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Opera incorporates the elements of not only singing but acting, dancing, costuming and more! In this lesson, you will learn all about the key parts of opera and important opera terms.

Opera

If a song were a snack, then opera would be a full-course meal. An opera is essentially a play in which all the actors’ lines are sung instead of spoken. This singing is combined with the other theatrical elements of drama, dancing, costumes, sets, staging, lighting, etc. to create the artistic spectacle we call opera.

Operatic Styles of Singing

There are two main types of singing in an opera, and these are used for different purposes.

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Recitative is narrative talk-singing with the emphasis on the words to move the storyline along. These are not songs with memorable melodies and rich accompaniment, but more like spoken lines put to a simple, one-note repeated melody to say something important that is happening in the plot of the opera.An aria, on the other hand, is a reflective song with melody and accompaniment that portrays the feelings of the characters more than plot development. These are the memorable songs with rich melodies and accompaniments that emphasize the feelings and expressions of the character rather than the storyline itself.At first, these arias had no distinct form, but by the middle of the 17th century, the aria had evolved into a form known as the da capo aria, which is a three-part form where the first section is repeated at the end of a contrasting section in the middle; this is known as ABA form. It is very common to have a lot of ornamentation of the melody when it returns at the end to show off the singing ability of the performer.

Styles of Opera

Just as there are different cuisines, such as Italian, French, and Chinese food, there are also different types of opera. In fact, there are two basic styles of opera. Opera Seria, or ‘serious opera,’ is an older style of opera with the emphasis on very ornamented arias rather than plot line. In these operas, the virtuoso arias are much more important than a sensible plot, the recitatives, or expressive feelings of the character.

The main characters in these operas are very often gods and goddesses or ancient heroes. An example of this type of opera is Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, or William Tell.In contrast, the Opera Buffa are operas with stories about real people in real situations that are often comic situations. This style of opera evolved from the comic scenes that were inserted into Opera Seria to provide comic relief that eventually became a form of their own. An example of this type of opera was Don Pasquale by Donizetti.

Parts of the Opera

If you were dining at a fine restaurant, you would expect to find many parts of a full-course meal, such as the entree, vegetable, bread, beverage, salad, soup, and dessert. Likewise, if you were to attend an opera, there are many components that you would expect to find.The opera itself is based on a libretto, which is similar to the script of a play, except all the words of the play are sung. There are some operas in English, but there are also many in other languages, such as Italian or German. Because of this, many theaters use supertitles, which project the English translation of the libretto above the stage. It’s like having your menu translated for you at a fine restaurant.

Before the opera starts, the orchestra plays a preview of some of the melodies that will be heard in the opera; this is called the overture. The opera itself is broken up into sections called acts and smaller sections called scenes – the same as you would find in most plays or musicals. These are usually divided by storyline or location of the action. Some of the songs you will hear might have a section where the singer is free to improvise and show off their singing skills; this is called a cadenza.You might also notice that some operas use a technique called leitmotif, where a certain character is represented by a certain theme. When that character appears, or is even thought of, that melody appears in the music.

As a modern example of this, you could think of Darth Vader’s theme from Star Wars.

Lesson Summary

Opera has two distinct singing styles: recitative, which is narrative, and arias, which are lyrical. There are also two styles of operas themselves: the Opera Seria, which is a more serious opera with larger-than-life characters, and the Opera Buffa, which is lighter and more comical about everyday people. In an opera you will find an overture, acts, scenes, and songs that may include cadenzas and leitmotif. If the libretto of the opera is in a foreign language, there may be supertitles that display a translation above the stage.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this lesson, display your ability to perform these actions:

  • State the two types of songs and the two singing styles found in opera
  • Recall the two styles of opera
  • Discuss the parts of an opera

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