Opera 101

New to opera? Entertainment choices can stimulate your eye, ear, or mind. Others are made to lift your spirit and a few are capable of inspiring your most heartfelt emotions. Only one does it all. An unforgettable night at the opera will always rank as one of the greatest experiences a roomful of people can share.

Be sure to check out our Frequently Asked Questions as well!

Unfamiliar with opera? Let YouTube’s fizzylimon introduce you!

What Is Opera?

What makes opera different from musicals?

The key difference is, in a typical musical dialogue is spoken by the characters who occasionally burst into song. In most operas, the singing never stops. Even instructions as mundane as, “Open the door,” are sung rather than spoken. A solo in an opera is known as an aria. When two people sing together, it’s called a duet, and more than two singers form a trio, quartet, quintet, or ensemble. The themes of opera tend to be more sweeping or grand than the plot of the typical musical and the human drama, decidedly more passionate and intense.

Where do the ideas for an opera come from?

From ancient mythology to today’s headlines and everything in between. Giuseppe Verdi used to travel with three books constantly in his possession: The Bible, the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, and the poetry of Schiller. Nearly all his operas were inspired by one of these three volumes. However, today’s operas come from a wide variety of source materials, both fictional and historical. Whether the subject is Nixon in China, Dead Man Walking, An American Tragedy or The Little Prince, opera has shown an uncanny ability to spark dialogue and touch hearts from one generation to the next.

Do opera singers wear microphones?

No, and this points out another difference between opera and today’s Broadway musicals. While a few opera companies permit microphones, most — including The Dallas Opera — do not, which means the singers must have the talent and training to compete, unaided, against the sound of a full-scale orchestra. It’s an extraordinary feat designed to create a spine-tingling musical experience that cannot be duplicated in any of the other performing arts.

If I don’t see a production this time, can I catch the same show later on?

Contrary to popular belief, these are NOT touring shows. When a Dallas Opera production ends, it goes back to the warehouse. It may be rented to another opera company in another part of the world or it could be revived by The Dallas Opera in a later season. However, it’s best to assume that this may be your only chance to see a given production, which is what keeps our season subscribers coming back, year after year.

Why are so many opera singers fat?

You’ve been watching too many old movies! Today’s opera singer is more likely to be a calorie-counting athlete than a couch potato. Improved physical conditioning has led to more theatrical opera stagings than in the past, and much longer, healthier, and impressive international careers.

Who Is Who?

It takes hundreds of people to produce the performance you are about to enjoy, from administrators to carpenters to cellists. Here are just a few of the titles you may encounter in your opera program book, with a brief explanation of what they do.

(To read more about us, see our staff page.)

The buck stops at the desk of the general director. Fund-raising, balancing budgets, negotiating union contracts, strategic planning, public speaking and casting the final vote on nearly every aspect of company business is the arduous and exhilarating lot of the head of The Dallas Opera.

Control of what you see and hear onstage is the combined task of the conductor, who directs the orchestra, chorus and singers in their musical performance, and the stage director, who supervises the blocking, staging and dramatic aspects of the presentation. However, it is the chorus master who does the work of preparing the members of the chorus for their important contribution to the overall performance. Musical preparation coaches prepare the principal singers on their roles (from the piano) during the early rehearsal stage.

Supernumeraries, or “supers” as they are commonly known, are the non-singing performers on stage who make individual cameo appearances or are part of a crowd. Supers may be selected on their ability to fit into a particular costume!

The choreographer creates dances and movement for a production. Designers are largely responsible for the look of the entire production, from the sets and costumes to the lighting design.

