Opera Vocabulary

Impress your friends with your opera knowledge.

Aria - (“AH-ree-ya”) the term means “air” or “song.” In most operas this is where the action pauses and one of the main characters sings a big number to express their emotion or current predicament (and show off their amazing voice).

Arietta - A little aria that is usually brief and light-hearted.

Basso buffo - (“BAHSS-soe BOO-foe”) the term means “buffoon bass.” In operas with a comedic theme the role of the basso buffo is always sung by a male singer typically in a servant position who sings with a low voice. His aria will contain amusing effects that may include quickly repeated notes sung in a very low key.

Bel canto - (“bell CAHN-toe”) the term means “beautiful singing.” Some composers such as Donizetti and Rossini wrote operas to showcase the human singing voice. The bel canto style of opera accentuated the singing performances more so than the words or even the story.

Cavatina and cabaletta - the aria is sometimes divided into two parts. The cavatina allows the singer to showcase the beautiful tone of her voice. It is generally slow, full of emotion and melodic. In contrast the second part of the aria is the cabaletta which is sung at a much faster pace.The singer demonstrates her vocal athleticism and it usually culminates with a high note that is sustained for a long time which drives the audience wild with enthusiasm.

Chest voice - this singer’s term refers to a particular method of producing a tone. The singer envisions the sound resonating from within their chest area.

Color - a term used to describe the sound characteristics of a voice. Opera voices have two colors: lyric (sweet) and dramatic (very strong).

Duet - Two characters sing an aria together to express their feelings to each other or the audience, or both.

Head voice - A singer’s term where the sound is envisioned to resonate within the skull. It is generally the higher notes in a singer’s range that are rounder and softer.

Libretto - (“lee-BRETT-toe”) the term means “little book.” Every opera has one. It is the lyrics of the performance, the script of the opera. The person who writes the Libretto is called a librettist.

Opera buffa - (“BOOF-a”) the term means “buffoon opera.” It refers to an opera that is funny.

Opera seria - (“SAY-ree-a”) A serious, more formal opera.

Operetta - a light-hearted opera with spoken dialogue similar to a musical. Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow is an example of an operetta.

Prima donna - (PREE-mah DOAN-na) the term means “first lady.” This is the lead female star. She is the singer who is the main female character in the opera. In modern society it is the person who thinks the sun, moon and stars revolve around them, sometimes also referred to as a “diva.”

Recitative - (“ress-it-uh-TEEV”) the term is a form of narration. It is used to advance the action in a scene of the opera. It’s a talking kind of singing. The word usually don’t rhyme and there is no specific beat to the music.

Register - the highness or lowness of music or singing.

Supertitles (or surtitles) - the slides projected on the wall above the stage with translations of the lines in a foreign-language opera.

Verismo – the term means “truth-ism.” A realistic, documentary style of opera that typically depicts the seamy side of life.