Opera & Musical Theater

Opera Glossary

All of us who go to the opera, regardless of whether we’re casual opera-goers or inveterate opera lovers, originally had to start from scratch in our opera-going experience. Every one of us at some point in our lives had to buy that first ticket, or let someone else take us to the opera for the first time, unsure and unknowledgeable about what we were about to experience.

That first time is a little daunting, for some us a lot daunting.  Not only is there new jargon to learn, but it’s often not even in English!  Whom can you trust enough to ask What’s ‘tessitura’ and is there a vaccine for it? without feeling completely foolish?  Some people are fortunate enough to know someone who can show them the ropes.  Others have to acquire their knowledge the hard way . . . but no more.  Here are a few definitions of some terms we’re likely to hear around The Wortham Center and other operatic environs: 

Aria [AH-ree-ah]: this seemingly exotic word when literally translated simply means “air (!).” An aria is simply a musical number for solo voice and accompaniment. If you have a number for two voices and accompaniment, it’s a duet…three voices, a trio…four, a quartet, and so on. Opera is famous for allowing numerous voices to express themselves simultaneously, yet distinctly and clearly. There’s a famous septet (7 solo voices) in the “Giulietta” act of The Tales of Hoffmann, and of course there’s Lucia di Lammermoor’s famous sextet (6).


Norina (Jennifer Welch-Babidge) informs an infuriated Don Pasquale (John Del Carlo) that she taken the key to his estate. Photo by Brett Coomer/HGO

Bel canto [bell CAHN-toh]: literally translated as “beautiful singing,” bel canto is a style of singing that is the hallmark of an early-to-mid-19th-century style of Italian opera composition of the same name. Bel canto is characterized by smooth, seamless vocal production; the ability to spin out long, seamless vocal lines; and agility. . . in short, flawless vocal technique. The most famous and enduring bel canto composers are Vincenzo Bellini, Gioacchino Rossini and Gaetano Donizetti.

Cabaletta [cah-bah-LEH-tah]: whenever you hear a cavatina, you know there’s a cabaletta coming up very shortly. They almost always occur in pairs. By contrast to the cavatina, the cabaletta is fast and energetic, designed to show off a singer’s virtuosity and decorative singing (e.g.: fioratura, trills, vocal leaps and other such tonsorial derring-do). In Lucia di Lammermoor, Lucia’s Act I aria “Regnava nel silencio” is the cavatina, and “Quando rapito in estasi” is the cabaletta. Similarly, Norma’s “Casta diva” and “Ah, bello a me ritorno” is a famous cavatina/cabaletta combination.

Can belto [can BELL-toh]: a term for singers whose one-size-fits-all vocal style can best be described as “loud, louder, and ‘can they hear me in the parking garage?.'”

Cavatina [cah-vah-TEE-nah]: a type of aria common to Italian operas of the bel canto era. The cavatina is a generally slow, contemplative aria, designed to show off the singer’s breath control, soft singing (piano) and long vocal line (legato).

Coloratura [COL-oh-rah-TOO-rah]: vocal music that is highly ornamented or decorated with runs, trills, and other vocal acrobatics. Coloratura is also used to describe a singer whose voice is ideally suited to roles calling for such vocal ornamentation. We’ve heard some fairly dazzling displays of coloratura in HGO productions of Ariodante, Lucia di Lammermoo, Manon and Don Pasquale, as well as in Violetta’s Act I aria “Sempre libera” in La Traviata.


1987 Production of “Aida” (Opening Production of Wortham Theater Center) – Placido Domingo (Radames) (Photo by Jim Caldwell)

Fach [FAHK]: the type of voice a singer possesses, or the repertoire sung by a particular type of voice. The basic voice types are, highest to lowest: soprano, mezzo-soprano and contralto (called alto in choral singing) among women, and counter-tenor, tenor, baritone, bass-baritone and bass among men. Within these basic vocal types are sub-categories, or fachs, based on the weight and color of the voice and the repertoire it’s best suited to sing. A light-lyric tenor, for instance, might be best suited to the Rossini and Mozart repertoire or fach…while a spinto tenor will probably want to cash in with the big Verdi and Puccini roles like Radames, Manrico and Calaf. A dramatic tenor with a huge sound in the middle register might go in for the Wagnerian fach, while a lyric tenor may build a repertoire on such staples as Alfredo in Traviata, Edgardo in Lucia and the title role in Faust.

Fioritura [fyoh-rih-TOO-rah]: sometimes used synonymously with coloratura. This term, however, describes a decorated embellishment of the main vocal line. For instance, when a melody is repeated in bel canto and baroque arias, the second time around, the singer typically embellishes the melody with fioriture, or fioratura.

Intervallic Coloratura: Coloratura that requires the singer to leap across intervals in pitch during a vocal run, rather than simply going up or down a scale. A musical interval is the distance between two notes. Musicians describe the size of an interval numerically. For instance, the interval from C to F is a 4th. If you move up the scale from C, F is the fourth note you come to. Incorporating such intervals in rapid coloratura passages is difficult to say the least. Kids, don’t try this at home!

Marking: In the early stages of rehearsing an opera, when singers are learning their blocking (who goes where at each given moment in the production), they don’t want to tire their voices. So they mark, that is, they sing at half-voice. Marking allows singers to rehearse extensively without blowing their voices to smithereens. By marking, they can reinforce the connection between singing a particular phrase and enacting a particular piece of stage business, without overtiring their vocal chords by singing full-voice hour after hour all week long.

Mezza voce [MET-sah VOH-cheh]: literally meaning “half voice,” mezza voce refers to singing at half power, with the effect of muting the tone.

