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  • Chris Anderson

Music Revision - Vocal Music - Opera

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

Continuing our alphabetical look at vocal music we have arrived at Opera.

In Brief

Opera is a form of theatrical art that combines music, singing, acting, and often dance. It originated in Italy during the late 16th century and quickly spread throughout Europe, becoming one of the most prominent and enduring forms of musical expression.

Key features of opera include:

  • Music: Operas are primarily known for their musical elements, with orchestras providing accompaniment to the singers. Composers write the music to suit the dramatic narrative and emotional expression of the story.

  • Singing: In opera, singing is central to the performance. Professional singers, known as opera singers or vocalists, are trained in specific vocal techniques to project their voices over the orchestra and convey the emotions of the characters they portray.

  • Libretto: The text or script of an opera is called the libretto. It is written by a librettist and contains the lyrics and dialogue that the singers perform during the opera.

  • Drama and Storytelling: Operas usually revolve around dramatic and often tragic stories, often based on historical events, myths, legends, or literary works. The combination of music and drama creates an emotionally engaging experience for the audience.

  • Theatrical Production: Operas are performed on a stage with elaborate sets, costumes, and lighting to enhance the visual aspects of the performance and transport the audience into the world of the story.

  • Different Types: Operas come in various forms, such as grand opera, comic opera (opera buffa), light opera, and more. The genre and style can vary widely depending on the composer and the time period.

  • Language and Supertitles: Operas can be performed in various languages, depending on the origin of the piece and the location of the performance. In some cases, supertitles or subtitles are used to provide translations for the audience.

Famous opera composers include Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Wagner, Giacomo Puccini, and many others. Some well-known operas include Mozart's "The Magic Flute," Verdi's "La Traviata," Puccini's "La Bohème," and Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde."

In Depth

  • Origins and Evolution: Opera's origins can be traced back to the late Renaissance in Italy. The Florentine Camerata, a group of intellectuals, sought to revive the ancient Greek dramatic art form and combined poetry with music to create what we now recognise as opera. The earliest known opera is Jacopo Peri's "Dafne," which premiered in 1597. From Italy, opera quickly spread to other European countries, including France, Germany, and England, where it adapted to local cultures and languages.

  • Vocal Techniques: Opera singers undergo rigorous training to develop specific vocal techniques that allow them to project their voices over the orchestra without the aid of microphones. This vocal training often includes learning how to control breath support, produce resonant tones, and navigate through the different vocal registers (chest voice, head voice, etc.).

  • Operatic Voices: Opera singers are classified into different voice types based on their vocal range and timbre. The main voice types include soprano (highest female voice), mezzo-soprano (medium-range female voice), tenor (highest male voice), baritone (medium-range male voice), and bass (lowest male voice). Within these categories, there are further subdivisions to accommodate various vocal qualities.

  • Libretto and Librettists: The libretto is the written text of an opera, including the lyrics for the vocal parts and the dialogue for the characters. Librettists are writers who specialise in crafting librettos. They collaborate with composers to create a cohesive and engaging storyline that complements the music.

  • Opera Houses and Companies: Opera performances take place in specialised venues called opera houses or theatres. These venues are equipped with facilities to accommodate large orchestras, elaborate sets, and the technical requirements of opera productions. Major cities worldwide have their own opera houses, and many renowned companies tour internationally.

  • Styles and Genres: Over time, opera has evolved into various styles and genres. Grand opera is known for its large-scale productions, featuring elaborate sets and choruses, while opera buffa or comic opera focuses on light-hearted and humorous subjects. Other styles include opera seria (serious opera) and opera verismo (realistic opera). Contemporary operas continue to explore new themes and musical approaches.

  • Famous Operas and Composers: The opera repertoire comprises a vast collection of works by numerous composers. Some of the most famous operas include Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro," Verdi's "Rigoletto," Bizet's "Carmen," Wagner's "The Ring Cycle," and Puccini's "Tosca." Each composer's distinctive style and contributions have left a lasting impact on the world of opera.

  • Revival and Accessibility: In recent years, opera has made efforts to appeal to broader audiences and increase accessibility. Many opera companies offer subtitled translations (supertitles) during performances, allowing non-native speakers to understand the libretto easily. Additionally, modern interpretations and staging have brought new life to classic works, making them relevant to contemporary audiences.

The Five Types Of Opera In Brief

Grand Opera - set entirely to music. Rather serious!

Opera Seria - Formal often with a mythological theme.

Opera Buffa - Comic opera with everyday themes

Opéra Comique - Same as opera buff but with some spoken words

Operetta - Light and short

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