Opera Vocabulary

Part of Opera For Dummies Cheat Sheet

You’re at the opera house. You open the program book or you’re listening to the opera snobs talk, and you can’t understand a word — or at least some words. To get a handle on what they all mean, check out the following list:

aria: An emotion-expressing song in an opera; the big
number.
opera buffa: Funny opera, especially from the 18th
century.
bel canto: A style of sweet singing, taught to singers
even today, that emphasizes breath control, a beautiful tone, and
great flexibility in dynamics (going from loud to soft, for
example).
opera seria: Formal, serious opera, especially from the
18th century.
cadenza: A moment near the end of an aria for the singer
alone, with lots of fast, high, difficult notes, designed for
showing off.
prima donna: The singer who plays the heroine, the main
female character in an opera; or anyone who believes that the world
revolves around her.
coloratura: A singer (usually soprano) with an extremely
agile, light, pure-sounding voice, capable of easily singing fast,
high notes.
recitative (“ress-it-uh-TEEV”):
Speech-singing, in which the singer semi-chants the words,
imitating the free rhythms of speech.
dynamics: The loudness or softness of a musical
composition, or the markings in the sheet music that indicate
volume.
Singspiel (“SING-shpeel”): A German opera with
spoken dialogue (instead of recitative) between arias.
Leitmotif (“LIGHT-mo-teef”): A little melody
that plays every time a certain character or object appears;
invented by Richard Wagner.
trouser role: A man’s part played by a woman.
libretto: The script of an opera. verismo: A realistic, “documentary” style of
opera that depicts the seamy underbelly of life.