The beginner's guide to opera

Whether you’re completely new to opera or just need a refresher, we’ve put together this brief overview of all things opera to help you feel at ease when visiting one of our shows.

What is opera?

Opera (the Italian 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).

Where are operas performed?

Operas are most commonly 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.

The orchestra ‘pit’ at the London Coliseum, home of English National Opera. Keri-Lynn Wilson conducts the ENO orchestra during Aida rehearsals (c) Tristram Kenton


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 Justina Gringytė 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.

How is an opera made?

Operas are often based on pre-existing work. For example, Paul 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.

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, so we work with translators, if the libretto is in another language.

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.


Famous composers

Out of all the people who work on an opera, it is most often the composer who we know best. Thanks to his operas, and contributions to classical music, Mozart is possibly the best known composer of all time. Don’t think you’re too familiar with Mozart’s works? Have a listen to six of his most famous compositions.

Another famous composer whose music you’ve probably heard before is that of Richard Wagner. The famous ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ from his epic Ring cycle is used in this well-known scene in the film Apocalypse Now.

You might also be familiar with the music of Sir Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame), whose operettas were all the rage in Victorian England, and are much-loved to this day. Opera such as Iolanthe, The Yeomen of the Guard, Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado and HMS Pinafore.

Read our beginner’s guide to operetta

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…

What to expect when attending your first opera

It’s a common misconception that opera is expensive and exclusive. Here at ENO we have a number of ways you can save money to help make your visit affordable.

Take advantage of one of our many schemes such as Under 21s, where 5-20 year olds can claim free tickets, Under 35s, where those aged 21-34 years can book tickets at a reduced rate.

Under 21s

Under 21s

Get free opera tickets to see all ENO performances at the London Coliseum.

Learn more

Under 35s

Under 35s

Discounted opera tickets at affordable prices for you and a friend

Learn more

Multi-buy Packages

Multi-buy Packages

Choose to see more than one opera and save money on seats.

Find out more

We want you to have a truly brilliant experience at the opera. English National Opera exists for everyone, creating new experiences with opera that inspires, nurtures creativity and makes a difference.

To make your visit as enjoyable and stress-free as possible we’ve pulled together some of the questions people most frequently ask about attending opera for the first time.

Read our FAQ