Learn About Opera Theater

Learn About Opera Theater

The word "opera" is Italian, and it means "work." Opera theater is a unique form of storytelling that includes both words and music. Opera singers perform on stage, giving voice to a story and acting out the scenes. Generally, an orchestra performs the music from the pit, situated beneath the stage. Although an opera and a musical may seem synonymous, operas do not use microphones and seldom use spoken dialogue. The orchestra for an opera is usually much more expansive than that for a musical, which adds to the overall theatrical experience.

Operatic Terminology

Operas typically begin with an overture, which is the orchestral introduction to the performance. The opera script followed by the performers is called the libretto. In an opera, the main characters are known as principals. These performers may be members of specific opera companies, or they may work as independent contractors who travel from theater to theater. Principals sing arias, either as solos or with other voice parts. Arias are expressive songs that help display character virtues or support the narrative. The chorus includes both male and female singers who sing complementary parts to support the principals. Chorus members may also have small solo singing parts. At the end of a performance, the audience may shout "brava" for a female performer, "bravo" for a male performer, or "bravi" for a group of performers. This word simply conveys verbal applause. Shouts of "encore" may be heard after an aria when the audience wants the principal to repeat the performance.


Opera originated in Italy during the late 16th century as a form of noble entertainment, often taking place at royal weddings and other auspicious occasions. Set design and props were and are an integral part of opera. Initially, operas centered around stories of tragedy, but as the art form progressed and time went by, comic operas were also introduced. Solo parts were created and performed by famous artists, and the chorus was created to complement the principals. Although opera has evolved through the centuries, it remains a popular form of theater even in the 21st century. Contemporary operas are a pleasing mixture of historic works and new productions.

Operatic Voices

Operas contain seven main voice parts. The highest female voice is the soprano, and this part is generally for the heroine of the story. One step down from the soprano is the mezzo-soprano. This middle voice often serves as a complementary part to the heroine. The lowest female voice is the contralto. Operas contain four different male voices, including the countertenor, tenor, baritone, and bass. The countertenor is the highest male voice, and this part is often a special feature of early operas. Tenor is slightly lower than countertenor, and this part is usually for the hero of the opera. The middle male voice is the baritone, and this part is often cast as the villain of the story. As the deepest male part, the bass voice lends a richness to the performance. Bass parts may be villains or supporting comic parts.

Interesting Opera Facts

Opera themes and stories often originated as Greek and Roman myths. Many operas were also adapted from Shakespearean sonnets and plays. Initially, opera composers received assignments to create a unique opera to be performed at a specific theater and with a specific company of performers. The composer then wrote the music and the parts for specific singers based on their ranges and capabilities. The best composers were adept at hiding any weaknesses of the singers using the musical scores they wrote, tailoring the parts to each person. Original operas were written for a single performance by a single cast. These performances were never expected to be repeated elsewhere in the exact same format. If operas were repeated, the composer would rewrite aspects of the score to fit the new performers.