10 Essential Opera Terms

A song for solo voice accompanied by orchestra, arias typically appear during a pause in the dramatic action when a character is reflecting on their emotions. Traditionally, opera seria used arias and recitative almost exclusively, while ensemble musical numbers were the exclusive purview of opera buffa, but by the end of the 18th century, composers such as Mozart could draw on both arias and ensemble scenes for operas in either genre.

Dramma giacoso
Literally “comic drama,” or, to use today’s term, “dramedy.” A term for a genre of opera, falling somewhere between opera seria and opera buffa, that mixed the noble characters of the former with the peasants common to the latter. Although the term was used frequently in the later 18th century, today it is most closely associated with Don Giovanni.

A musical scene between two characters, duets are one of several types of “ensembles,” or sung scenes featuring more than one character. Although Don Giovanni’s most famous duet is “Là ci darem la mano,” the opera features numerous duets, including “Fuggi, crudele, fuggi!” (Donna Anna and Don Ottavio) and “O statua gentilissima” (Don Giovanni and Leporello, with the statue of the Commendatore standing silently in the background).

Opera buffa
Literally “comic opera,” a genre that appeared in the early 18th century and featured lower-class characters in lead roles. While some of these characters were silly or ridiculous, others (like Leporello) were profoundly clever, and much of the opera’s comedy came from watching the peasants and servants outwit their noble counterparts.

Opera seria
Literally “serious opera,” a genre that reaches back to the earliest days of opera in the early 17th century. The topics for opera seria were typically drawn from Classical mythology or history, and the characters were almost exclusively gods and nobility.

Lament bass line
A descending stepwise bass line that fills in the gap between the tonic and the dominant (a perfect fourth below). The bass can move diatonically (as it does in the Commendatore’s arrival in the scene of Don Giovanni’s damnation) or chromatically (as it does in “Dido’s Lament,” from Henry Purcell’s 1689 opera Dido and Aeneas). Significantly, each of the bass notes in the “lament bass” is individually harmonized, creating a smooth downward pull. Composers frequently use the lament bass as all or part of a “ground bass,” a constantly repeating bass line above which composers write melodic variations, as Purcell does in “Dido’s Lament.” By contrast, Mozart uses the lament bass for the Commendatore only once, as if suggesting that the stone statue has no interest in wasting his time lamenting when Don Giovanni’s comeuppance is nigh.

A term derived from an Italian verb meaning “to recite,” recitative refers to a type of singing that imitates the accents and inflections of natural speech. Composers often employ recitative for passages of text that involve quick dialogue and the advancement of plot, since the style allows singers to move rapidly through a large amount of text. Traditionally, opera seria utilized recitative passages between arias, while opera buffa used spoken text, but by the end of the 18th century, recitative was being used in both genres, including in all three of Mozart’s operas with Lorenzo Da Ponte. 

A simple song of greeting, usually performed outside. Initially, “serenade” referred to a song sung in the evening or night, while songs sung in the morning were called “aubades.” But by the time Mozart composed Don Giovanni, the term could apply to a song sung at any time of day. In fact, another famous operatic serenade, “Ecco ridente in cielo” from Il Barbiere di Siviglia, takes place at dawn, as Count Almaviva admires the newly risen sun and wonders when he will see his beloved’s shining face.

Tonic and dominant
In tonal music, different notes in each key have different “weight.” The first, and weightiest, note of the scale is called the tonic. The fifth note of the scale—called the dominant—is the next in this hierarchy. In D minor, the most prominent key in Don Giovanni, D is the tonic, and A is the dominant. Note that “tonic” and “dominant” can also refer to the triads built on these notes.

Nicknamed “the devil’s interval,” the tritone is the most dissonant of all intervals. As its name suggests, the tritone outlines three whole steps (e.g., we can find the C–F# tritone by counting the three whole steps above C: C–D, D–E, and E–F#). A highly unstable interval, the tritone must (in tonal music) always resolves to a more grounded sonority (usually a third or a sixth); for instance, its presence in the dominant V7 or vii° chords helps “push” the dominant back to the tonic. Interestingly, the tritone is also highly ambiguous. It is the only “symmetrical” interval in the whole scale: No matter which direction it goes, it preserves its structure of six half steps. For example, if you perform interval acrobatics and flip C–F# into F#–C, it still contains six half steps and remains a tritone. This means that composers can strategically use it to transition to unexpected harmonic spaces, even while following the rules of “proper” counterpoint.