Glossary of Operatic and Musical Theater Terms
Excerpt from the libretto for Don Giovanni
MUSICAL THEATER: A type of theatrical production that combines music, song, spoken dialogue, and dance to convey a story. Musical-theater influences include opera, operetta, vaudeville, jazz, and popular song.
OPERA: A theatrical production that is entirely dependent on the use of singing and orchestral music to present and convey a story. In opera, the words or text are sung rather than spoken, and the music highlights, underscores, and supports the story. Topics of operas ranges from folklore, mythology, history, and religion to poems, plays, and novels.
OPERA BUFFA: The genre of opera in which the subject matter is entirely comic. Opera buffa rose to popularity in Italy and abroad during the course of the 18th century. These operas focused on people from all walks of life, often depicting characters from the lower classes outsmarting members of the upper classes.
OPERA SERIA: The genre of opera in the 18th century in which the subject matter is entirely serious. The topics of opera seria are usually drawn from Greek mythology or Roman history.
OPERETTA: Light-hearted musical entertainment containing dance, spoken dialogue, practical jokes, and mistaken identities. Operettas were especially popular in the late 19th century.
OVERTURE: The overture, which originated in opera, is an instrumental or orchestral musical composition that acts as an introduction to an opera or other theater work. The overture often introduces musical themes that will occur later in the performance. It is frequently a stand-alone composition that can be performed as part of a concert, independent of the opera for which it was written.
PRELUDE: A short instrumental work for orchestra that leads directly, with no pause, into the opening act of an opera or other theater work. Preludes differ from overtures in that they are shorter works, and usually are not works that could be performed independently from the opera for which they were written.
RECITATIVE: A type of vocal writing in opera that mimics speech or recitation. Often preceding arias, recitatives generally convey a course of action that a character will take, rather than expressing a state of mind or emotion that a character feels.
RENAISSANCE: The period of Western music between 1450 and 1600. In the latter years of the Renaissance period, the emergence of a group of writers, humanists, historians, poets, and composers (collectively known as the Florentine Camerata) marked the earliest beginnings of opera.
ROMANTIC: The period of Western music between the early 19th and early 20th centuries. Composers of romantic music frequently found inspiration in nature and painting. Beethoven was one of the earliest romantic opera composers, although the most famous are Wagner and Verdi.
SUPERTITLES: In American opera houses, English translations of an opera's libretto that are projected onto a screen above the stage during performances.
Supertitle from Glimmerglass Opera's 1996 production of L'italiana in Algeri. Photo by
TESSITURA: An Italian term meaning "texture" that is used in opera to describe the vocal range of a role. It is also used to describe a piece of music in relation to the vocal type for which it was written. For example, Verdi's baritone roles are said to have a particularly high tessitura.
VERISMO: An Italian term meaning "realism," it refers to the movement in Italian literature and music reflecting naturalism or realism that was made popular through the novels of Émile Zola. Stories typically centered around every day people, and the moral ambiguities that they face within society. Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci are examples of Italian verismo operas.
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