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Opera Terms and Definitions

What we would like students to learn:

  1. To introduce students to the fundamentals of Opera and Opera Production.

  2. Opera is a play that is sung rather than spoken. An opera can have spoken dialogue in it but it is ultimately a musical form.

  3. To give students a brief introduction to the structure of opera.

What is Opera?

  1. An opera is a musical drama or comedy where the actors sing rather then speak their lines. Today they are often referred to as "singing actors."

  2. "Opera" is derived from the Italian word opus, which means work of art.

  3. An opera tells a story. It can come from many sources, including history, current events, magical, Bible, and fairy tales, legends, literature, poetry, and mythology. Opera can be funny, sad, scary, dramatic, mysterious, imaginary, or a combination of the above.

  4. Opera is a combination of many art forms: singing, orchestral music, acting, dancing, mime, costumes, scenic design and painting, lighting, and makeup design.

  5. The Libretto contains all of the words of an opera. The Librettist is the person who writes the words for the opera.

  6. Characters are the people in the story. Singers perform the parts of the characters. These parts are also called Roles.

  7. A Synopsis is a short summary of what takes place in the story.

  8. The Composer writes the music for the opera. All of the music, both vocal (for singers) and orchestral (for instrumentalists) is written in the Score. The score should reflect the mood, events, and emotions of the characters in the story.

  9. An Opera is structured like a play, with acts, scenes, and a variety of vocal forms including Arias (solos), Ensembles (for 2 or more singers), and Chorus (for a large group of singers).

The Performers

The Music Director is responsible for the interpretation of the score. The Music Director is also usually the Conductor, who is responsible for the musical interpretation and coordination of the performance. This is the person you see standing in the orchestra pit waving their arms at the singers and musicians.

The Soprano is the highest female voice. This is usually the heroine of the opera and most of the time she is in love with the tenor. A star soprano is often referred to as the "Prima Donna."

A Mezzo-Soprano is the second highest, or middle, female voice. The mezzo voice typically has a darker, warmer voice than the soprano. The mezzo is usually either a bad guy (like a witch) or a boy. When the mezzo plays a boy, she will be dressed in men's clothes. This is called a "Pants Role."

Alto - also called Contralto, this is the lowest female voice. The alto often portrays an old woman, who can either be wise and good or an old witch.

Tenor - this is the highest male voice. The tenor is usually the hero of the opera and is generally in love with the soprano.

Baritone - this is the next lowest, or middle, male voice. The baritone is often a villain but can sometimes be a hero who sacrifices himself for the tenor and/or soprano. In a comedy, the Baritone is usually the one pulling all kinds of pranks. The Baritone is often in love with the soprano but usually loses her to the tenor.

Bass is the lowest of the male voices. He very often plays a wise old man or a comic character.

Supernumeraries (or "Supers") appear on stage in costume in non-singing and non-speaking roles.

The Orchestra is the group of instrumentalists who accompany the singers. They play under the stage, in the orchestra pit, where they will be less likely to cover the singers and detract attention from the performers on stage.

The Chorus is a groups of singers who function as a unit on stage. Choruses can be for mixed voices, men only, women only, or children. They are usually featured in crowd scenes where they can represent townspeople, soldiers, pilgrims, etc.

Dancers are often included in an opera. They are usually part of large crowd scenes but can be featured in solo roles as well. Many operas include a ballet.

The folks behind the scenes - opera production

Where do you start if you want to put on a production of an opera? Usually the General Director, Artistic Director or Music Director will pick the repertoire. The performance is conceived by the Production Team, which consists of the Music Director/Conductor, Stage Director, Choreographer, Scene Designer, Costume Designer, Lighting Designer, and Technical Director. These people meet frequently to trade ideas and work together to ensure a cohesive interpretation of the piece, from a visual, dramatic, and musical standpoint.

