Learn everything you need to know about Opera - The Atlanta Opera (2023)

1. Music

Music moves the action of a story, expresses emotions and moods, and deepens our understanding of the characters.

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  • Orchestra: In most cases, operas are accompanied by a group of musicians. Led by a conductor, an orchestra is an ensemble that is comprised of string, woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments.
  • Score: Musicians read from a score which is a notated piece of music showing each voice or instrumental part on its own staff.
  • Overture: An overture is an orchestral piece that may be played at the very beginning of the opera before any action takes place on stage (not all operas have overtures).
  • Musical themes: Musical themes are complete ideas that are crafted to be memorable to the listener. They are heard throughout operas and are associated with a particular character or characters, a situation , an idea, object, or emotion.

Musical Themes

Below are four types of musical forms composers use to help them describe how characters are feeling during the course of an opera.

  • Recitative: Composed to sound like natural patterns of speech, a recitative is singing that has the rhythm of talking. It is used for conversation between characters or to move the plot of the story.
  • Aria: A vocal solo expressing personal emotion or reflection.
  • Ensemble: A piece that is sung by two or more characters at the same time (duet for two characters, trio for three characters, quartet for four characters, etc). Different melodies are sung simultaneously by each character involved in the ensemble.
  • Chorus: Often providing background music for the above, a chorus is a group of people singing together in parts or in unison. Each musical form is sung by singers in one of the six basic vocal categories which are listed below:

Vocal Types

All classical singers fall into one of the categories listed below. A singer cannot choose his/her voice-type – it is something they are born with. Composers usually assign a voice type to a character based on his/her personality or age.


This is the highest female voice and has a range similar to a violin. In opera, the soprano most often plays the young girl or the heroine (sometimes called the Prima Donna), since a high bright voice traditionally suggests femininity, virtue and innocence. The normal range of a soprano is two octaves up from middle C, sometimes with extra top notes. Most women are sopranos.


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Also called a mezzo, this is the middle female voice and has a range similar to an oboe. A mezzo’s sound is often darker and warmer than a soprano’s. In opera, composers generally use a mezzo to portray older women, villainesses, seductive heroines, and sometimes even young boys (like Hansel). This is a special operatic convention called a “trouser role” or a “pants role.”


This is the lowest female voice and has a range similar to a clarinet. Contraltos usually sing the roles of older females or special character parts such as witches and old gypsies. The range is two octaves from F below middle C to the top line of the treble clef. A true contralto is very rare.


This is the highest male voice, which was mainly used in very early opera and oratorio (a genre of classical vocal music similar to opera but generally based on a religious topic and accompanied by a choir). The voice of a countertenor sounds very much like a mezzo-soprano’s voice and they often sing the same repertoire. Like the contralto, true countertenors are very rare.

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This is usually the highest male voice in an opera. It is similar to a trumpet in range, tone, color, and acoustical ring. The tenor typically plays the hero or the love interest in an opera.


This is the middle male voice and is close to a French horn in range and tone color. In opera buffa (comedic opera), the baritone is often the ring-leader of the comedy, but in opera seria (serious or tragic opera), he is usually the villain.


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This is the lowest male voice and is similar to a trombone or bassoon in range and color. Low voices usually suggest age and wisdom in serious opera. In comic opera they are generally used for old characters who are foolish or laughable.

2. Drama

Operas unfold a dramatic or comic story involving a protagonist, antagonist, and/or a hero/heroine. Actors that portray these roles must be very good at both singing and acting. Certain character tendencies often exist for each vocal category. They include the following:

  • Soprano: most often the heroine of the opera
  • Mezzo-Soprano: mothers, older women, villains, servants, women playing men
  • Contralto: old women, witches, comic roles
  • Tenor: most often the hero of the opera
  • Baritone: helpful companions, villains, sometimes heroes
  • Bass: kings, villains, priests

Operas usually feature primary and secondary characters who figure in the dramatic flow of the story:

  • Principals: The primary roles of an opera. These may be heroes/heroines, villains or other strong characters. Principal roles are sung by the more experienced artists who have already made a name for themselves in smaller roles.
  • Comprimarios: The secondary roles of an opera. Comprimario roles are often confidantes, maids, servants, messengers, or medical personnel. They are usually sung by younger or lesser known artists. Similar to a play, opera tells a story that is divided into acts and scenes.

Each scene is further divided into numbers, each representing a different musical form (i.e. aria, recit., chorus number, or ensemble). In contrast to plays, the text is written with the intention of being accompanied by music.

  • Libretto: The text of an opera.
  • Librettist: The artist who arranges the text of a story to fit the accompanying music.

