Glossary at a Glance

Glossary at a Glance

Opera terms you may encounter

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.