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Glossary of Terms
ACT: A portion of an opera designated by the composer, which has a dramatic structure of its own.
ARIA: A solo piece written for a main character, which focuses on the character's emotion.
ASIDE: A comment from an actor directly to the audience that the other characters cannot hear.
ARTIST MANAGER OR ARTIST REPRESENTATIVE: An agent who represents artists by publicizing their talents, finding roles for them, negotiating their contracts and handling other business matters for them.
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BANDA (BAHN-dah): A small group of instrumentalists who play either on the stage or backstage, not in the pit, often as part of a crowd or military scene.
BARITONE: The male singing voice between bass and tenor, with a range that extends from the second G below middle C to the first G above middle C. Examples include the title roles of Don Giovanni and Rigoletto, and Zurga in Les pêcheurs de perles. To listen to a baritone, visit the voice types demo.
BASS: The lowest male singing voice, similar to a trombone or a bassoon in tone color and range (the second E below middle C to the first E above middle C); most comfortable with notes contained within the outermost lines of the bass clef. In serious or dramatic opera, low voices usually suggest age and wisdom; in comic opera, they are generally used for old characters. Examples include King Marke in Tristan und Isolde, Bartolo in Il barbiere di Siviglia and The Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlo. To listen to a bass, visit the voice types demo.
BATON: A short stick that the conductor uses to lead the orchestra.
BEL CANTO: An Italian phrase literally meaning "beautiful singing." A traditional Italian style of singing that emphasizes tone, phrasing, coloratura passages and technique. Also refers to opera written in this style.
BUFFO: From the Italian for "buffoon." A singer of comic roles (basso-buffo) or a comic opera (opera-buffa).
BLOCKING: Directions given to actors for on-stage movements and actions.
BOW, BOWING: The bow is the wand used to play string instruments. The concertmaster determines when the bows should rise or fall, and this bowing is noted in the score so that all move in the same direction.
BRAVO (BRAH-voh): Literally, a form of applause when shouted by members of the audience at the end of an especially pleasing performance. Strictly speaking, "bravo" is for a single man, "brava" for a woman, and "bravi" for a group of performers.
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CABALETTA (cah-bah-LEHT-tah): Second part of a two-part aria, always in a faster tempo than the first part.
CADENZA (kuh-DEN-zuh): A passage of singing, often at the end of an aria, which shows off the singer's vocal ability.
CANZONE, CANZONETTA (Cahn-TSOH-neh, cahn-tsoh-NEHT-tah): A folk-like song commonly used in opera buffa.
CARPENTER: The carpenter works on the construction of the sets. Production Carpenter is the title given to the one in charge of the backstage crew, even though working with wood may not be involved.
CAVATINA (cah-vah-TEE-nah): The meaning of this term has changed over the years. It now usually refers to the opening, slow section of a two part aria. In Rossini's time it referred to the entrance, or first aria sung by a certain character. Norma's "Casta diva" is an example of a cavatina in both senses. See also SCENA
CHOREOGRAPHER: The person who designs the motions of a dance.
CHOREOGRAPHY: The act of setting movement to create a dance.
CHORUS: A group of singers, singing together, who sometimes portray servants, party guests or other unnamed characters; also the music written for them.
CHORUS MASTER: The one in charge of choosing chorus members and rehearsing them for performance. If there is a backstage chorus, it is usually conducted by the chorus master who is in communication with the conductor of the orchestra.
CLAQUE (klak): A group of people hired to sit in the audience and either applaud enthusiastically to ensure success or whistle and boo to create a disaster. In past years, leading singers were sometimes blackmailed to pay a claque to insure that claqueurs would not create a disturbance. Even now, a claque is sometimes used but rarely acknowledged.
COLORATURA: Elaborate ornamentation of vocal music written using many fast notes and trills.
COMMEDIA DELL'ARTE (cohm-MEH-dee-ah dehl-AHR-teh): A type of comic opera popular in Italy in the 16th to 18th centuries that involved improvisation using stock characters and gestures. The characters were often masked to represent certain archetypes.
COMPOSER: A person who writes music.
COMPRIMARIO (cohm-pree-MAH-ree-oh): A secondary or supporting role or a person singing such a role.
