What is opera?

Everything you need to know about opera

An opera (the Italian for ‘work’) is a story told through words and music. The orchestra plays the music in the pit under the stage. On stage, singers bring the story to life through acting and singing the words (known as the ‘libretto’) along to the music played by the orchestra much in the same way as a musical. What makes an opera different to a musical is that the singers are unamplified by microphones and the orchestra is much larger and plays entirely live. This creates a bigger, more dramatic sound and draws the audience into the story.

The main characters are sung by ‘principals’ who are often guest artists who work freelance and perform with different opera companies. The main characters are surrounded by the Chorus. The Chorus includes twenty female and twenty males singers who, depending on the opera, either commentate on the main action or on occasion take the story forward themselves. Members of the Chorus will also take some of the smaller roles in certain operas.  The Chorus are what makes an opera special, they are the human link which draws us the audience closer to the emotions being expressed on stage, we feel what they feel. Opera has to be experienced live, as David Pountney describes it ‘it is a communal experience’, it’s about the audience, the players in the pit and the singers on stage all united in that story.

There are seven key voice types:

Soprano – This is the highest female voice and is often associated with the heroine in opera such as Cio-Cio-San in Madam Butterfly. Famous sopranos include Maria Callas, Dame Joan Sutherland, Anna Netrebko, Lesley Garrett, Rebecca Evans and Nuccia Focile.

Mezzo Soprano – The middle female voice. A darker voice than a soprano associated with a range of different roles often used to portray female characters of great complexity such as Carmen. Famous mezzo sopranos include Teresa Berganza and Cecilia Bartoli.

Contralto – The lowest category of female voice. 

Tenor – A high male voice. Most often associated with the hero in opera such as Rodolfo in La bohème and Alfredo in La traviata. Famous tenors include Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Dennis O’Neill and Alfie Boe.

Baritone – The middle male voice. Baritones often sing the villain or comic roles, or the friend to the lead male character. Famous baritones include Sir Thomas Allen, Gerald Finley and Simon Keenlyside.

Bass – The deepest male voice. Often associated with villains or comic roles. Bryn Terfel is a bass-baritone.

Counter Tenor – The highest male voice which is largely used in early and baroque operas.  Famous Counter Tenors include James Bowman, Andreas Scholl and David Daniels.