Get to know your Britten from your ‘bel canto’, your tenors from your trouser roles, and all things opera with this handy A-Z guide…

Act

A portion of an opera with its own dramatic structure. Some operas have two acts, some have three or more, and there are also short, hard-hitting one act operas like Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (Clowns).

Aria

A section of music for one solo voice, during which the plot usually pauses and a character expresses their thoughts and feelings.

Peter Auty as Canio and Elin Pritchard as Nedda in Pagliacci, 2017 © Tristram Kenton

Baritone

Lower male voice type between tenor and bass. In many Italian operas, this is the baddie – George Bernard Shaw wrote: “Opera is when a tenor and soprano want to make love, but are prevented from doing so by a baritone”!

Bass

The very lowest male voice type. These can be kings, philosophers, super villains, comic characters (like Don Basilio in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville) and more.

Bel canto

Italian for ‘beautiful singing’ and name of a style of opera that dominated in the 18th/early 19th Centuries (most associated with composers Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti), where the emphasis was on vocal beauty and virtuosity rather than the drama.

Bizet, Georges

French composer (1838-1875) who penned one of the most famous operas: Carmen.

Bravo

What you call out (if you want!) after a particularly impressive aria. Remember it’s ‘Brava’ for a woman and ‘Bravi’ for more than one person.

Britten, Benjamin

English composer (1913-1976) and central figure of 20th Century classical music. Recurring themes in his operas: an outsider versus a hostile society, and the corruption of innocence.

Chorus

Group of singers who form an onstage community of people. The Chorus of Opera North has 36 full time members, but this is often expanded, depending on the opera. Our production of Martinů’s The Greek Passion featured a chorus of 48, creating a powerful wall of sound.

Coloratura

Elaborate ornamentation of a vocal melody with lots of runs, leaps and trills.

Concert staging

Performance where the orchestra is also on stage, visible to the audience, but there’s no less drama than a fully staged performance! See ‘What is a Concert Staging?

Conductor

In overall charge of shaping the musical interpretation. Leads the orchestra and singers from the front, keeping everyone together.

Countertenor

Male voice type that sings in falsetto, with a range equivalent to a mezzo-soprano. Found a lot in early operas, where the roles would have originally been sung by ‘castrati’ (it’s what it sounds like), but also some more modern works, including Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Britten.

Director

Person in charge of everything on stage, from the overall vision of the production, to the way the opera singers perform.

Designers

The people responsible for creating the look of the costumes, set and lighting. Often the same person designs both set and costumes.

Dress rehearsal

Final rehearsal before opening night in full costume etc. If you’d like to experience our dress rehearsals, you can join the Friends of Opera North.

Duet

Section of music for two singers, such as the passionate duet from the very end of Andrea Chénier, as he and lover Maddalena resolve go to the guillotine together…

Ensemble

Section of music involving a number of people, and sometimes even the chorus!

Helen Sherman, Gavan Ring, Màire Flavin and Nicholas Watts in Così fan tutte, 2016 © Tristram Kenton

Finale

The last part of an opera (or individual Act of an opera) – usually very dramatic or exciting.  Here’s the Act II finale from Verdi’s Aida, performed in a shopping centre by our Chorus and trumpets.

Grand opera

Genre of 19th Century opera with large casts and orchestras, normally with plots based around historic events, such as Verdi’s epic Don Carlos

Don Carlos, 2009

Portrait of Handel by John Faber, 1749 © Gerald Coke Handel Foundation

Handel, George Frideric

German composer (1685-1759) based in London. He wrote over 40 operas, many of which, despite sharing a fairly rigid structure, feature compelling characters and storytelling – as well as beautiful music.

Intermezzo

An orchestral interlude in the opera. One of the most popular pieces of classical music is the intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana by Mascagni.

Interval

A short break (usually after an Act or two in which you can get a drink etc.), and the technicians often re-set the stage ready for the next Act.

Audiences at Leeds Grand Theatre © Tom Arber

Leoš Janáček © Moravské zemské muzeum Brno

Janáček, Leoš

Czech composer (1854-1928), heavily inspired by his native folk music and the rhythms of Czech speech. He wrote nine operas, adapted from sources as diverse as a cartoon strip about a resourceful vixen and a Russian prison journal.

Keys

The musical key a scene is written in affects its dramatic colour. Mozart’s Don Giovanni opens with a clanging D minor chord (which signals the gates of hell opening), but the music soon moves to D major, reflecting the opera’s comic side and dark side.

William Dazeley and the Chorus of Opera North in Don Giovanni, 2018 © Bill Cooper

Puccini with La bohème librettists Illica and Giacosa, 1893

Leitmotif

A recurring musical theme for a character, object or emotion that is heard each time that character/thing appears.

Libretto

The text of the opera i.e. the words. Some composers, such as Puccini, had quite stormy relationships with their librettists…

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus

Composer born in Salzburg (1756-1791), and one of the most famous of all time! He wrote 21 operas in total, the best known being The Marriage of FigaroDon Giovanni , Così fan tutte and The Magic Flute.

Mezzo-soprano

Literally ‘half soprano’, female voice type with a slightly lower range. Often plays older women, seductresses and young boys (‘witches, bitches and britches’) – except in Rossini operas, where the mezzo is often the heroine, such as Angelina in La Cenerentola (Cinderella).

Monteverdi, Claudio

Italian composer (1567-1643) who in 1607 wrote the first opera still regularly performed today, Orfeo.

