Opera Vocabulary

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


Voice types

Soprano
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?”

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

Baritone
The male voice type between tenor and bass. 

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

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

Legato
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.”

Portamento
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.”

Tessitura
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.”

Timbre
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!”

Trill
Rapid alternation between two adjacent notes.

Vibrato
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

Aria
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.

Cavatina
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. 

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

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

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

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