The Stage Director (sometimes simply called Director) is responsible for the overall look of the production. He tells everyone on stage how, when, and where to move, creating "stage pictures" that enhance the story.

The Choreographer designs the steps for the dancers.

The Costume Designer designs and creates the clothes that the character wear. They try to pick designs that reflect the characters and their significance in the story.

The Scenic Designer creates the ideas for the visual background of the production. He or she must create detailed blue-prints and models of the sets and be sure that the scenery fits in the stage area.

The Lighting Designer creates a lighting plan that emphasizes the drama of the moment. Lighting design is an important visual element that contributes to the ambiance of the stage setting and affects the appearance of people, costumes and props on stage.

The Technical Director supervises everyone who is implementing the concepts of the designers. He or she works with carpenters, painters, electricians, sound designers, and stagehands and oversee the building of sets and props, and hanging of lights.

The Stage Manager runs the visual elements of a show during the performance. They are is responsible for calling all of the cues for the performance to the crew. This means that they must follow hundreds of detailed notes in the score and tell the crew when to change lighting, scenery, sound effects, and raise or lower the curtain. The Stage Manager is the one who tells the Conductor when it is time to start the performance, and lets all participants know when intermissions begin and end.

The Crew works behind the scenes and is responsible for setting up and running all of the equipment for a performance, including changing sets, props, running the lights, curtains, trap doors, sound effects, and assisting performers with costumes and makeup.

What makes an opera?

  1. Opera is a musical form. The orchestra provides the overriding musical texture, while the singers are featured as soloists.

  2. Overture is a piece of music played by the orchestra to begin the opera.

  3. Recitative is the sung narrative which propels the action of the story.

  4. Aria is a solo number for a singer. This come from the Italian word meaning tune or song. This is usually where the character expresses their feelings about a situation.

  5. An Ensemble is sung by 2 or more people. Two people singing is called a duet; Three people singing is called a trio, 4 people are a quartet, and so on.

  6. Choral scenes usually feature the principal and secondary cast members and the chorus. The sheer number of voices on stage is usually reserved for moments of high drama and spectacle. Dancers might also be featured in a big choral scene.

  7. Operas are often performed in a Foreign Language (usually the language for which they were originally written). Even if you cannot understand the language, you can usually get a good idea of what is happening from the music and the actions of the characters.

  8. Surtitles are translations of the foreign words that are projected above the stage during a performance to help the audience follow the story.

  9. Props, or "Stage Properties," are visual elements of the scene rather than actually being part of the set. Small props that are picked up and carried by performers are called "hand props." These can include fans, knives, candlesticks, books, magic lanterns, etc. Larger items, such as pieces of furniture or paintings, are called "set props."

  10. Scenery or Sets provide the visual background for the story. Sets can reflect the locale, historical circumstances of the plot, and reflect the overall interpretation and conception of the opera as determined by the production team. They are conceived by the Scene Designer and executed, or built, by the Technical Crew under the guidance of the Technical Director.

Other opera terms

"Pants Role," also known as a "Trouser Role," is when a female plays the part of a boy whose voice has not yet changed. This convention became very popular in the 17th Century. Women's voices are stronger than those of young boys and it was easier to hear them through the orchestra.

Cadenza is a section of an aria where the singer may improvise, usually in such a way as to best display their vocal talents. Cadenzas are virtuosic and rhythmically free.

Falsetto is when a man sings in a very high voice. This is often done for comic effect.

Voice Range is how high or how low a particular VOICE TYPE can sing. The coloratura soprano has the highest voice range, while the bass has the lowest.

Accompanist is someone who plays the piano while a vocalist is singing.

Encore is a piece that is performed after the last scheduled piece of a concert. An encore is usually performed because the audience wants to hear more music even though the concert is over.

Bravo is the Italian word for expressing appreciation to a male performer.

Brava is the Italian word for expressing appreciation to a female performer.

Bravi is the Italian word for expressing appreciation to two or more performers.

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