CONCERTATO (cohn-chehr-TAH-toh): A large ensemble of soloists and chorus generally found in the second movement of a central finale, to which it forms the lyrical climax.
CONCERTMASTER: The first-chair violinist who plays occasional solos and is responsible for coordinating all of the stringed instruments. The concertmaster decides on the bowing so that all of the string players’ bows move in unison.
CONDUCTOR: The leader of the orchestra, sometimes called Maestro. This person leads all the musicians (instrumentalists and vocalists) in the performance of an opera; an accomplished musician with a strong sense of rhythm and an in-depth understanding of the voice and each orchestral instrument, he or she must also be able to communicate nuances of phrasing and inspire great performances from all players.
CONTINUO (cohn-TEE-noo-oh): An extemporized chordal accompaniment for recitativo secco, usually by a harpsichord, cello or double bass. Opera seria continuo often used an ensemble of harpsichord and theorbo (member of the lute family). Opera buffa continuo used a single keyboard and string bass.
CONTRALTO (kuhn-TRAL-toh): The lowest female singing voice, sometimes called simply "alto," often used for an older female character who possesses great wisdom. A true contralto is a very rare voice type and has a quality of tone similar to the lower range of a clarinet, with a range extending from the F below middle C to the second G above middle C. Examples include Filippevna in Eugene Onegin, Ulrica in Un ballo in Maschera and Erda in Das Rheingold.
CORD, VOCAL: The wishbone-shaped edges of muscles in the lower part of the throat whose movements creates variations in pitch as air passes between them. Often spelled incorrectly as "chord."
COSTUME DESIGNER: Works with the set designer to prepare costumes that are appropriate for the rest of the production. Often oversees the preparation of the costumes.
COSTUME SHOP: A special area set aside for the making of the costumes or for adjusting those that are rented.
COUNTERTENOR: The countertenor is a natural tenor (or sometimes baritone) with an elevated range. With training and practice this higher range, similar to that of a woman’s alto, becomes the natural voice. Roles often sung by countertenors include the title role of Guilio Cesare, Bertarido in Rodelinda and Nero in L'incoronazione di Poppea. Roles written in the 20th century for countertenor include Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Apollo in Death in Venice. To listen to a countertenor, visit the voice types demo.
COVER: The name given to an understudy in opera; someone who replaces a singer in case of illness or other misfortune.
CRESCENDO (kri-SHEN-doh): A gradual increase in volume. Orchestral crescendos were one of Rossini's trademarks.
CUE: In opera, a signal to a singer or orchestra member to begin singing or playing.
CURTAIN CALL: At the end of a performance, all of the members of the cast and the conductor take bows. Sometimes this is done in front of the main curtain, hence the name curtain call. Often, however, the bows are taken on the full stage with the curtain open.
CUT: To omit some of the original material from the score.
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DA CAPO ARIA (DAH CAH-poh): An aria in the form ABA. A first section is followed by a shorter second section. Then the first is repeated, usually with added ornamentation.
DESIGNER: A person who creates the lighting, costumes and/or sets.
DIAPHRAGM: A muscle beneath the lungs and above the stomach which acts as a trampoline does, pushing the air from the lungs at a desired rate.
DIRECTOR (STAGE DIRECTOR): One who prepares an opera or play for production by arranging the details of the stage settings and stage effects, and by instructing the performers in the interpretation of their roles.
DIVA: Literally "goddess," it refers to an important female opera star. The masculine form is divo.
DOUBLE ARIA: An aria which consists of two parts. The first part, or cavatina, is usually slow and the second, or cabaletta is faster. There is often recitative between the two sections.
DRAMATIC (Voice type): The heaviest voice, capable of sustained declamation and a great deal of power, even over the largest operatic orchestra of about 80 instruments. This description applies to all voice ranges from soprano to bass.
DRAMATURG: One who suggests repertory, advises on the suitability of competing editions of operas and writes or edits material for program books and supertitles.
DRESS (a wig): To prepare a wig for use.
DRESSER: A member of the backstage staff who helps the artists change their costumes. The principal singers usually have their own dresser. Supers and chorus members share dressers.
