From Aria to Vibrato: A Glossary of Opera Terms
If you’ve been thinking or talking about opera lately, you’ve probably noticed that the long, rich history of this art form comes with an even longer list of vocabulary that defines practically every aspect of the opera experience. Honing your comprehension of these words helps you develop a deeper understanding of that experience and a deeper appreciation for this craft.
Let’s review some of the most important opera vocab so you’re armed with the terminology to banter with the best of them!
Aria Bel Canto Cadenza Coloratura Impresario Leitmotif Libretto Mezza Voce Opera Buffa Opera Seria Operetta Portamento Recitative Trill Trouser Role Vibrato
Aria definition: An aria is a solo song for a singer in an opera. Typically, the famous and familiar songs we know from operas are arias.
Example: A great example of an aria is this moment from Norma by Vincenzo Bellini in which singer Sondra Radvanovsky performs one of opera’s most demanding and stunning roles. Another example? “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot, an aria made famous by Luciano Pavarotti, one of the Three Tenors, which remains one of the most recognizable arias in opera to this day.
Bel canto definition: Bel canto translates to “beautiful singing” in Italian and is a lyrical style of operatic singing that uses a rich, broad tone and smooth phrasing. Notable Italian bel canto composers include Donizetti, Rossini, and Bellini, all of whom famously used bel canto singing in their operas.
Example: Roberto Devereux’s aria "Come uno spirito angelico," which takes place moments before the lead character’s death, is a perfect example of bel canto singing.
Cadenza definition: A cadenza is a musical passage where a singer performs a few vocally impressive measures to highlight their character and show off their talents. Cadenzas typically occur at the end of a song and are usually free of rhythm, yet thoroughly ornamental. Sometimes cadenzas are improvised, but they are more commonly prepared in advance or even written into the music.
Example: A great example of a cadenza appears in soprano Natalie Dessay’s stunning performance in the title role from Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. In this heartbreaking aria, Lucia sings of an imagined future with her lover Edgardo—a future that will never come after the many tragedies that have befallen her over the course of the opera.
Coloratura definition: Coloratura is elaborately embellished vocal music that includes a lot of fast notes, runs, trills, and wide melodic leaps in each syllable. It’s usually used to show a character’s high emotional state and demonstrate the singer’s vocal ability. Coloratura is what many people think of when they think of opera singing.
While anyone can sing coloratura, they are usually written for, and performed by, sopranos. The association of coloraturas with soprano voices is so strong that there’s an entire operatic vocal type called “coloratura soprano.”
Example: The Queen of the Night’s aria "Der Hölle Rache" in Act II of Mozart’s The Magic Flute is one of the most famous examples of a coloratura. This aria is well known for its beauty and difficulty to perform, requiring the fast repetition of a high C and several top F notes. Mozart wrote this specifically for his sister-in-law, Josepha Hofer, who sang this demanding and haunting coloratura for ten years!
"Der Hölle Rache" isn’t the only example of coloratura in the opera, though. In this clip, you can hear a great example of coloratura from a different moment in The Magic Flute, again sung by the Queen of the Night performing some incredible vocal gymnastics.
Impresario definition: An impresario is the person who runs an opera company. This role is also sometimes known as the “Artistic Director” or “General Manager” of the opera company.
Example: Matthew Shilvock is the impresario of our very own San Francisco Opera!
Leitmotif definition: A leitmotif is a short, recurring musical phrase associated with a particular character, theme, idea, or emotion in an opera.
Nowadays, leitmotifs aren’t just in operas; they appear in musicals, too! Stephen Sondheim, an American composer and lyricist of musicals like Sweeney Todd, is famous for his characters’ leitmotifs as is Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose groundbreaking musical Hamilton relies heavily on leitmotifs throughout.
Example: Wagner is considered the king of leitmotifs and when you hear this example from Die Walküre, you’ll understand why. Called the “spear motif,” in this clip we can hear one of the appearances of this leitmotif as Wotan, king of the gods, summons a fire to guard his sleeping daughter Brünnhilde.
Libretto definition: The libretto is the opera’s text—the literal words being sung. While music is the driving force of opera, without the libretto (“little book” in Italian) no one would be singing anything!
When we think about who wrote an opera, we tend to think of one person: the composer. But historically, operas were written by at least two people—the composer and the librettist. Unfortunately, the librettist is too often forgotten when discussing opera and the composer continues to get all the credit.
Example: Did you know that Mozart, one of the most famous composers of opera, didn’t write his librettos? Lorenzo Da Ponte provided Mozart with the inspiration for some of his most famous works, including Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, and Così fan tutte. And while Mozart may be famous for his wild life, Da Ponte had quite an interesting journey as well. In addition to writing librettos, he went from being a Venetian priest to founding the Italian department at Columbia University.
Mezza voce definition: Mezza voce is an indication used by some composers to signify that a passage should be sung more quietly. Singing at “half voice,” which is what mezza voce means in Italian, can intensify the emotion of a song.
People often ask about the difference between mezza voce vs. sotto voce. Sotto voce, which means “under the voice” or “under one’s breath," is far quieter and evokes more of a whisper than mezza voce, which is a more dramatic vocal effect.
Example: In this excerpt from Massenet’s Manon, we can hear a great example of mezza voce being used to increase emotion as the character comes to a life-changing realization.
Obbligato definition: An obbligato is a solo instrumental section during a vocal number. An obbligato is designed to support the principal vocal part and offer the singer some relief during the performance.
Example: In our Atrium Sessions, Rhoslyn Jones sings "Er ist gekommen in Sturm und Regen" as Matthew Piatt, the pianist, supplies the obbligato.
Opera buffa definition: Stemming from the Italian improvisational, trope-heavy performance style of commedia dell’arte, opera buffa is a lighthearted and often very funny form of opera that typically depicts everyday characters dealing with everyday problems.
