a baritone to imitate a female voice, for example.

fioritura - understandably confused with coloratura but meaning almost the same thing; taken from "fior" which means "flower" in Italian, fioratura refers to the actual flowery, embellished vocal line within an aria. All coloratura sopranos have to sing fioratura at some point or another, but there is no such thing as a fioratura soprano.

grand opera - opera which is sung from start to finish, as opposed to opera which may have spoken dialogue; grand opera frequently treats serious, dramatic subjects and, in French opera of the 19th century, was generally epic in scale with a full scale ballet inserted in the middle of the work.

hauptstimme - this refers to the principal musical material of a work. In the operas of Schoenberg or Berg, early 20th century German composers, the main melodies are marked with an "H" to indicate that the composers considered those the principal tunes.

heldentenor - a type of tenor voice which hearkens back to the golden age of Wagnerian singing; the typical heldentenor has an unusually brilliant top register (high notes) combined with a muscular lower voice, almost like a baritone, and is capable of long passages which require great vocal stamina. Tristan and Siegfried are great heldentenor roles. One of the great heldentenors of the century was Lauritz Melchior.

imbroglio - operatic scene in which diversity of rhythm and melody create chaos and confusion; the original meaning of the Italian word was "intrigue."

intermezzo - a short musical entertainment, which in its earliest manifestation might be played between the acts of a longer, more serious operatic work; the intermezzo was almost always of light hearted character, and never involved more than three or four singers. One well known operatic intermezzo is La serva padrona (The Maid Becomes the Mistress) of Giovanni Pergolesi (1733) which was sung between the first and second acts of a much larger, and quite forgotten, work Il prigioner superb (The Model Prisoner).

legato - a smooth and gliding style of singing or playing; the opposite of Iegato is marcato (in a marked, punchy style) or even staccato (in an even shorter, more aggressive style).

leitmotiv - a short musical passage, sometimes no more than three or four notes, which instantly calls to mind a character or situation in a musical drama; although Wagner may not have invented the device, he is certainly the best known user of it. This example is the glance motive from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.

libretto - the text of an opera; the literal translation is "little book," which reminds us that in a Broadway show the texts of the songs are called the "lyrics" while the spoken text of the rest of the play is called the "book."

lied - a German song; the pronunciation is "leed" and the plural is lieder (pronounced "leader"). In some pre-Wagnerian German operas, the songs that the characters sing are called "lieder" as opposed to "aria" which would be the Italian determination.

maestro - a title of courtesy, given, especially in Italy, to conductors, composers and directors; translation (from the Italian), "Master."

marking - the practice used by many singers to save their voices in rehearsals; singers will sing in what seems to be a mere whisper, or transpose the vocal lines so that they don't have to sing extremely high or low notes. This is done as a vocal protection--singing too strenuously, or without getting the voice properly warmed up can lead to vocal strain and severe throat problems.

masque - a staged performance in which music, poetry, song and dance are blended; although the word is French, and pronounced "mask," the form is more frequently associated with English works which appeared in the time of Queen Elizabeth I.

mezza voce - literally, "medium voice," literally; when singing mezza voce, the singer reduces the volume so as to intensify the emotion. When marking, singers use a kind of mezza voce, but not for dramatic purposes; in performance, it should be intentional.

mezzo soprano - the female voice range which lies between the soprano, which is the highest, and the contralto; the tone of a mezzo soprano can either be voluptuous (in the case of Delilah or Carmen) or it can be thinner and more agile (which might describe Rosina in The Barber of Seville).

opera buffa - a style of opera which revolves almost entirely around comedy; perhaps an outgrowth of the Italian intermezzo, the opera buffa as a form was popular in the baroque days as well as in Italy of the early 19th century. Its counterpart is opera seria, which implies opera almost entirely about lofty ideals or with tragic consequences.

opéra comique - a misleading term, French in origin, which would seem to describe opera that was funny; in fact, opéra comique describes opera in which there is some spoken dialogue as opposed to grand opera in which there is none. As a matter of fact, both Gounod's Faust and Bizet's Carmen were originally conceived with spoken dialogue and are, thus, opéras comiques even though their subject matter would seem to make them "grand" operas.

operetta - light, frothy musical entertainments which generally do not pertain to terrifically important subject material; spoken dialogue, dancing, practical jokes and mistaken identities seem to be the trademark of the operetta form, most popular in late 19th century Vienna or France, under the hands of the Strauss family or Offenbach. Die Fledermaus, The Merry Widow, La Périchole and Noel Coward's Bitter Sweet are all operettas.

opus - a single work or composition, from the Latin; the plural form of "opus" is "opera" and it was that term that the Camerata (see above) adopted since their new stage presentations combined the musical work, the dramatic work and the staging work--thus making "works."

