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Opera in Music: The Ultimate Guide for Beginners

Opera in Music - The Phantom of the Opera Australia 2022 Masquerade: Picture by Daniel Boud

Image From The Phantom of the Opera Australia 2022 Masquerade Picture by Daniel Boud

Opera In Music

Opera, or opera music, is a special form of music that dates to the 16th century.

It combines singing, acting, and music to create a unique and powerful form of art.

Basically, the opera composers usually write the opera’s musical score for an orchestra, and the singers use a classical singing technique to project their voices over the music.

Opera has a rich cultural history and continues to be a popular art form today.

Its performances take place in many cities around the world, especially in Europe and America. Generally, opera groups perform opera in opera houses, theaters, and concert halls all over the world.

Opera offers audiences a unique and immersive experience, blending music, drama, and visual arts to create a powerful and emotional performance.

In this blog post, we will explore the history of opera music, its characteristics, and its impact on classical music.

This article is for you if you are a newcomer to opera or simply need a quick review.

Reading this will better prepare you and make you feel more comfortable attending an opera performance.

What is Opera in Music?

Opera is a unique form of theatrical performance that combines music, drama, and the visual arts. It is a genre of art that conveys a narrative through the medium of music and vocal performance.

“Opera is a dynamic art form that combines music, drama, and often dance to tell a story.”

The word “opera” is an Italian word that translates to “work,” and it refers to the collaborative effort between a composer and a librettist.

The performance of an opera typically takes place in an opera house, accompanied by an orchestra or smaller musical ensemble, which is led by a conductor.

Singers in an opera take on dramatic roles and convey the story through their singing. Opera singers rely solely on their unaided voices, unlike in musicals.

They perform without the aid of microphones to amplify their voices. Essentially, the projection of the voices of opera singers to the audience is dependent on their vocal training and technique.

Moreover, the accompanying orchestral music played during an opera performance is always live.

Although musical theatre shares similarities with opera, people regard them as separate art forms.

Opera singers primarily focus on singing. Acting is secondary to them, and dancing is rarely necessary. On the other hand, a musical theatre performer’s primary focus is on acting, with singing and dancing being equally important to their performance.

Opera prioritises music and vocal performance. It often incorporates elaborate sets, costumes, and even ballet or dance. This aspect of opera sets it apart from musical theatre.

With its immersive and dynamic qualities, opera continues to captivate audiences worldwide.

History of Opera

The history of opera is both rich and captivating. As an art form, it remains lively and dynamic, constantly evolving even in the present day.

The concept of opera had been evolving for several years before the first opera was written. Basically, the idea of using music during a play goes back to the very beginnings of drama.

Thus, we can trace the origins of opera music back to the ancient Greeks.

The ancient Greeks combined poetry and music to produce plays. The plays feature song, spoken word, and dance. These plays were supported by wind or string instruments.

Besides, the early Christian church introduced liturgical drama. This involved setting religious narratives to music in the 1100s.

But the idea of using music throughout a play and singing everything that would normally be spoken is of comparatively recent origin.

For that is what opera is: a form of sung drama. And the first examples appeared in Italy in the late 16th century during the Renaissance period.

People performed the first opera in Florence, Italy, in 1600. It was called “Dafne” and was composed by Jacopo Peri.

Dafne is composed for a smaller ensemble. It is not like Claudio Monteverdi’s operas, which were created slightly later.

The early operas were often based on mythological stories. They were also performed in courtly settings.

The opera gained widespread popularity during the 17th century. It spreads from Italy to France, Germany, and the rest of Europe.

The increasing demand for opera has turned it into an industry. It thus requires composers to adopt a simpler style in order to produce operas quickly enough to meet the demand.

However, as opera music became more popular, it evolved to include more complex storylines and themes.

The Basic Ingredients of Any Opera

At the heart of any opera are several key ingredients that are essential for its creation.

These components include the libretto, singers, orchestra, stage, costumes, and scenery. Also, significant financial resources are required to produce it.

In this passage, we will explore these basic ingredients of opera and their respective roles in creating this captivating art form.

To create an opera, there are several essential components to consider:


The libretto refers to the text or words of the opera. This is essentially a play, but it must be crafted in a way that allows the music to shine. The author of the libretto is called the librettist, although some composers like Berlioz and Wagner have written their own.


The singers are people who perform as soloists, portraying the main characters in the story, and potentially a chorus as well.


There is a need for an orchestra to accompany the singers and provide a continuous musical backdrop.

