The beginner's guide to opera

Whether you’re completely new to opera or just need a refresher, we’ve put together the ultimate beginner’s guide to opera. From what opera is and where it originated to the different voice types and how a performance is staged, keep reading for all-things opera.

What is opera?

Opera (the Italian word for ‘work’) is an art form that tells a story through music and singing. Unlike a musical, opera singers do not use microphones to amplify their voices, and the music, played by the orchestra, is completely live.

The first ever public opera house opened in 1637 (the Teatro San Cassiano, Venice). This transformed Venice into Europe’s main centre for opera. As opera grew in popularity as an art form, more songs were included to please the crowds. Composers wanted their operas to be in the language of the audience. This is why, for example, Austrian composer Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (Le Nozze di Figaro) was written with Italian words (its libretto).

The story

Operas are often based on pre-existing work. For example, Poul Ruder’s The Handmaid’s Tale is based on Margaret Atwood’s seminal novel of the same name.

Carmen by Georges Bizet is based on a novella by Prosper Merimee. And Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer adapted the genre-defining Frank Capra film, It’s a Wonderful Life into an opera.

Purcell, Rossini, and Britten are just a few examples of composers who wrote operas based on the works of Shakespeare.

Interested in knowing the differences between an opera and the piece of work it is based on? Take a look at this Libretto vs Script comparison between Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Benjamin Britten‘s opera based on it.


The music

Once the opera’s subject matter has been decided on, the librettist (the person who writes the text for the opera) will transform the text into poetic verse, suitable for singing. The composer then creates music for that libretto. Here at ENO, we perform in English, meaning we work with translators, if the libretto is in another language.

The orchestra, led by a conductor, is made up of different musical instrument sections: strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. The number of musicians needed in an orchestra is different for different operas; Handel’s operas most commonly use a smaller orchestra (made up of around 50 musicians) compared with those of Wagner whose operas can require an ensemble of up to 120 players.

Before the 19th century, conductors weren’t needed in the staging of an opera. Back then, the orchestra was significantly smaller and weren’t housed in a pit. It wasn’t until Beethoven’s time, in the early 1800s, that the orchestra grew by 50 percent as the musical score had become so complex that a single musician could no longer keep the ensemble together, thus the introduction of a conductor.

Opera voice types

Most opera singers fall into a certain voice types which helps them to be cast in roles. A singer’s voice type not only depends on their vocal range, but also the quality and power of their voice. Although there are many different voice types, here’s seven of the most common.

Female singers main voice types:

  • Soprano – the highest voice type for female singers.
  • Mezzo-soprano – lower than soprano.
  • Contralto/Alto – lowest female voice.

Watch Soprano Nadine Benjamin sing ‘Musetta’s Waltz’ from Puccini’s La bohème. Then have a listen to Mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson singing ‘Habanera’ from Bizet’s Carmen for comparison.

Male singers main voice types:

  • Countertenor – the highest in the male voice range, this also falls within a woman’s voice range.
  • Tenor – most often the highest male voice in an opera.
  • Baritone – most common male voice in an opera.
  • Bass – comes from the Italian word ‘basso’, which means low.

Listen to Tenor, Adam Smith sing ‘With the Stars Shining Brightly’ (E lucevan le stelle) from Puccini’s Tosca. Compare that with the sounds of Bass, William Thomas singing ‘Colline’s aria’ from Puccini’s La bohème.

The staging

Once the opera has been written and composed, the Director, and everyone else involved in the decision-making process will decide how they want to stage the production.

Find out how we stage an opera here at ENO with this video…

We hope our beginner’s guide to opera has helped ignite your interest in this exciting art form. If you’d like to give opera a try, read our helpful guide to attending opera for the first time, or head to our homepage to see our upcoming productions.


Operas are sung in many different languages, but (sadly) opera isn’t a language itself. Some of the most popular languages for opera are: Italian, German and French.

The first operas originated in Italy and were born out of older, often medieval forms of courtly or religious entertainment.

Read our History of Opera

Opera was invented in the early 17th Century during the Renaissance period and soon spread from it’s origins in Italy across the rest of Western Europe.

The word ‘aria’ comes from the Italian for ‘air’ and is a piece of music written for one singer which may or may not be accompanied by the orchestra.

Watch our YouTube playlist of popular Opera Arias

The text sung in an opera is called the ‘libretto’ -, which literally means ‘little book’ in Italian – and is written by a librettist. Unlike the typical lyrics of a song, the libretto also contains stage directions.

Meet Emma Jenkins, a librettist and translator for ENO, to find out a bit more about what her job entails.

Yes, very much so! There are opera houses located in major cities across the world. And there are various new operas being composed all the time, that taking inspiration from contemporary themes and issues.

An opera can last anywhere from one to five hours, however there are some exceptions – including Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which has around 15 hours of music split over four operas (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung).

Operas are most commonly often staged at an opera house or theatre, such as the London Coliseum, home to ENO.

Opera houses have been designed specifically for performances on a grand scale. The large stage (where the singers perform), sits in front of the backstage area (which is used to house the set). Below the stage, you’ll find the ‘pit’, designed for the orchestra.