DRESS REHEARSAL: A final rehearsal that uses all of the costumes, lights, etc. While sometimes it is necessary to stop for corrections, an attempt is made to make it as much like a final performance as possible.
DUET: An extended musical passage performed by two singers. They may or may not sing simultaneously or on the same musical line.
DYNAMIC: The degree of loudness and quietness in music. See PIANO and FORTE.
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ELECTRICIAN: One who is charged with executing the lighting design according to the specifications of the lighting designer.
ENCORE: Literally means "again." It used to be the custom for a singer to repeat a popular aria if the audience called "encore" loudly enough. This is still done in the middle of an opera in countries such as Italy, but it is rare elsewhere. Soloists frequently give encores at the end of a concert but not an opera.
ENSEMBLE: Two or more people singing at the same time, or the music written for such a group.
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FALSETTO: A method of singing above the natural range of the male voice. Often used in opera for comic effects such as a man imitating a woman.
FINALE: The last musical number of an opera or the last number of an act.
FLY, FLY TOWER: A high space above the stage where pieces of the set are often raised up or flown out of sight when not in use.
FULL PRODUCTION: A performance that includes all the elements of live theater: lights, costumes, props, makeup, design and audience. In opera, this includes music provided by an orchestra or piano along with the characters' singing.
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GENERAL DIRECTOR: The head of an opera company. The one ultimately responsible for all artistic and financial aspects of everything in which the company is involved.
GRAND OPERA: Specifically, a serious opera of epic proportions with no spoken dialogue, composed in 19th-century France (such as Les Huguenots by Meyerbeer); more broadly, an opera sung and produced in the "grand manner."
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HELDEN: Prefix meaning "heroic." Applicable to other voices but usually used in Heldentenor.
HOUSE MANAGER: For performances, the person who is responsible for the audience and all that happens from the entry to the theater, to the box office, to the seating and audience behavior in the hall.

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IMPRESARIO: A person who sponsors entertainment. In opera, the general director of an opera company.
INTERLUDE: A short piece of instrumental music played between scenes or acts.
INTERMISSION: A long break, usually about 20 minutes, between the acts of an opera, during which the audience is free to move around.
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LEITMOTIV (LEIT-moh-tif) or MOTIF: A short, recurring musical phrase associated with a particular character or event.
LIBRARIAN: In charge of preparing the music for the orchestra. Scores are usually rented and have to be annotated to reflect cuts and other changes for a given production.
LIBRETTO: The text or words of an opera.
LIGHTING DESIGNER: One who designs and coordinates the light changes that help create opera’s overall effect. Much of this is now computerized.
LYRICS: The sung words or text of a musical comedy or operetta song.
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MAESTRO (mah-EHS-troh): Literally "master;" used as a courtesy title for the conductor. The masculine ending is used for both men and women.
MAGIC OPERA: An opera in which there are many magical effects and often animals appearing on stage. Often the plot of a magic opera involves the rescue of one of the major characters.
MAKEUP DESIGNER: One who designs and applies makeup to actors in order to appear properly under stage lighting, or to appear older, younger, as a creature, etc.
MARK: To sing very softly or not at full voice. A full-length opera is very hard on a singer's voice so most mark during rehearsals. During dress rehearsals singers try to sing at full voice for at least some of the time.
MELODRAMA: In a technique which originated with the French; short passages of music alternating with spoken words.
MEZZO-SOPRANO: The middle female singing voice, similar to an oboe in range (extending from the A below middle C to the second A above middle C); opera composers often use the mezzo-soprano voice to portray a mother or caretaker, a villainess or a seductive heroine. Mezzo-sopranos with lighter qualities of voice are also used to portray a preadolescent male character in what is known as a "pants role" or "trouser role." Examples include Meg in Little Women, Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro and the title role of Carmen. To listen to a mezzo-soprano, visit the voice types demo.
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NUMBER OPERA: An opera composed of individual numbers, such as recitative, arias, duets, ensembles, etc. Between the numbers there is often a chance for applause. Most of the operas of Mozart, Rossini and Bellini can be called number operas.