Nessun dorma

‘None shall sleep’ from Puccini’s opera Turandot, arguably the most famous tenor aria of all time. Hear it performed by Opera North, flash mob style.

Operetta

Sub-genre of opera, usually comic, that contains dialogue and dance as well as singing. The most well-known English operettas are by the Victorian duo Gilbert & Sullivan, including the short Trial by Jury

Orchestra

Instrumental ensemble that accompanies the singers. This can vary hugely in size depending on the opera and composer – a Handel opera might call for an orchestra of 24, while some Wagner operas are written for over 100 players.

Overture

Orchestral piece at the beginning of an opera, sometimes before curtain up, but often nowadays staged. Can also be called a ‘Prelude’. Hear the popular overture to Mozart’s Così fan tutte.

The Orchestra of Opera North in the orchestra pit rehearsing for Der Rosenkavalier © Tom Arber

Pit

A sunken area in front of and slightly under the stage in which the orchestra plays.

Props

Small items that the performers carry with them or use on stage – handbags, daggers, wine glasses, iPhones, you name it.

Programme

A booklet you can buy before the performance to find out more about the cast, story, and the production.

Puccini, Giacomo

Italian composer (1858-1924) behind some of the best-loved operas of all time: Madama Butterfly, Tosca and La bohème. Puccini’s output was almost solely opera – he wrote that God had commanded him to write only for the theatre!

Queen of the Night

Character in The Magic Flute who sings the infamous Queen of the Night aria, which is peppered with high Fs. The role was written for Mozart’s sister-in-law Josepha Hofer, who had a stratospheric range.

Heather Shipp as the Second Norn, Lee Bisset as the Third Norn and Fiona Kimm as the First Norn in the Ring cycle © Clive Barda

Recitative

Sung speech performed with an accompanying instrument such as harpsichord, which contains the plot development and connects the arias.

Repetiteur

Pianist (and sometimes music coach) during rehearsals.

Ring cycle

Four epic operas by Wagner, often performed over the course of a week and based on some of the same Nordic mythology as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Stream our 2016 concert staging of the Ring in full.

Score

What we call the full composition, either referring to the music itself or the physical book! The conductor uses the ‘full score’, which includes every instrumental part.

Set

The background/walls/furniture/setting in which the singers perform.

Sitzprobe

Literally means ‘seated rehearsal’ in German, this is often the first time the orchestra and singers rehearse together.

Soprano

Highest female voice type, often the leading lady. Here’s the soprano aria ‘O mio babbino caro’ from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi.

Strauss, Richard

German composer (1864-1949) who pushed the boundaries of what opera could be! His first major success Salome featured a single chord so unorthodox and dissonant, it has been described as ‘epoch-making’…

Surtitles

The words of the libretto (or English translation if the opera is in another language) are displayed on screens either side of the stage, so you’ll always know what’s going on!

Facsimile of Mozart's autograph score to The Magic Flute © Opera North

Tenor

Highest common adult male voice type, usually the hero and/or romantic lead. Here’s the tenor aria ‘E lucevan le stelle’ from Puccini’s Tosca.

Toi Toi Toi

What we say in opera instead of “good luck” (like “break a leg” in theatre). It derives from the notion of spitting three times (gross), which in many cultures is believed to ward off evil spirits. N.B. Don’t actually spit!

Trouser role

An adolescent male character sung by a woman (often a mezzo-soprano) such as Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, who tries to control his raging hormones in the aria above.

Trio

A section of music written for three singers. One of opera’s most famous trios is found in Der Rosenkavalier, and has been described as composer Strauss’ ‘love letter to the soprano voice’.

Unamplified

Opera singers use no amplification – their voices have been trained to carry over a whole orchestra and fill an entire theatre. This means there is no barrier between the singer and audience, making opera a unique experience.

Stage rehearsal of Pagliacci at Leeds Grand Theatre © Tom Arber

Anna Jeruc-Kopec as Violetta and Ji-Min Park as Alfredo in Verdi's La traviata, 2015 © Richard H Smith

Verdi, Giuseppe

Composer (1813–1901), often referred to as the father of Italian opera. He wrote some of the world’s most popular operas including La traviata, Aida and Rigoletto, and had a knack for taking figures marginalised by society and telling their stories.

Verismo

Italian for ‘realism’, a style of opera popular in the late 19th/early 20th Centuries depicting the gritty lives of ordinary people as opposed to kings and queens etc. Usually ends in violent death…

Vibrato

Comes from the Italian ‘to vibrate’, this is a wavering of the voice between two notes used by opera singers to create a richer sound.

Wagner, Richard

German composer (1813-1883) who wrote operas of epic proportions often based on mythology, for orchestras (and voices!) much larger than ever before. His opera The Mastersingers of Nuremberg is the longest commonly performed opera at well over five hours.

Wigs

Key part of a character’s costume. A production can feature a great number of different wigs, but these are kept and re-used, and if looked after properly can last for many years.

Katie Bray as Louis XV chair in L'enfant et les sortilèges having wig and headpiece fitted © Tom Arber

Children's Chorus in La bohème, 2019 © Richard H Smith

Youth chorus

Many operas feature a children’s chorus (or even child principals) which can give a more vibrant sense of ‘community’ on stage and be great stage experience for young people. Hear from some of our young singers.

Zauberflöte (Die)

The original German title for one of the most frequently performed operas today: The Magic Flute!

Kang Wang as Tamino and Vuvu Mpofu as Pamina in The Magic Flute, 2019 © Alastair Muir

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