Example: Opera buffa examples include complete comedic farces like Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, as well as more touching pieces like Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Early opera buffa composers were based in Naples or Venice in the early 1700s. By the turn of the century, opera buffa was widespread throughout Italy and beyond.
Opera seria definition: As the name suggests, opera seria is serious opera that focuses on more weighty or historical subjects and usually ends in tragedy. Opera seria was developed before opera buffa and was created specifically for the nobility and ruling classes to enjoy.
But the biggest difference between opera buffa vs. opera seria is the focus. Opera seria deals with kings, gods, and ancient heroes, whereas opera buffa involves everyday people in contemporary settings dealing with everyday struggles. Another major difference between opera seria and opera buffa is the act structure. Opera seria usually has three acts, whereas opera buffa typically has just two.
Example: A prime example of opera seria is Orlando by George Frideric Handel, who was a popular composer of many opera seria. This is an opera that once would have involved the use of a castrato singer, but which now uses a countertenor for the same role. To learn more about what those terms mean, check out our blog on opera voice types!
Operetta definition: The operetta is a form of light opera that’s shorter and funnier than regular operas. Operettas usually contain dialogue and dance sequences, and they historically served as a bridge between opera and modern musical theater.
So what’s the difference between an opera vs. operetta? While operas are entirely sung-through, operettas have breaks in the performance without any musical accompaniment. These interludes have grown over time and are now the “scenes” of dialogue or dance that we see in modern musical theater.
Example: One of the most famous examples of an operetta is Richard Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. In this fun clip of the Act II finale, you can see many of the central characters making a toast to champagne. And keep an eye out to see if you can spot a trouser role (which we will define in a little bit) in the number!
Portamento definition: Portamento is the vocal technique of sliding between pitches continuously instead of jumping between the two notes.
Example: Portamento is often a characteristic of bel canto. Look back at our example for bel canto, and see if you can spot when Russell Thomas uses portamento during his aria as Roberto Devereux!
Recitative definition: This is a style of vocal music that follows the pitches (typically a single pitch) and rhythms of regular speech. Syllabic recitativo secco, or “dry recitative,” moves the action forward and typically has minimal instrumental backing. Recitativo accompagnato, or “accompanied recitative,” has full orchestra backing and is designed to increase the dramatic temperature or lead up to larger numbers.
One of the biggest questions we see around the recitative is: “What’s the difference between aria and recitative?” The main difference is that recitatives are focused on the action and drive the opera’s plot, whereas arias focus on the character’s feelings and drive the opera’s emotional life. That distinction has to do with the relationship of each to the music of the opera. With an aria, the music is the point of the piece—it is the vehicle conveying these feelings. With recitative, whether recitative secco or accompanied recitative, the focus is on the dialogue over the music. Each plays a critical, if separate role.
Example: Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (Le Nozze di Figaro) is full of both kinds of recitatives—secco and accompanied. Let’s look at this example of accompanied recitative. Figaro's wife Susanna decides to tease her snooping husband by fantasizing aloud about the moment she'll fall into the arms of her lover. She means Figaro, of course—but he doesn't know that! As Susanna describes her supposed tryst, the orchestra punctuates her thoughts. Her song follows normal speech patterns—just with a little musical accompaniment.
Trill definition: A trill is a vocal effect where the singer quickly alternates pitch back and forth between two notes.
People often get confused between trill vs. vibrato singing. The key difference is that, unlike vibrato, which remains on the same pitch throughout, a trill goes back and forth between two semitones, half-steps, or two adjacent pitches
Example: To get an example of a trill in context, we’re going back to the same beautiful section of Lucia di Lammermoor that we used when talking about cadenzas. This time, focus on the very pronounced trill that begins at the 35 second mark. If you want to see some incredible examples of trills out of context, then check out this compilation of soprano Joan Sutherland performing her master trills.
Trouser role definition: The trouser role is generally a young male role within an opera that is sung by a woman dressed as a man. The characters for trouser roles are often boyish and cheekily romantic.
The trouser role is also often called a “pants part” or a “breeches role.” Famous trouser role examples include Cherubino from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Hansel from Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, and Prince Orlofsky from Strauss’s Die Fledermaus.
The trouser role is one of the most interesting trends to think about both in opera history and when looking toward the future. In the 21st century, how we view gender on (and off) stage is changing. While trouser roles began due to the vocal necessities and high octaves required by roles that once may have gone to castrato singers, it’s exciting to think about where this tradition will go as classic opera and modern thinking interact!
Example: A great example of a trouser role in action is this clip of Cherubino from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, a pubescent boy forced to sing a song about his secret crush, Countess Rosina, right in front of her.
Vibrato definition: Vibrato is one of the essential elements of opera. A singer creates this gentle vibration by slightly varying their pitch while remaining on a single note. The addition of vibrato can add richness, warmth, and expression to a singing part.
It’s interesting to wonder, what is vibrato if not opera itself? After all, vibrato singing is often what we think of when we think of opera. The literal vibrations it causes shake the ground, letting us truly feel the singer’s passion and emotion as they perform.
Example: In the Tosca aria "E Lucevan le Stelle," the imprisoned painter Mario Cavaradossi faces his death and recalls his beloved Floria Tosca. The aria utilizes vibrato to emphasize and heighten the emotions of the piece.
Going Beyond Opera Vocabulary
While you can certainly enjoy opera without understanding every bit of opera vocabulary, learning these terms can give you an even deeper appreciation for the operas you experience—whether you're watching from your couch or the seat of an opera house!
If you want to learn more about the basics of opera, check out our other blogs like A Brief History of Opera and 5 Things to Know About Opera. You can also learn more about what's going on at the San Francisco Opera by checking out our website!