This fast guide to Opera vocabulary will have you spouting jargon like a seasoned impresario in no time, even if you’ve never heard the term “impresario” before! Opera vocabulary can feel intimidating if you don’t understand it. What exactly is an aria, and how can you recognize one? Who plays trouser roles and why? What’s the difference between a soprano and a mezzo-soprano? Why do you even need Opera vocabulary terms to differentiate a soprano from a mezzo-soprano? Read on to take the mystery out of Opera, and discover the easy answers to all these questions and more. Knowing some basic Opera vocabulary can help you more fully enjoy, and understand, any live or recorded operatic work, and will help you parse Opera criticism and reviews. This crash course in Opera vocabulary will teach you what you need to know, in a matter of just a few minutes.
One of the most used Opera vocabulary terms, an aria is quite simple a solo song, similar to a monologue or a soliloquy in a play. Arias are chances for the principal singers to show their vocal and emotional range, and often come at a climatic moment for a character. Often, a well sung aria will be greeted with a rousing ovation from the audience, who may shout another Opera vocabulary term: “Bravo!” (for a male singer) or “Brava!” (for a female singer) which means “Well Done!”
Every impresario needs a handle on Opera vocabulary. What’s an impresario? You are! An impresario is simply someone who enjoys watching, listening to, or learning about opera. If you’re reading this article, you’re well on your way to mastering the Opera vocabulary that will prove your impresario status.
In Opera vocabulary, supernumerary basically means “human scenery,” and refers to an actor who is onstage but has no spoken or sung lines, and no prominent dancing role. Many lavishly staged operas are packed with supernumeraries who are used onstage to create ambiance in crowd scenes. What is called a “supernumerary” in Opera vocabulary is usually called an “extra” in film or television. In colloquial Opera vocabulary, these people are called “spear carriers,” because they’re often cast as spear-holding guards. They’re also known as “supers” for short.
Supertitles help you keep your Opera vocabulary at a bare minimum: without supertitles, your Opera vocabulary would have to include all of Italian, French, and maybe even some German or Russian! Supertitles are the translated English lines that get projected above the stage while the singers perform in another language. Thanks to supertitles, you can follow along with the story of any live opera without knowing a single word of the language it’s being sung in.
This Opera vocabulary term refers to when a female singer plays a male role. Most trouser roles are young boys, parts appropriate to the vocal range of a female mezzo-soprano or contralto. There are several Opera vocabulary terms that describe this kind of part, which may also be called a “breeches” or “pants” role, and all refer to the fitted knee-length shorts which are a traditional part of the costume. Famous trouser roles include the part of “Cherubino” in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” and the title role in Handel’s “Xerxes.”
A singer’s vocal range is based on how high, or how low, the notes are that the singer can comfortably sing. There are six major vocal range categories in Opera vocabulary. Among male singers, there are Bass (the lowest), Baritone (middle range), and Tenor (high) singers. Female singers are called Contralto (lowest), Mezzo Soprano (middle), and Soprano (high). Nearly every opera singer is classified according to gender using one of these six Opera vocabulary terms, but there are a few variations: for example, a male singer with a very high voice may be categorized as a Soprano. Vocal ranges are used to determine what roles are appropriate for different singers.