Opera Seria [OH-peh-rah SEH-ree-ah]: a form of opera that held sway in the 17th and early-18th century. Opera seria’s hallmarks were very formal librettos (usually by Zeno or Metastasio) based on serious subject matters from mythology or ancient history, with scores that featured elaborately decorated arias to allow the singers to display their virtuosity.

Operetta: think of Operetta as Light Opera (although Opera Lite is probably going a bit too far toward pejorative). It generally entails comedic subject matter, and spoken dialogue instead of recitative. What primarily distinguishes Operetta from Musical Comedy is Operetta’s classical score, requiring classically trained musicians in the orchestra pit and on the stage.

Passaggio [pah-SAH-jyoh]: literally translated as “passage” (there’s a shocker!), the passaggio is a part of the vocal range (usually two to three notes) in which the singer moves from one register to another. If the singer’s doing his/her job right, we won’t be able to tell where these areas are in his/her voice. Ideally, the voice should sound as though it has one register and one sound quality from the very top of the singer’s range to the very bottom. If you can hear the singer moving from one register to another, you’re hearing a “register break.”

Pianissimo [PEE-ah-NEE-see-moh] In musical terminology, piano means “quiet” and forte means “strong” or “loud.” So, if a singer is directed by the score to sing something pianissimo, (s)he should sing it so quietly that if there were any less air going through his/her chords there would be no sound at all. Sometimes Italian composers will mark a passage: fil di voce (“thread of voice”). Conversely, if a passage is marked fortissimo, depending on the singer, they may be able to thrill not just the Wortham Center audience, but Sharpstown and parts of Sugar Land as well.

Portamento [POHR-tah-MEN-toh]: The Italian word for “carrying” refers, in opera, to a means of vocally moving from one note to another. Rather than going directly from one note straight to the next, portamento allows the singer to vocally “bridge” the notes. Portamento shouldn’t be confused, though, with sliding or scooping, and the decision of whether or not to use portamento is a stylistic one. While it may be appropriate at moments in Verdi, Donizetti or Puccini, it’s really inappropriate stylistically in Mozart, for instance.

Sitzprobe [ZIHTS-proh-buh]: This is a term you’ll hear backstage a lot, but not so much in “front-of-house” (the public spaces of the opera house). The sitzprobe is a full musical rehearsal in which singers, orchestra and chorus sit down (either in a rehearsal room or in the theater itself) and perform the entire score without staging. This word is often abbreviated to sitz, as in “We have a sitz this afternoon at 4:30.”

Range: The lowest to highest notes an individual voice can produce, or the lowest to highest notes a particular score requires of a singer.

Recitative [RE-chih-tah-TEEV]: often abbreviated as recits, this is the vocal music in opera that connects the arias, duets, choruses, etc…. In early opera continuing well into the 19th century, Secco (“Dry”) Recitative predominated. This is what we hear in Mozart and Rossini: a harpsichord or piano plays a chord and the singer(s) deliver(s) the recitative unaccompanied by the orchestra. The alternative is Accompanied Recitative, in which the full orchestra performs the recitative with the singers. By the end of the 19th century, composers like Verdi blurred the line between numbers and recitative (try to delineate where the recits end and the numbers begin in Otello and Falstaff), while others like Wagner and his followers did away with numbers and recits altogether.

Register: One of several areas of a voice’s range, defined by how the tone is produced and where in the body the sound resonates. There is some disagreement over how many registers in the human voice there are, but a majority of experts agree that there are three: the “low” or “chest” register, the “middle” register, and the “high” or “head” register.

Tessitura [teh-sih-TOO-rah]: Within a role’s range, there’s the tessitura . . . the part of the range where the role requires the singer to spend most of his/her time singing. The soprano role of Sieglinde in Wagner’s Die Walk?re is considered to have a low tessitura. High notes are few and far between, and even then the role’s range only goes up to a high B-flat. The bulk of the role lies in the middle and low registers, which is why a mezzo-soprano like Waltraud Meier can sing it comfortably.

Trill: Where a vibrato is a natural, (hopefully) slight fluctuation in tone perfectly centered around the true pitch, a trill is a vocal effect or decoration, in which the singer fluctuates or “shakes” the voice between two notes. Trills are common in bel canto, but even Wagner requires one occasionally; Br?nnhilde has several trills in her famous Act I Battle Cry in Die Walk?re (which is not to say that every Br?nnhilde is capable of producing them).

Verismo [veh-REEZ-moh]: a style of late-19th/early-20th-century opera composition, roughly corresponding to the “Realism” movements in art and literature. Turning away from heroic subjects, verismo sought to portray a “slice of life,” examining the ordinary and even the squallid. Among the most notable verismo composers are Umberto Giordano, Ruggero Leoncallo, Pietro Mascagni and Francesco Cilea. The music of verismo has been described by one critic as taking the most highly emotional moments of Verdi and stringing them together for a whole opera.

Vibrato [vih-BRAH-toh]: a naturally occurring, slight pitch fluctuation around a center note. When a voice’s vibrato slackens or vibrates significantly more slowly, the voice is said to “spread” (and this usually happens at the top of the voice’s range). When the fluctuation in pitch becomes more than slight, the voice is said to have a “wobble.” When the fluctuation in pitch encompasses a whole tone on either side of the center note or true pitch, the voice is said to have a “wobble you can drive a truck through.”

That’s enough to sink our teeth into for now. Keep watching this page for more opera terminology to amaze your friends and family, or at least make them wonder when you’ve been finding time to learn Italian.