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Opera Vocabulary

Part of the 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.
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