oratorio - a musical composition (generally not staged) for chorus, orchestra and soloists, whose text is generally religious, serious or philosophical in nature; a long version of a cantata. It was to oratorio that Handel turned when the English public turned sour on his staged operas, although the story line and characterization of the oratorios are often totally operatic. Messiah and Israel in Egypt are oratorios; Julius Caesar and Rinaldo are not.

orchestra - the group of musicians which accompany a staged presentation; in early operas (from 1600 to about 1750) the orchestra might consist of a few strings, pairs of oboes, bassoons, flutes, trumpets and continuo (see above). The orchestra grew from the time of Mozart through Beethoven, Berlioz, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini and Richard Strauss so that nowadays an opera orchestra can easily consist of 90 to 100 players. In America the first floor of a theatre is called the orchestra, whereas in England that area is called the stalls.

ornamentation - the extra notes, like appogiaturas, scales, trills or cadenzas that can enhance a melodic line when it has to be repeated. Ornamentation and embellishment are probably interchangeable terms.

overture - the instrumental introduction to a musical drama or oratorio; frequently the overture will incorporate musical themes that will later be heard in the course of the opera. In Don Giovanni, the ominous theme of the Stone Guest (from the Act II) is heard as a premonition at the beginning of the overture, thus setting an emotional tone as well as providing musical structure to the entire work.

parlando - literally, "speaking"; this Italian term directs the singer to imitate speech in singing. The "patter songs" of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas frequently employ a great deal of parlando singing.

pitch - the location of a sound on a scale ranging from high to low.

polyphony - literally, "many voices"; the mixing together of several melodic lines in a pleasant fashion. Counterpoint is certainly an element which creates polyphony.

portamento - the smooth movement in singing or playing a stringed instrument from one note to the next; a portamento can only be achieved in legato singing or playing, and is frequently compared to "glissando," which literally means sliding from one note to the next.

prelude - the instrumental introduction to an individual act within a musical drama, whether opera or operetta; some composers use the words overture, prelude and entr'acte interchangeably.

prima donna - the female star of an opera cast; in Verdi's time it was considered a matter of course to differentiate the roles in terms of their dramatic and vocal importance, such as "Prima Donna," "Seconda Donna," "Terza Donna" and the like. It did not until recently come to describe the personality of the singer, rather than the importance of her role in the opera.

prompter - a member of the musical staff of many large opera houses; the prompter sits in a small box practically invisible to the audience, under the apron of the stage, and gives singers and choristers the vocal cues seconds before they are required to sing them. In many international houses, where singers perform without benefit of long musical rehearsal periods, a prompter can be invaluable as a memory aide for a jet lagged singer.

proscenium - a misunderstood term; most performers, even designers, refer to the proscenium when they actually mean the proscenium arch. The proscenium, to be technically exact, is that part of the stage between the curtain and the orchestra pit--and the architectural arch which encloses the curtain is called the proscenium arch. Even so, proscenium is used in a larger, more general sense, in the meaning of a stage constructed with a curtain, as opposed to a thrust stage where the stage has no formal enclosure.

prova - rehearsal, from the Italian word for "test"; often in Italy, one hears of a "prova generale,"which means the final dress rehearsal. In Germany, a rehearsal is called "probe" (PROE beh); in German houses, one frequently hears of a sitzprobe (a rehearsal with orchestra where the singers sing seated on chairs at the front of the stage instead of moving about) or wandelprobe (where the singers actually go through the motions of their acting while the orchestra plays the music) or generalprobe (which is, in essence, the last dress rehearsal).

raked stage - a stage which slants upward away from the view of the audience; in the earliest opera houses, the stage was so slanted so that the audience member sitting in the back of the theatre could have an easy view of someone standing at the back of the stage. Many opera houses in Europe today have stages that are permanently sloped like this.

range - the division of the human voice, according to six basic types: soprano, mezzo soprano, contralto, tenor, baritone and bass.

recitativo - a musical form within an opera which, by imitating rapid speech, advances the plot;this is not the same as parlando, which is a style of singing, but rather a formal device which links together the arias and choruses. Those forms generally express states of mind while the recitative describes a course of action.

recitativo accompagnato - is accompanied by the full orchestra. The introduction to Donna Anna's "Or sai chi l'onore" in Don Giovanni is an example of the"accompagnato" style, where the orchestral sonorities are capable of varying the mood of the narration more than the simple harpsichord accompaniment could.

recitativo secco - is accompanied by the continuo instruments. Numerous passages abound in the operas of Mozart and Rossini of the "secco" style.

ritornello - the instrumental prelude to an individual song within a cantata, concerto or aria; in baroque Italian operas, the ritornello (which comes from Italian meaning "a little return trip") could be heard not only at the beginning and the end of the aria, but as a dividing mark between stanzas.

