Opera Glossary

Do you know your 'versimo' from your 'pianissimo' and 'fortissimo'? Use our glossary to discover the meaning of key opera terms.


Accelerando – becoming faster

Act – a component of the total work, consisting of its own partial dramatic arc

Allegro – fast

Alliteration –a poetic device, when sequential words begin with the same letter, often used by Wagner

Andante – at a moderate walking pace

Aria – an elaborate composition for solo voice with instrumental accompaniment

Arioso – a recitative of a lyrical and expressive quality

Ascending – moving up the scale

Aside – when a character talks directly to the audience without the other characters knowing


Ballad opera – a popular form of stage entertainment in the 18th century consisting of spoken dialogue alternating with musical numbers taken from ballad tunes

Ballet – theatrical performance in the form of dance, usually with costumes, accompanied by music

Banda – the offstage musicians

Bar – also called a measure, the section between two bar lines containing the number of beats as indicated by the time signature

Baritone – the male voice between the tenor and bass

Baroque – the period of music between c. 1600 – 1750, following the Renaissance

Bass – the lowest male voice

Baton – a white stick used by conductors to conduct with, allowing the conductor greater visibility

Beat – the regular pulse of the music

Bel canto – an Italian vocal technique from the 18th century with emphasis on the beauty and brilliance of the sound of the performance rather than the dramatic or romantic emotion.


Cadenza – a passage or section of varying length, often improvised, that allows the performer to show their skill

Castrato – historically, a singer who was castrated as a boy to retain the boyish quality of the voice

Chord – the playing of more than one note simultaneously

Choreographer – the person who designs and creates the movement of the performance, usually in dance form

Chorus – in music theatre this refers to a large body of singers

Chorus master – the person responsible for the rehearsal and preparation of the chorus prior to production

Claque – a group of people hired to applaud

Classical – a period of music created roughly between c 1750 - 1830

Coloratura – a rapid passage, run, trill or other virtuoso-like feature used particularly in music of the 18th and 19th centuries

Composer – the person who writes the music

Concertmaster – the lead violinist of the orchestra

Conductor - the person who interprets and leads the orchestra or musical performance, coordinating the performers and keeping the time through the technique of hand movements

Contralto – the lowest female voice

Countertenor – the highest male voice

Crescendo – getting louder


Da capo aria – a type of aria common between 1650 – 1750, characterised by an A B A structure

Decrescendo - getting softer

Designer – the person who designs the overall look of the production, including the sets

Director – the person who directs the performances of the onstage artists

Dress rehearsal – often the final rehearsal of all the component parts of the production in full costume

Duet – a composition for two performers of equal importance

Dynamics – the different volume interpretations of the score


Encore – in a public performance this is the repetition of a piece or an extra piece played in response to the audience’s applause

Ensemble - a group of performers performing together


Fairy tale – a story that involves the fairy realm, often including fairies, goblins, giants, dwarves and witches where magic or enchantment exists.  These are common in most cultures, for example the writings of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen

Finale – the last movement of a work that contains more than one movement

Flat – the sign b, indicating to lower a note by a semitone. e.g. Bb

Forte – f, loud

Fortissimo – ff, very loud


Gesamtkunstwerk – a work of art that incorporates all or many art forms

Grand opera – a serious opera without spoken dialogue with a large-scale production


Harmony – the chordal structure of a musical composition in contrast to the linear structure

Hero / Heroine – often the protagonist. In its modern form is a protagonist character who fulfils a task and restores balance to the community. He/she is a born leader, whether they know it or not. He/she is a real survivor who has faith in good. Others are willing to believe in this hero and will follow him/her. (e.g. Odysseus, Theseus, Prince Charming)


Impresario – the producer

Interlude – a section of music between acts

Intermission – a break in the performance that allows the audience to leave the auditorium


Key – the tonal centre around which a composition is based, often indicated by a key signature


Largo – very slow

Leitmotiv – the representation of characters, typical situations and recurrent ideas by musical motifs

Libretto – the text of an opera or music theatre work

Lyrics – the words of a song


Mark – when a singer holds back on their full performance capacity during a rehearsal to protect their voices

Mezzo voce – with half voice

Mezzo-soprano – the second highest female voice

Musical comedy – a light hearted story presented in music theatre form


Natural – a note that is neither sharp nor flat


Octave – the eighth note of a diatonic scale, the tone with twice the frequency of the home tone

Opera – a staged drama set to music in its entirety, made up of vocal pieces with instrumental accompaniment and usually with orchestral overtures and interludes.