3. Spectacle

The spectacle of an opera encompasses sets, costumes, special effects, props and staging. These elements are combined to tell the story in a multi-dimensional manner.

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  • Set: The place where the action will occur on stage. Operas often have large, spectacular sets that reflect the time and place of the story being told.
  • Costumes: The outfits worn by each actor to reflect the time and place of an opera as well as the personality of each character.
  • Props: Items that may be carried onstage in an actor’s hands or that “dress” the set (such as furniture or decorative accessories).

During the course of an opera, it is not uncommon to have a large number of people on stage. Many of these people will be chorus while the others will appear as supernumeraries or extras.

  • Super/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 procession, for example. The stage director impacts how the action is conveyed by assigning various blocking.
  • Blocking: The patterns of movement of the people onstage as the opera progresses.
  • 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/her right but to the audience’s left.
  • 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 signer went on the stage, the “higher” he seemed to become in stature, thus the distinction of being “up”-stage. Downstage, then, would be lower and closer to the audience.


Audience members may shout this Italian word after an exciting aria, scene, act, or performance. It is pronounced “brah-voh”. A female performer would be accorded a “brava” (the feminine form of bravo).


What are the 5 elements of opera? ›

Opera is a dramatic story told through song. It is considered by many to be the most complete art form, combining all of the elements of art, words, music, drama and dance.

What are the 4 elements of an opera? ›

Drama, poetry, visual arts and sometimes dance interact with music to create a unique alchemy that changes show after show, production after production. An opera is composed of four essential elements: the text ('libretto') and the music, the singing and the staging. The libretto is the 'script' of an opera.

What are the 3 types of opera? ›

A Beginner's Guide to Opera Genres
  • Like other forms of art and entertainment, opera has many different genres. We've rounded up some of the most common opera genres and the famous composers behind them.
  • Opera Seria. If you ask someone to describe 'opera', usually the words drama and tragedy come to mind.
  • Opera Verismo.

How do I start learning about opera? ›

The first thing to learn an opera is to know the story. Reading the synopsis can suffice, better yet, reading the libretto. Both libretto and synopsis are usually found with the CD set. You can find them as well in Internet.

What are the basics of opera? ›

What is opera? Opera (the Italian for work) is an art form that tells a story through music and singing. Unlike a musical, opera singers do not use microphones to amplify their voices, and the music, played by the orchestra, is completely live.

Why is opera called opera? ›

The English word opera is an abbreviation of the Italian phrase opera in musica (“work in music”). It denotes a theatrical work consisting of a dramatic text, or libretto (“booklet”), that has been set to music and staged with scenery, costumes, and movement.

What are the words of an opera called? ›

Libretto. Literally 'little book', the text sung in an opera or oratorio.

What is the end of an opera called? ›

A finale is the last movement of a sonata, symphony, or concerto; the ending of a piece of non-vocal classical music which has several movements; or, a prolonged final sequence at the end of an act of an opera or work of musical theatre.

What are the 6 components of opera? ›

Terms in this set (7)
  • recitative. musical speech that advances the plot or action, vocal style, grew out of the earliest monodies of Florentine Camerata.
  • aria. italian for air; song, usually of a highly emotional nature, solo.
  • secco. ...
  • accompagnato. ...
  • overture. ...
  • librettist. ...
  • libretto.

What is the music in an opera called? ›

All the words in an opera, literally 'little book', the libretto is what many would call the lyrics or the text of an opera. Many composers worked regularly with the same librettist, much like songwriters and lyricists today.

What are the 6 components of opera? ›

Terms in this set (7)
  • recitative. musical speech that advances the plot or action, vocal style, grew out of the earliest monodies of Florentine Camerata.
  • aria. italian for air; song, usually of a highly emotional nature, solo.
  • secco. ...
  • accompagnato. ...
  • overture. ...
  • librettist. ...
  • libretto.

What are the elements of Philippine opera? ›

It incorporates many of the elements of spoken theater, such as acting, scenery, costumes, and sometimes includes dance. The performance is typically given in an opera house, cultural center, theater, or auditorium. It is accompanied by an orchestra or smaller musical ensemble.

What are the 4 musical elements? ›

The Four Elements Of Music -Melody, Harmony, Rhythm, And Dynamics pianonotes.piano4u.com/index.php/2012/07/the-four-elements-of-music-melody-harmony-rhythm-and- dynamics.

What are the elements of music? ›

Elements of music include, timbre, texture, rhythm, melody, beat, harmony, structure, tempo, pitch and dynamics.


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