10 Essential Opera Terms

A number for solo voice accompanied by orchestra. In opera, arias mostly appear during a pause in dramatic action when a character is reflecting musically on his or her emotions. Most arias are lyrical, with a tune that can be hummed, and many arias include musical repetition. For example, the earliest operatic arias consist of music that repeats with each new stanza of text (strophic arias). Another type of aria, the “da capo aria,” became common by the 18th century and features the return of the opening music and text after a contrasting middle section. Rossini’s arias often fall into multiple sections, including a declamatory beginning, a slower, more lyrical middle portion, and a fast, virtuosic conclusion. 19th-century Italian arias often feature a two-part form that showcases an intensification of emotion from the lyrical first section (the cavatina) to the showier second section (the cabaletta).

Bel canto
Referring to a predominantly Italian vocal style of the late 18th and 19th centuries, bel canto (literally, “beautiful singing”) emphasizes lyricism and ornamentation in order to showcase the beauty of the singer’s voice. Its focus on lyrical embellishment directly contrasts with a contemporary Germanic focus on a weighty, dramatic style. Bel canto singing is most closely associated with the music of Gioachino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini, and Gaetano Donizetti.

A musical structure consisting of only a single melody and a “rule” explaining how different voices should sing it (“canon” means “rule” in Latin). The simplest form of canon, also called a “round,” involves each voice singing the melody on the same pitch and at the same speed but beginning a certain number of beats after the previous singer, as in “Row, row, row your boat.” Composers can also write canons in which the second voice sings the tune backwards (“retrograde”), upside down (“inversion”), or upside down and backwards (a so-called “crab canon”); the second voice may sing the tune at a faster pace than the first (“diminution”), or more slowly (“augmentation”). Finally, there are so-called “puzzle canons,” in which a single line of music is presented with no instructions at all, and performers must figure out the rule before they can successfully sing or play the piece.

A rapid and elaborate ornamentation by a solo singer, particularly common in operas of the 18th and 19th centuries. Requiring vocal agility and a wide and high range, coloratura showcases the virtuosity of a singer by featuring intricate melodic figures, rapid scales, trills, and other embellishments. At the time Rossini was writing La Cenerentola, singers were expected to be able to improvise such ornaments on the spot, especially when singing repeated sections within an aria; as a result, composers often didn’t bother to fully write out the ornaments in the score.

Ensemble number
A section of an opera written for multiple voices, typically labeled according to how many people are involved in the scene (e.g., “quartet” for four voices, “quintet” for five voices, “sextet” for six voices, “septet” for seven voices, “octet” for eight voices, “nonet” for nine voices, etc.).

Legato and Staccato
Two opposite types of articulation. A melody that is “legato” (literally “connected” in Italian) is played without any spaces or gaps between the notes, thereby creating a smooth line. By contrast, the notes in a “staccato” (“detached”) melody are short, with noticeable space between them. Both legato and staccato articulations are associated with vocal virtuosity: While the clarity of a staccato line can help very fast melodies with lots of leaps sparkle, legato lines take a great deal of control over both the voice and the breath.

A voice range lying below the soprano but above the contralto. A mezzosoprano’s voice is slightly deeper than that of a soprano, so mezzo-sopranos are often cast in supporting roles as older women, including nurses, confidantes, or maids. But in Rossini’s operas, the mezzo-soprano is usually the star of the show—especially in comic works like La Cenerentola. In his tragedies, on the other hand, the character with a “mezzo” range is more likely to be the (male) hero: In the early 1800s, heroic male roles were associated with very high voices, a relic of the 18th-century tradition of the castrato (a male singer who had undergone castration as a boy, and who therefore retained a powerful high voice as an adult). By Rossini’s time, these high parts were typically sung by women dressed as men, and they are called “trouser roles” as a result.

Opera buffa
A term applied to Italian comic operas from the mid-18th through mid-19th centuries. The plot of an opera buffa often features scenes and characters from everyday life, addresses a light or sentimental subject, and concludes with a happy ending. Opera buffa had its last hurrah with Rossini, whose comedies are much better known today than his serious works. The generation after Rossini, however, was much more taken with tragedy, or a hybrid “semi-serious” genre that was more sentimental in outlook. Opera buffa declined considerably in popularity as a result, and hardly any opere buffe were written after around 1850.

A type of vocal writing between speech and song 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. Recitative may be accompanied either by a single instrument (such as a harpsichord or fortepiano), a small ensemble, or the whole orchestra. Because recitative is so formulaic, it was often the last part of an opera to be written; in fact, Rossini contracted out the writing of La Cenerentola’s recitatives to another composer, Luca Agolini, who also contributed a showy aria for Clorinda.

Rossini crescendo
A crescendo is a gradual raising of volume in music achieved by increasing the dynamic level. When music “crescendos,” the performers begin at a softer dynamic level and get incrementally louder. One of the most famous types of crescendos in opera, closely associated with Rossini, is appropriately known as the “Rossini crescendo”: It involves pairing an increase in volume with repeating melodic and rhythmic phrases, higher instrumental registers, and the gradual addition of instruments to create a particularly dramatic or comedic effect.