Download Opera Glossary
A capella. [ah kah-peh-lah] (Italian) Literally, “in the chapel.” Choral music sung without instrumental accompaniment.
Act. One of the main divisions of a drama, opera or ballet, usually completing a part of the action and often having a climax of its own.
Adagio/Adagietto. [ah-dah-jee-oh; ah dah-jee-eh-toh] (Italian) “Slowly.” Indicates a slow tempo. Adagietto is also a slow tempo, but not as slow as adagio.
Allegro/Allegretto. [ah-lay-groh; ah-lay-greh-toh] (Italian) “Merry,” “cheerful.” Indicates a fast tempo. Allegretto is slightly slower than allegro and implies a lighter style.
Andante/Andantino. [ahn-dahn-tay; ahn-dahn-tee-noh] (Italian) From the verb andare, “to walk.” Implies a moderate, “walking” tempo. Similarly, andantino (the diminutive of andante) could imply a tempo either faster or slower than andante.
Aria. [ah-ree-ah] A song sung by one person. In Italian, aria means “air,” “style,” “manner.” The aria had a central place in early opera and throughout operatic history, arias have been used to highlight an emotional state of mind and accentuate the main characters.
Baritone. The most common category of the male voice; lower than a tenor, but higher than a bass. Baritones were more commonly used in during the Romantic opera era.
Bass. The lowest male voice. Many bass roles are associated with characters of authority or comedy.
Brava. “Well done” in Italian. Audiences say this to a female artist to express their appreciation.
Bravo. “Well done” in Italian. Audiences say this to a male artist to express their appreciation.
Bravi. “Well done” in Italian. Audiences say this a group of performers to express their appreciation.
Buffa. Exaggerated comedic opera. From the Latin bufo meaning toad and from the Italian Buffone, which were inflated gloves that actors used to exchange comic blows on the stage.
Chorus. A group of singers usually divided into sections based on vocal range. The chorus was originally an ancient Greek practice of underscoring portions of the drama through music. The chorus is often used for crowd scenes and to play minor characters.
Composer. The person who writes the vocal and/or orchestral music (score).
Conductor. The person in charge of all the musical aspects of an opera; both orchestrally and vocally.
Costumes. The clothing worn on stage by the performers. Costumes can be used to reflect the personality of a character, the historical time period, country of origin or social ranking.
Designers. The people who create the sets, costumes, make-up, wigs and lighting for the opera performance.
Dynamics. The degrees of volume (loudness and softness) in music. Also the words, abbreviations, and symbols used to indicate degrees of volume. Piano (soft) and forte (loud) are most common.
Duet. Two people singing together.
Finale. The ending segment of an act or scene.
Harmony. Harmony is the chordal or vertical structure of a piece of music, as opposed to melody (and polyphony, or multiple melodies) which represents the horizontal structure. The succession of chords in a given piece is referred to as a chord progression.
Leitmotif. A theme or other musical idea the represents or symbolizes a person, object, place, idea, state of mind, supernatural force or some other ingredient in a dramatic work. An idea used widely throughout German opera, though associated with Richard Wagner in most of his operas.
Librettist. The person who writes the text (words) of the opera.
Libretto. [lih-breh-toh] The text of the opera. In Italian, it means “little book.”
Lyrics. Words of an opera or of a song.
Musical. A staged story similar to opera, though most of the dialogue is spoken.
Opera. A staged musical work in which some or all of the parts are sung. In Italian, the word “opera” means a work which is derived as the plural of the Latin opus. Opera is a union of music, drama and spectacle.
Orchestra. A group of musicians led by the conductor who accompany the singers.
Orchestra Pit. A sunken area in front of the stage where the orchestra sits.
Overture. An orchestral introduction played before the action begins. The overture is often used to set the mood of the opera. Many composers used the overture to introduce themes or arias within the opera and sometimes the overture became more well known than the opera itself.
Pants Role. A young male character who is sung by a woman, usually a mezzo-soprano, meant to imitate the sound of a boy whose voice has not yet changed.
Props. The visual elements of a scene other than the set. Furniture is called “set props” and smaller items (anything held by the performer) are called “hand props.”
Quartet. Four people singing together.
Recitative. Dialogue which is “sing-speak.” The recitative helps get through a lot of text quickly and moves the action along. Often precedes an aria or ensemble.
Set. The visual background on stage. The set shows the location of the action.
Soprano. The highest female voice. The soprano is commonly the lead female character.
Tempo. The speed of the music.
Tenor. The highest natural male voice. Often the lead male character within the opera.
Trio. Three people singing together.