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OPERA: Simply stated, a play that is sung. In opera, singing is the way characters express feeling; as it often takes longer to say something in music than it would in speech, the action may seem delayed or even interrupted. Opera (the Latin plural for opus, meaning "work") can involve many different art forms (singing, acting, orchestral playing, scenic artistry, costume design, lighting and dance). Like a play, an opera is acted out on a stage with performers in costumes, wigs and makeup; virtually all operatic characters sing their lines, although there are exceptions for a role that is spoken or performed in pantomime.
OPERA BUFFA (BOOF-fah): An opera about ordinary people, usually, but not always comic, which first developed in the 18th century. Don Pasquale is an example of opera buffa.
OPERA SERIA (SEH-ree-ah): A "serious" opera. The usual characters are gods, goddesses or ancient heroes. Rossini was one of the last to write true opera serie, such as his last opera, Guillaume Tell.
OPERETTA or MUSICAL COMEDY: A play, some of which is spoken but with many musical numbers. See also SINGSPIEL.
ORCHESTRA: The group of instrumentalists or musicians who, led by the conductor, accompany the singers.
ORCHESTRATION: The art of applying orchestral color to written music by assigning various instruments different parts of the music. This requires a complete knowledge of instrumentals and their timbre, range, etc.
OVERTURE: An orchestral introduction to an opera. (French: ouverture; German: ouverture; Italian: sinfonia).
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PARLANDO (pahr-LAHN-doh): A style of singing like ordinary speech. It can occur in the middle of an aria.
PATTER SONG: A song or aria in which the character sings as many words as possible in a short amount of time.
PIANO-VOCAL SCORE: Usually a reduction of an opera’s orchestral score. See SCORE.
PIT: A sunken area in front of the stage where the members of the orchestra play.
PIZZICATO (pit-tsee-CAH-toh): Playing a string instrument by plucking the strings instead of using the bow.
PRELUDE: Usually a short introduction that leads into an act without a break, as opposed to an overture which is longer and can be played as a separate piece. Wagner called his introductions preludes even though some are quite long.
PRIMA DONNA: Literally "first lady;" the leading woman singer in an opera. Because of the way some have behaved in the past, it often refers to someone who acts in a superior and demanding fashion. The term for the leading man is primo uomo.
PRINCIPAL: A major singing role, or the singer who performs such a role.
PRODUCTION: The combination of sets, costumes, props, lights, etc.
PRODUCTION CARPENTER: Carpenter in charge of organizing and handling all aspects of the sets and equipment.
PRODUCTION MANAGER: The administrator responsible for coordinating the sets, costumes, rehearsal facilities and all physical aspects of a production. Often, the person who negotiates with the various unions representing stage hands, musicians, etc.
PROMPT: To help a singer remember lines, some opera houses will place a person (prompter) in a box below and at the very front of the stage.
PROPS (PROPERTIES): Small items carried or used by performers on stage.
PROPERTY MASTER: One who is responsible for purchasing, acquiring and/or manufacturing any props needed for a production.
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QUARTET: An extended musical passage performed by four singers.
QUINTET: An extended musical passage performed by five singers.
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RECITATIVE: Words sung in a conversational style, usually to advance the plot. Not to be confused with aria.
REDUCTION: In a piano reduction, the orchestra parts are condensed into music which can be played by one person on the piano.
RÉPERTOIRE (REP-er-twahr): Stock pieces that a singer or company has ready to present. Often refers to a company's current season.
RÉPÉTITEUR (reh-peh-ti-TEUR): A member of the music staff who plays the piano for rehearsals and, if necessary, the piano or harpsichord during performances. They frequently coach singers in their roles and assist with orchestra rehearsals.
RIGGER: One who works on ropes, booms, lifts and other aspects of a production.
ROULADE or RUN: A quick succession of notes sung on one syllable.
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SCENA (SCHAY-nah): Literally "a scene;" a dramatic episode which consists of a variety of numbers with a common theme. A typical scena might consist of a recitative, a cavatina and a cabaletta. An example is the "Mad Scene" from Lucia di Lammermoor.
SCENIC CHARGE: One who is responsible for painting by reproducing color, texture, preparation and aging of stage surfaces.
SCORE: The written music of an opera or other musical work.
