Opera 101

The Glimmerglass Festival welcomes new operagoers with open arms. If you will be joining us for the first time, we offer the following information to help you prepare for your Glimmerglass experience. In addition to this introduction and exploring the Frequently Asked Questions page, we recommend you attend one of our free previews which take place one hour prior to every show. Our expert music staff member will take you on an insightful exploration of the work you are about to experience.

In the simplest terms, opera is a story told with music.  Narrowly defined, it is a drama in which actors and actresses sing, but its growth and development include many sub-genres that use spoken dialogue as well.  Different centuries and countries created variations such as opera seria, opera buffa, opera comique, operetta, madrigals, masques, pastorals and commedia dell’arte plays.

Opera, an Italian word meaning ‘work,’ is often considered the most complex of all art forms, combining both creative and performance arts, literature and theatrical elements of sets, costumes, lighting, make-up and spectacle.  Its roots in music drama go back to prehistoric times, to rituals, religious chants and incantations as a form of worship.  In the early 10th century, medieval churches with largely illiterate congregations performed liturgical plays to convey religious beliefs. These plays used music, costumes, action and scenery – all elements of opera.

Opera, as we know it today began more than 400 years ago in Florence, Italy. The Camerata, a group of writer, scholars, composers and poets, believed that their new works should reflect ancient Greek drama and incorporate music into the drama.  Claudio Monteverdi, a member of the Camerata, made music an equal partner and put it in the center of his drama/opera, L’Orfeo – first performed in 1607.

— Abby Gibson, Glimmerglass Guild Education Committee Chair

The Festival offers supertitles for every opera and musical theater production at The Glimmerglass Festival. Lyrics are projected above the stage in easy-to-read English text.

In addition to translating foreign language productions from the original French, Italian, German and others into English, the supertitle system is used even when the opera is sung in English – to enhance your enjoyment and understanding of our performances.

If you will be joining us for the first time, we recommend you attend one of our free previews which take place one hour prior to every show. Our expert music staff member will take you on an insightful exploration of the work you are about to experience. Here are a few tips to help you enjoy your first performance.


The free previews take place one hour prior to the performance. If you opt not to attend, we recommend you arrive about 30 minutes prior to the performance to allow for parking and picking up your tickets (if they weren’t mailed to you). If you are picking up your tickets at will call, head to the front of the theater where the Ticket Kiosk is located. Free programs are available at the Audience Services desk at the front of the theater.

Entering the Theater

The theater doors open about 30 to 40 minutes prior to the performance. Our friendly ushers will greet you, take your ticket and help you to your seat in the Alice Busch Opera Theater.


Most operas have an intermission. This is an opportunity for you to stretch your legs and grab a beverage from our concession stands. More than likely, our stage crew is working furiously behind the curtain to change the scenery for the next act. Intermissions at Glimmerglass usually last 25 minutes.

Here are a few terms you might encounter in conversation and throughout the program.

Aria: (Italian, “lively”) A song for solo voice in an opera with a clear, formal structure.

Baritone: Man’s voice, intermediate between bass and tenor

Bass: The lowest part in a musical score of the lowest male voice. The term is also used for low-pitched musical instruments.

Bel-canto: (Italian, “beautiful song”) Refers to the style cultivated in the 18th and 19th centuries of Italian opera. This demanded precise intonation, clarity of tone and enunciation and a great mastery of the most florid passages.

Chorus: A body of singers who sing and act as a group, either in unison or in harmony; any musical number written for such a body.

Coloratura: An elaborate and highly ornamented, usually high-lying, part for soprano voice. The term is also applied to those singers who specialize in the mastery of the demanding technique required for such parts.

Conductor: The person who leads a musical group.

Contralto: Low-pitched woman’s voice.

Countertenor: The highest adult male singing voice; the countertenor sings in what would typically be considered falsetto.

Libretto: (Italian, “little book”) The text of an opera. The term derives from the fact that, bound in the form of a little book, these were sold to the audience.

Mezzo-soprano: Female voice lying intermediate between soprano and contralto.

Opera: Among the many types of dramatic work with music, opera is distinguished in having all the words of the text set to music. Broadly speaking, the music is divided between arias and narrative recitative passages.

Opera Buffa: An Italian form in which the spoken work is also used, usually with a comedic theme. The French term “opera bouffe” describes a similar type, although it may have an explicitly satirical intent.

Operetta: A light opera, whether full-length or not, often using spoken dialogue; the plots are romantic and improbable even farcical, the music tuneful.

Overture: A piece of music preceding an opera.

Recitative: A style of sung declamation used in opera. It may be either accompanied or unaccompanied save for punctuating chords from the harpsichord.

Score: The written or printed book containing all the parts of a piece of music.

Soprano: (Italian, “upper”) The high female voice; the high, often highest, member of a family of instruments.

Tenor: A high male voice.

— Glimmerglass Guild Education Committee materials and The La Rousse Encyclopedia of Music.