Opera Terms

  • Grand opera can mean either a serious opera with no spoken dialogue or a particularly lavish, large-scale opera based on a mythological or historical theme. Most opera is grand, but not all operas are grand operas.
  • Comprimario is a 19th century Italian term for a singer who plays a supporting role.
  • Diva means “goddess,” and was once used to describe the supreme female singers of an era. Nowadays, it has acquired the connotation of great temperament as well as talent.
  • Leitmotif is a signature musical passage or theme used as a dramatic device to underline character motivations and actions.
  • Coloratura is an ornamental section in an aria that consists of rapid runs and trills that display the singer’s exceptional virtuosity, agility and range.
  • Dramma giocoso means “jocular drama,” an Italian term for a comic opera with tragic overtones. Mozart’s Don Giovanni is a perfect example of the form.
  • Heldentenor is a “heroic tenor” with a voice of great stamina and size needed for long and demanding operas, particularly those by Richard Wagner.
  • Libretto, or “little book,” contains the words of an opera or operetta.
  • Impresario is the Italian title of the manager of an opera company. The German term is intendant.
  • Tempo means “time” and indicates the preferred pace of the music.
  • Adagio is music played (or sung) at a slow tempo.
  • Bel canto means “beautiful singing” and describes an ornate style of writing designed to show off the splendors of the human voice. Lucia di Lammermoor and Norma are representative of the form.
  • Intermezzo is a musical interlude between scenes, normally featuring the orchestra performing alone.
  • Da capo means “from the top” and refers to repeating material in arias from the Baroque and Classical period.

The History of Opera

(If you’d like to know about the history of the Dallas Opera, see our About section!)

Opera is the plural of the Latin word opus, meaning “work” (each piece written by a composer is called an opus). Opera is often defined as a play in which the words are sung rather than spoken, but this definition is too simplistic. A better definition is drama through music. The music is a partner; it does not merely accompany the drama, it contributes to it. Time stands still at times for the vocal sections in which the characters express their emotions. While opera combines music, plot and the spectacle provided by the sets, costumes and staging, the result is much more than the sum of the parts. It is truly an audio-visual art form.

Although opera as we know it started during the Italian Renaissance, its roots go back to Greek drama. We don’t know what it sounded like, but the ancient Greeks never thought of separating the poetry of their drama from music. The Greek plays were accompanied by strings or pipes and the words were sung or chanted. Dance was also part of the drama. The early church gave structure to chants and the accompanying music, supplying scales and notation. At first there were only single-line melodies, but later these were woven together to form polyphony (several different lines of music played or sung at one time) and thus, harmonies. By the end of the fifteenth-century, it was the custom in Italy to perform short musical dramas during intermissions of other plays. Small orchestras accompanied these intermezzi.

Court Masques, or elaborate dramas based on mythology or fables, became a very popular form of entertainment in the royal courts of Europe from the early sixteenth through seventeenth centuries. The stories were played out in pantomime to a background of orchestrated music, and the players were court members who spent lavish amounts of time and money on their costumes. Masques were intended to honor the head of the court where they were produced, and they were used to show the wealth and political power of the royal they honored. At this time, there was no real separation, as we know it, between theatre and opera, or between opera and ballet. These divisions started to become more obvious as musical composition developed.

Jacopo Peri (1561-1633) is credited for the first opera, Dafne, based on the Greek myth. Though famous throughout Europe at the time, it has since been lost. Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) is the earliest composer whose works are still performed. He blended the music and the poetry of the libretto to create a multi-faceted theatrical form. Such early operas were usually based on history or mythology. This kind of opera is called opera seria, in contrast to opera buffa, or comic opera, which would develop later. During this period, the words were most important, with the small orchestras providing a simple accompaniment. Separate musical lines were not written for the instrumentalists. Instead, they played the singers’ lines; this meant that there was also no need for a conductor as we know of them now. Orchestras of the day usually functioned much the way current jazz ensembles often do; they looked to one player, often the keyboardist, to prompt them while playing.

Mozart (1756-1791) was one of the first composers to write not just for, but about the nobility and their servants. A great example of this type of work is The Marriage of Figaro. In the early nineteenth century, with the development of more complex orchestrations and the addition of more flexible woodwind and brass instruments, conductors became necessary to coordinate and mold the sound and tone of the whole.

By the end of the nineteenth century, opera was telling us stories on the steamier side of life among the lower classes, and the singing became more conversational. This type of opera is identified as verismo, or real. Puccini (1858-1924), who wrote his works during this time, gave us such important works as La bohème, Madama Butterfly and Turandot. Opera is still being written today, and new works about historical and colorful figures are being performed throughout the world. Some of the newest works tell the stories of Harvey Milk, Malcom X and Jacqueline Kennedy.