SFOpera - Who Does What

Who Does What

It takes hundreds of talented individuals—working both onstage and behind the scenes—to bring an opera to life. Here's a brief sampling of who does what.


CONDUCTOR –The conductor’s role is to set tempos and visibly mark time for singers and musicians, and to establish or collaborate with others in musical and dramatic interpretation. Often referred to as a maestro (Italian for master), he or she communicates non-verbally through a series of gestures, usually with a baton.

Female Conductor

SOPRANO – A woman who sings the highest notes. She often plays the heroine or love interest of the story. Notable sopranos include Leontyne Price, Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Anna Netrebko, Renata Tebaldi and Renée Fleming.

MEZZO-SOPRANO – A woman who sings slightly lower than a soprano. She often plays the female villain, the seductress or a teenage boy—in that case, she performs what is known as a “trouser role.” Famous mezzos include Frederica von Stade, Joyce DiDonato, Marilyn Horne, Shirley Verrett and Grace Bumbry.

Mezzo-Soprano example in Rosenkav ActTwo

CONTRALTO – A woman with the lowest female vocal range. She often plays a maid, mother, grandmother or sometimes a witch. Some of the best known contraltos include Marian Anderson, Maureen Forrester, Ewa Podleś and Sonia Prina.

COUNTERTENOR – A man with a vocal range similar to a mezzo. He uses a highly trained falsetto voice and usually sings roles that were performed in Baroque operas by castrati—men who had been castrated before puberty to preserve their high singing voices. Famous countertenors include David Daniels, James Bowman and Bejun Mehta.

TENOR – A man with what is generally considered the highest standard male vocal range. He often plays the hero or the lover. Some of the best known tenors include Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo, Enrico Caruso and Jon Vickers.

Example of Tenor Plácido Domingo

BARITONE – A man who sings in the middle male vocal range. He often portrays the villain of the story. Notable baritones include Thomas Hampson, Tito Gobbi, Sherill Milnes, Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Richard Stilwell.

BASS – A man who has the lowest male voice type. He often plays a king, father or sometimes the Devil. Famous basses include Samuel Ramey, Ildar Abdrazakov, Salvatore Baccaloni and René Pape.

SUPERNUMERARY – A supernumerary, or “super,” is an “extra” in a production who does not speak or sing. Typical supernumerary roles include townspersons, soldiers or members of a crowd.

Example of supernumerary


GENERAL DIRECTOR – Matthew Shilvock is San Francisco Opera’s general director. He is the Company’s chief executive in charge of all aspects of managing San Francisco Opera, from artistic decisions to financial considerations.

MUSIC DIRECTOR – Conductor Eun Sun Kim is San Francisco Opera’s music director. She is responsible for the Company’s musical values and is a key member of the artistic team determining programming and casting. 

STAGE DIRECTOR – The person responsible for interpreting the dramatic elements of a musical score or libretto. They shape the drama onstage and the interactions between characters.

Example of Stage Director

STAGE MANAGER – From the first rehearsal to the final show, a stage manager provides support to the director, cast and production team to ensure every aspect of a production runs as intended. During a performance, they coordinate entrances and exits of performers and call technical cues such as lighting changes or movement of scenery.

DRAMATURG – Most frequently used in Europe, dramaturgs deal with the research, development and selection of operas and their editions, as well as researching libretti.

PROMPTER – A prompter gives singers the opening words of each of their phrases, a fraction of a second early, sometimes with hand gestures as cues. Working from a prompter’s box at the front of the stage and visible only to performers, their prompts are mouthed silently or said in a half-voice audible only on stage.

Example of a Prompter 

A Brief History of Opera
From Aria to Vibrato: A Glossary of Opera Terms