Your boss invites you to attend an opera with him. You don’t know an opera from a play, but you desperately want to impress him. What do you do? We admit you’ll probably never find yourself in that situation, but on the off chance you do or want to share your love for opera with a newbie, here is a list of 5 basic opera terms you should know.
If you know what a motif is from literature or cinema, then you know what a leitmotif is. In other mediums, a motif is a reoccurring image, object, or idea that points to a theme. In opera, a leitmotif is the same thing, but it takes the form of a melody that is associated with a specific character, object, or occurrence.
One of the most famous uses of Leitmotif is in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. While other composers had used leitmotifs before Wagner, he developed them throughout his epic operas like no one else before him. For example, the “sword” leitmotif is present throughout the entire Ring Cycle and links several characters. The “sword” leitmotif not only highlights the significance of the sword Notung, but it also changes to reflect the complex emotions presented on stage. Composers use leitmotifs to highlight moments or themes that are essential to the opera, so once you hear one, listen close for more if you to understand overall theme of the opera.
Arias are one of the most important pieces of classic opera, but can easily be misunderstood. It is easy to simply call arias songs, since for the most part that’s what they are. However, what makes arias unique is the fact that they exist in an opera for a character to express an emotion or idea that may not be crucial to the story. A simple comparison is an aria is essentially a musical soliloquy.
Soliloquies, such as Hamlet’s or Romeo’s, are some of the most striking moments in theater. Accordingly, Aria’s fill the same role in opera. There is a score of famous arias that you’ve probably heard even if you have never been to the opera. The Queen of the Night’s aria from The Magic Flute, Nessun Dorma from Turandot, and Largo al Factotum from The Barber of Seville are just a few arias that have become famous in both opera and pop culture. Arias are some of the most important moments in opera, so when a character begins one you should probably pay attention, chances are they have something important to say.
3. Opera Seria and Opera Buffa
Opera is considered by most to be a very serious and strict art thanks to its origins as opera seria. When opera seria first emerged in the late 17th century, it focused on historical events or mythological stories and was meant to be performed for royalty and the members of their court. As the name suggests, these operas were grounded and sought to tell a serious or dramatic story typically in the Bel Canto style of operatic singing.
Just as tragedy has its foil in comedy, opera seria is directly contrasted by opera buffa. Opera buffa gained traction in the 18th century because instead of focusing on famous events and people it was centered around characters who represented the common man and their problems. Both of these operatic forms originated in Italy around Naples.
Including both melodies and vocal performances, cadenzas are the most important part of the piece. Whether it is because the composer wants to emphasize an idea or emotion or the character has made a discovery that changes the story, the cadenza is one of the most significant parts of an opera.
A cadenza can be unique because of the tone of the vocals or the pace at which the orchestra is playing, but you will know it when you hear it because it is the clear climax of the piece. It is the moment where the character will either lose their mind or find the strength to push themselves and finish whatever battle they’ve been waging throughout the opera. Needless to say, if there is one thing you should remember about an aria or piece of music, it is the cadenza.
5. Prima Donna
Chances are you’ve heard this term before, but you may or may not have known that it was an operatic term long before it made its way to pop culture. Simply put, the prima donna is the female lead in the opera.
The prima donna may be the hero of the opera, or they may be the most important female character. Either way, they play a major role in the opera. In Opera’s history, some prima donna’s have been so beloved that they attracted fan bases who loved them so much that rivalries began between the groups of fans. Whether the prima donna lives up to their reputation of being bossy or temperamental, you can be sure that they are a rare talent to which you should pay attention.