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.
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.
Have a watch of Librettist Emma Jenkins talking about how she began her career and what she loves about working in the arts.
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.
Gain a little more insight into the life of a composer as Iain Bell discusses his career and his process for writing the music for operas.
Female singers main voice types:
- Soprano – the highest voice type for female singers.
- Mezzo-soprano – lower than soprano.
- Contralto/Alto – lowest female voice.
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.
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…
Is opera a language?
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.
When was opera invented?
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.
What is the text of an opera called?
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.
Does opera still exist today?
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.
Where are operas performed?
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.