Opera Vocabulary

Keep watching this page for more opera terminology. It will grow over time.

Voice types

The highest of the female voice type usually singing a beautiful aria as she dies.  Used in a sentence; “My  favorite soprano role is Violetta.” Or, “Why are most of the romantic leading roles sung by sopranos” or “Holy cannoli that soprano sings high!” 

Mezzo Soprano
The middle voice type of the female voice types, literally meaning middle soprano or better known as “Witches, bitches and britches”. “Why are all the seductresses in opera played by Mezzo Sopranos?” “Carmen is my favorite Mezzo Soprano role!” “Hmmm I wonder why composers used the Mezzo Soprano voice for so many adolescent boy parts, why not just use a 15 year old boy?”

The highest natural male voice better known as the diva’s love interest. 

The male voice type between tenor and bass. 

The lowest of the male voices. How low can you go? Villains, kings, fathers, basses have it covered. “That is one booming bass voice.”

Talking about the voice or a role

Fast moving, fast note, elaborate vocal melody—vocal fireworks. “That coloratura Cecilia Bartoli sings is so fast it sounds like a machine gun!”

Smooth, connected, literally translated “tied” singing. “You can’t sing Madama  Butterfly without good legato; no one wants to hear a choppy Cio-Cio San.” 

Messa di voce
A vocal technique used a lot in bel canto when a singer starts a pitch piano (quiet) then crescendos (gets louder) then diminuendo (gets quieter) to show emotion. “I love messa di voce but she did it so much I got sea sick” or “That messa di voce she sang was so beautiful it made me cry.”

The sliding from one note to another that can only come from legato singing. It is often used for effect. It’s very prominent stylistically in Italian opera. “Portamento in Mozart, not so much. Portamento in Puccini, yes please.”

The average range of a vocal part/role in an opera. Used in a sentence. “Jeez, the tessitura of the Queen of the Night is ridiculously high.”

The tone quality or color of the voice. Used in a sentence: “The timbre of Renée Fleming’s voice is like velvet.” Or “that soprano’s timbre is a little steely” or “his voice is like buttah!”

Rapid alternation between two adjacent notes.

A gentle vibration creates a slight variation in pitch, which creates color and warmth in the voice…unless it’s not slight, it turns into a wobble! “I love Pavarotti’s vibrato, it’s so even!”

Musical terms

Solo pieces within the opera usually portraying the emotions of the character. It’s the “I love you, I hate you, I love you” moment. 

Bel canto
Bel canto literally translates to “beautiful singing”. It was a popular singing style in Italian opera from the mid-18th to early 19th centuries. There are two primary uses of the term bel canto: 1. As a singing technique, and 2. As an operatic sub-genre.

A type of aria that is common in bel canto opera that is generally slow and meant to show off a singers legato and breath control which is almost always followed by a Cabaletta which is basically the opposite. It’s fast, virtuosic, and decorative. 

The “decorating” of a vocal melody either melodically or rhythmically. “He ornamented the hell out the return of the A section.” 

The instrumental introduction to the opera (or musical or oratorio, basically any musical drama). It’s the orchestra moment to show off.  

Words are sung in a conversational style, usually to advance the plot. Not to be confused with aria.

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