Romantic - the period of music between 1830 and the turn of the 20th century; composers of romantic music frequently found inspiration in other than musical ideas, such as nature, painting,birdcalls, rainstorms. Beethoven was probably the first romantic opera composer, although the most famous are Wagner and Verdi.

singspiel - early German musical drama, which employed spoken dialogue along with musical numbers; Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio and The Magic Flute are both examples of this genre, so are Weber's Der Freischutz and Beethoven's Fidelio. The singspiel is very similar to English ballad opera or French opéra comique.

soprano - the highest range of the female voice; the soprano voice ranges from lyric (a light, graceful quality) to dramatic (obviously fuller and heavier in tone).

sotto voce - a musical direction which asks the performer to sing, or play "under the voice," or in a subdued manner. Singing sotto voce can be compared to declaiming in a stage whisper and can be very effective in a large theatre.

soubrette - a lightweight soprano voice or type of soprano role, frequently found in comic operas or operettas; the soubrette usually possesses a flirtatious demeanor and street wise manner, as in the case of Adele in Die Fledermaus, or is a particularly fetching country innocent, like Adina inThe Elixir of Love.

spinto - a kind of voice which is "pushed" towards another, from the Italian "spingere" (to push); thus a "lirico spinto" soprano is a Iyric voice that has some qualities of the heavier dramatic range. Frequently, sopranos who have essentially light voices will take on the role of, say, Mimi in La Bohème (to portray her youthfulness and frailty) and push their voices to ride over the orchestra, thus developing a "spinto" sound. Licia Albanese, the great Italian soprano, would be a prime example of this type of soprano.

sprechstimme - literally, "speak voice"; a kind of vocal instruction, found often in the operas of Schoenberg and Berg, where the singer half speaks and half sings a note. The declamation sounds like speaking, but there is a duration of pitch which makes it seem almost like singing.

staccato - a type of singing or playing that is characterized by short, clipped, rapid articulation; the opposite of staccato is legato.

stage right/stage left - the division of the stage from the performer's point of view; thus, when a singer goes stage right, he moves to his right but to the audience's left.

supernumerary - a performer who appears in a non-singing role; a "super" might have a solo walk on to deliver a message, or might be included as part of a large processional, for example. In the old days, supers were often referred to as "spear carriers."

tempo - the speed of a musical passage or composition; the tempo may range from very slow ("largo" in Italian, "langsam" in German) to extremely fast ("presto" in Italian, "schnell" in German).

tenor - the highest natural male voice.

tessitura - the average range of a vocal part in an opera; for example, the tessitura of Lucia di Lammermoor is quite high, that of Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana (although it is still a soprano role) is low enough that the role could be sung by a mezzo soprano.

trill - two adjacent notes rapidly and repeatedly alternated.

twelve tone - a system of composition that was put forth in the early part of this century by Arnold Schoenberg, whereby (in very simple terms), each note of the chromatic scale should be used as part of a melody before any other note gets repeated. Many composers have used this system, which is also called "serialism," but the best known operas in this style are Berg's Wozzeck and Lulu, Schoenberg's Erwartung and Roger Sessions's Montezuma.

upstage/downstage - the position on stage farthest or nearest the audience; because of the raked stage which was so prevalent in early opera houses, the farther "back" a singer went on the stage, the "higher" he seemed to become in stature--thus the distinction of being "up"-stage. When a singer is directed to move downstage left, he goes toward the audience and towards his left side; to the audience, he seems to be coming forward and moving to the audience's right.

verismo - literally, "truth"; a style of theatre made popular in the latter part of the 19th century in which ordinary events and characters participate in melodramatic situations.Bizet's Carmen was considered an early and powerful example of verismo, and so are most of the operas of Puccini and Mascagni.

vibrato - the slightly wavering quality that a singer has in his voice while sustaining a tone; if the vibrato becomes terribly pronounced, it is pejoratively called a wobble. Some singers will drain their voice of any vibrato for a particularly haunting effect.

zarzuela--a Spanish popular musical presentation which blends dialogue and music in skits and dramas ranging from one to three acts that deal satirically with aspects of daily life. The derivation of the name is intriguing: early zarzuelas were performed in the Palacio de la Zarzuela in Madrid, so named because it was surrounded by a field of brambles ("zarza" being Spanish for bramble).

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This pronouncing dictionary was created as a result of a grant from the Associated Colleges of the South. The text for the definitions in the dictionary was taken in part from the Opera Glossary created by William Fred Scott, Artistic Director of the Atlanta Opera. I am grateful for his permission to use his work as a starting point.

Sound recordings for the pronunciation of Italian terms were made by Professor Angela Mutzi of the Rhodes College Foreign Languages and Literatures Department. French terms were recorded by Elizabeth Crouch, Rhodes, '97.

Patricia Gray

updated 12-29-07