Ed Reicin: Opera Terminology

Professional opera singer Ed Reicin has performed in multiple productions throughout his career. A fan as well as a participant, Ed Reicin recognizes that opera may seem daunting to those who have never attended. Like every special interest, opera has its own special language. In order to make the genre more accessible, Ed Reicin offers the following information about opera terminology.

1. Libretto: Just like modern songs, opera compositions have two parts: music and lyrics. An opera’s libretto is the lyrics, written by a librettist.

2. Aria: A solo piece in an opera sung by a single vocalist; main characters typically perform arias.

3. Vocal range: Opera singers have a range of notes that they perform. For instance, a bass sings the lowest notes while a soprano sings the highest. The main categories include bass, baritone, tenor, alto, and soprano, although distinctions exist in each vocal range. For instance, a basso profondo has a very deep bass voice, while a contralto tends to be the lowest female voice.

4. Pants role: When a woman plays the character of a young boy with a high voice, it is called a pants role or a breeches role.

5. Overture: Before the opera, and sometimes at the beginning of each act, the orchestra plays an introduction that sets the mood and often incorporates musical themes the audience will hear throughout the act or entire work.

6. Recitative: Sometimes in opera, characters will “speak” in a singing voice, moving through dialog quickly.

7. Leitmotif: A musical theme to represent something else, such as a character, idea, place, or a state of mind. Wagner was particularly well-known for incorporation of the leitmotif in his operas.

8. Prima donna: The term for the lead female singer in an opera.

9. Grand Opera: A long production with several acts, this type of show features a large cast, complex staging, and dancing.

By Edward E. Reicin