SET, SET DESIGNER: The background and furnishings on the stage and the person who designs them.
SERENADE: A piece of music honoring someone or something.
SEXTET: A piece for six singers.
SINGSPIEL (ZING-shpeel): German opera with spoken dialogue and usually, but not necessarily, a comic or sentimental plot. Examples include The Abduction from the Seraglio and Der Freischütz.
SITZPROBE (ZITS-proh-bah): Literally, "seated rehearsal," it is the first rehearsal of the singers with the orchestra and no acting.
SOPRANO: The highest female singing voice, with a range extending from middle C to the C two octaves above it. Examples include the title role of Manon, Marguerite in Faust and Violetta in La traviata. To listen to a soprano, visit the voice types demo.
SOUBRETTE: A pert, young female character with a light soprano voice often used to portray an opera comedienne. Examples include Zerlina in Don Giovanni and Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos.
SPINTO (Voice type): A lyric voice that has the power and incisiveness for dramatic climaxes.
STAGEHAND: One who works behind-the-scenes setting up lighting, props, rigging, scenery and special effects for a production.
STAGE AREAS: The various sections of the stage. Left and right are as seen by those on stage, not in the audience. Since many stages are raked, that is higher in back than in front, upstage is at the back and downstage at the front. If an actor stays upstage, all the others have to turn their backs to the audience when speaking to him. This is the origin of the phrase "to upstage someone."
STAGE DIRECTOR: The one responsible for deciding the interpretation of each character, the movements of the singers on stage, and other things affecting the singers. Is in charge at rehearsals.
STAGE MANAGER: The person in charge of the technical aspects of the entire opera, including light changes, sound effects, entrances (even of the conductor) and everything else that happens.
STROPHIC: Describes an aria in which the same music repeats for all stanzas of a text.
SUPERNUMERARY: Someone who is part of a group on stage but doesn't sing. It is usually shortened to Super.
SUPERTITLES: Translations of the words being sung, or the actual words if the libretto is in the native language, that are projected on a screen above the stage.
SYNOPSIS: A written description of an opera’s plot.
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TENOR: The highest common adult male singing voice (not including countertenor), with a range from once octave below middle C to the A immediately above middle C; in opera, a tenor is usually the hero and/or romantic interest. Examples include the title role of Werther, Manrico in Il trovatore and Tom in The Rake's Progress. To listen to a tenor, visit the voice types demo.
TECHNICAL DIRECTOR: Supervisor of those who implement the concepts of the designers. He or she works with carpenters, painters, electricians, sound designers and stagehands and oversee the building of sets, props and hanging of lights.
TESSITURA: Literally "texture," it defines the average pitch level of a role. Two roles may have the same range from the lowest to the highest note, but the one with a greater proportion of high notes has the higher tessitura.
THROUGH-SUNG: An opera in which the music is continuous, without divisions into recitative and aria.
TRAGÉDIE LYRIQUE: Early form of French opera that recognized a distinction between the main scenes and divertissements consisting of choruses, dances, etc.
TREMOLO: The quick, continuous reiteration of a pitch.
TRILL: Very quick alternation of pitch between two adjacent notes. See coloratura.
TRIO: An ensemble of three singers or the music that is written for three singers.
TROUSER ROLE: A role depicting a young man or boy but sung by a woman (can be a soprano or mezzo). Examples include the title role of Ariodante, Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier and Sesto in La clemenza di Tito.
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VERISMO: Describes the realistic style of opera that started in Italy at the end of the nineteenth century. Although the peak of the movement was past by the time of Puccini, his operas are a modified form of verismo.
VIBRATO: A natural wavering of frequency (pitch) while singing a note. It is usually inadvertent as opposed to a trill.
VOCAL COACH: A member of an opera company who coaches singers, helping them with the pronunciation, singing and interpretation of a role.
VOCAL CORDS: Wishbone-shaped edges of muscles in the lower part of the throat whose movements creates variations in pitch as air passes between them. Often spelled incorrectly as "chord."
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WIG DESIGNER: Designs and oversees the creation of the wigs used in a production.
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Certain definitions in the Glossary of Opera Terms are courtesy of Knoxville Opera, Brian Salesky, General Director and Conductor.
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