10 Essential Opera Terms
A self-contained number for solo voice, typically with orchestral accompaniment. Arias form a major part of larger works, such as operas, oratorios, or cantatas.
A historical term dating back to the 14th century, used to describe the musical techniques through which different musical voices are combined. In its simplest form, the term can be literally translated as the art of writing “points” (notes) against each other to create harmonic and melodic effects. Composers of the Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical eras were expected to follow a set of compositional rules to create “correct” counterpoint, guided by treatises providing examples and instruction, such as Johann Joseph Fux’s Gradus Ad Parnassum (1725).
In contrast to an aria, an ensemble is a musical number in which multiple characters sing at the same time. Ensembles are typically classified by how many characters they include: duets (two singers), trios (three singers), quartets (four singers), etc. Ensemble scenes are a special feature of comic opera, where they are often used to create humorous interactions between characters.
A type of polyphonic composition based on a brief theme, or “subject,” and its imitation throughout multiple voices of a composition. Fugues can be performed by singers, instruments, or a combination of the two. Choral fugues are often associated with religious music, especially the work of 17th- and 18th-century composers such as J.S. Bach. Considered one of the most complex forms of polyphonic writing, fugues have often been used by composers to show off their compositional skills.
The text of an opera or staged musical drama, comprising all spoken words and stage directions. Literally “little book” in Italian, the word refers to the centuries-old practice of printing a small book with the text to an opera, which was available for sale prior to a performance. A related word, “librettist,” refers to the artist who creates the words for the composer to set to music, either adapting them from an existing source, or writing original material. Often a librettist would have completed his work before the composer began to set it to music, but there were also many composers and librettists who worked very closely together.
A theatrical technique that accentuates the artifice of theater, drawing attention to the performative nature of the stage rather than realism. A variety of techniques can be used to draw attention to the “un-reality” of a play or opera. These include: A play-within-a-play (as in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet and Brett Dean’s recent operatic adaptation); depicting characters who are themselves performers (such as Tosca, Puccini’s titular opera singer); scenes featuring music that is heard or sung by the characters themselves as music (the music lesson scenes in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment, or Cherubino’s “Voi che sapete” in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro); or characters that “break the fourth wall” and speak directly to the audience.
A musical texture in which multiple instruments or voices play or sing different melodies at the same time. Most music for orchestra or chorus is polyphonic. Since polyphonic music was first discussed in a choral context, each individual line of music is referred to as a “voice,” even if it is played by an instrument. Anything with two or more contrasting voices is considered “polyphony”; three- to six-voice textures are most common in choral music. Sometimes, however, composers write for much larger choral groups: The 16th-century English composer Thomas Tallis once wrote a motet, “Spem in alium,” for 40 individual voices!
An umbrella term for everything that contributes to the visual aspect of an operatic performance, including stage sets, props, costumes, and, above all, the singers’ actions and movement across the stage. While the music of an opera mostly stays the same, the staging changes with each new director.
Tonic and dominant
In tonal music, different notes in each key have different “weight.” The fifth note of the scale, called the dominant, is the next in this hierarchy. In D minor, for example, D is the tonic, and A is the dominant. Note that “tonic” and “dominant” can also refer to the triads built on these notes.
A movement in Italian theater and opera in the late 19th century that embraced realism and explored areas of society previously ignored on the stage: The poor, the lower-class, the outcast, and the criminal. Characters in verismo operas are often driven to defy reason, morality, and occasionally the law. In order to reflect these emotional extremes, composers developed a musical style that communicates raw and unfiltered passions. Before its exploration on the operatic stage, the verismo aesthetic developed in the realm of literature.