Opera buffa – also known as ‘comic opera’, an opera with a large mixture of music, on a light subject with a happy ending, including comic elements

Opera seria – also known as ‘serious opera’, an opera with dramatic, serious content often with a tragic ending

Opus – the chronological position of a composition within a composer’s entire output

Oratorio – mostly this is a composition with a long libretto, of religious or contemplative character performed without sets, costume or action by solo voices, chorus and orchestra

Orchestra – a large ensemble of instruments divided into four main sections: strings, woodwind, brass and percussion

Orchestration – utilisation of the instrumentation of an orchestra in the writing of a composition

Ornamentation – the embellishment of notes of a melody that can be written or improvised, often using additional trills, turns or expanded phrases

Overture – an instrumental composition intended as an introduction to an opera or other music theatre work


Patter – the fast delivery of text (often used by Gilbert and Sullivan)

Pianissimo – pp, very soft

Piano – p, soft

Portamento – a manner of singing in which the voice glides gradually from one tone to the next through all the intermediate pitches

Prelude – a piece of music designed to be played as an introduction

Presto – very fast

Prima donna –the principal female role of an opera

Principal – a main part

Prompter – a person who gives cues to remind a performer of their words or musical entries

Proscenium –a large rectangular arch that surrounds the stage and gives the appearance it is framed


Rallentando – gradually slow down

Range – the range from the lowest to highest notes that are played or sung

Recitative – a vocal (singing) style designed to imitate the natural inflections of speech, used in opera where dialogue might be used in other forms of music theatre

Rehearsal – where the performers and the creatives develop the production, shaping lines, songs, movements etc

Reprise – repetition or recapitulation of a theme

Rhyme – where the words at the end of lines of text sound the same or have the same ending

Rhythm – the regular and irregular pattern of notes of different length in the music

Ritardando – gradual slowing of speed

Repetiteur – a pianist who works as an accompanist and vocal coach for opera

Romanticism – a period of the 19th century continuing until around 1910


Scale – a series of musical notes arranged in an order of rising pitches

Score – the notation showing all the parts of a work, both instrumental and vocal. Each instrument or vocal line has its own stave

Semitone – a half of a whole tone, the smallest interval in Western music

Sharp – the sign #, indicating to raise the note by one semitone

Singspiel – A style of opera with dialogue included

Solo – a piece of music performed by a single performer either alone or with accompaniment

Sonata – a composition for a single instrument, often with piano accompaniment (e.g. violin, cello, flute) comprising three or four movements

Soprano – the highest female voice

Soubrette – a light operatic soprano

Sound designer – the person who designs the additional sound used in a production

Stage manager – the person who manages the running of rehearsals and performances, managing all the components of that production during performance

Supernumerary – an actor

Surtitles – a translation of the words being sung on stage projected onto a screen above the stage

Synopsis – a summary of the story


Tempo – the speed of a composition

Tenor – a high male voice

Tessitura – the general range of vocal parts

Through-composed opera – an opera where the music is continuous

Tone – the interval of a major second or a sound of definite pitch and duration

Trill – a musical ornamentation consisting of the rapid alternation between two notes

Trio – a composition for three performers of equal importance Tutti – a marking in a score that indicates the use of the whole orchestra and/or all the vocal parts


Underscore – music played underneath dialogue


Verismo – an Italian opera school from the late 19th century featuring a more realistic or naturalistic style of content and music

Vibrato – a very slight fluctuation of pitch in rapid succession to create warmth in the sound

Villain - often the antagonist. In literature this is the evil character in the story, the character who has a negative effect on the other characters.

Vocal range - the human voice falls into a range from the lowest to highest notes they can reach. The normal range is around two octaves and is traditionally broken into six voice types (from highest to lowest) soprano, mezzo-soprano, contralto, tenor, baritone and bass


Workshop – an exploration of a new work (production, text, music, design) 


Young artist program – a program through which young artists are encouraged to explore and be mentored into the artistic form they are interested in