Stage, Costumes, and Scenery

These and all the other necessary equipment in an Opera House are designed specifically for this purpose. The production requires a producer to oversee it and a conductor to lead the orchestra.


A significant number of financial resources to compensate the orchestral musicians, singers, stagehands, and other personnel involved in the production.

Characteristics of Opera Music

Opera music is characterised by its use of classical music, singing, and acting to tell a story.

It is often performed by a cast of characters who sing in different vocal ranges, such as sopranos, tenors, and basses.

The music is usually accompanied by an orchestra or a small ensemble of musicians.

One of the unique features of opera music is its use of recitative and aria. Recitative is a type of singing that is used to advance the plot of the opera.

It is often used to convey dialogue between characters. Aria, on the other hand, is a type of singing that is used to express the emotions of the characters.

It is usually sung in a more elaborate and virtuosic style than recitative.

Another characteristic of opera music is its use of libretto. A libretto is the text or script of an opera.

It is often written in verse and contains the lyrics of the songs that the characters sing.

The libretto is an essential component of an opera, as it provides the story and the lyrics that the characters sing.

Styles of Opera

With a rich history spanning over 400 years, opera has undergone numerous stylistic changes.

As a result, it has given rise to various singing styles. So, there are several different styles, forms, or genres of opera. each with its own unique features and characteristics.

This ranges from the bel canto style, which emphasises beautiful singing, to the grand opera, which features grandiose settings and costumes.

Basically, each style of opera brings its unique storytelling and artistic expression to the stage.

They have evolved over time and vary in style, subject matter, and musical conventions.

In this section, we will explore the different styles of opera and their defining features.

This, in the end, will allow you to gain a deeper appreciation for and understanding of this timeless art form.

Music Drama

This is a style of opera created by a single artist who writes both the text and music to advance the drama.

This style merges many art forms, making each one equally essential. Composer Richard Wagner pioneered this style.


This is a lighter opera form. The operetta typically features more popular styles of music, simpler vocal writing, and spoken dialogue.

Operettas often contain elements of parody, satire, and humour.

Famous operetta composers include Johann Strauss II, Jacques Offenbach, and Gilbert and Sullivan.

Chamber Opera

This type of opera is characterised by its smaller-scale, intimate nature. It is typically scored for a small instrumental ensemble rather than a full orchestra.

Chamber operas often focus on the psychological aspects of characters and their relationships. It has less emphasis on elaborate stage effects or large casts.

Bel Canto

This is Italian opera style, which translates to “beautiful singing,”. It reached its peak in the early to mid-1800s.

Bel canto operas put significant emphasis on the beauty and virtuosity of the human voice. This opera style features expressive, long-lined melodies and elaborate ornamentations.

Bel Canto typically emphasises long phrases, breath control, and flexibility in singing both loudly and softly.

The expressiveness of the voice takes precedence over the lyrics.

Famous bel canto composers include Vincenzo Bellini, Gioachino Rossini, and Gaetano Donizetti.

Specifically, Gaetano Donizetti was a prominent composer in this style.


This is a German-language opera form. It originated in German-speaking countries in the comic opera tradition.

The term Singspiel actually means “songplay,”. Singspiel was popular during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

It combines comic opera with spoken dialogue inserted between the sung phrases. So, it characterizes itself by interspersing songs with spoken dialogue.

Often, singspiel operas feature elements of comedy, magic, or fantasy.

Singspiel is often on an exotic or fanciful theme. Mozart’s The Magic Flute is an excellent example of this style.

Notable examples include Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” and Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Fidelio.”

Opera Seria

This term literally translates to “serious opera.” Popular from the 17th to the 18th century.

Opera seria characterizes itself with a strict, formal structure and the use of mythological or historical subject matter.

The librettos often focus on the moral and heroic aspects of the story. The music typically includes beautiful, ornamented arias and duets.

Opera seria is a serious opera where the stories are often tragic, featuring heroes, kings, or ancient myths and gods. Some of Handel’s operas fall into this category.

Opera Buffa

In contrast to opera seria, opera buffa, or “comic opera,” started in the 18th century. It emphasises humour, wit, and lightheartedness in its storytelling.

The plots usually revolve around ordinary people and everyday situations. The music often features rapidly spoken or sung dialogue, known as recitative.

Ensembles of singers and lively comic situations exaggerate and satirize the characters in opera buffa.

Opera buffa, always sung in Italian, is a comic opera where the working class, such as maids, peasants, or servants, usually outsmart their employers.

Gioachino Rossini was a prominent composer in this style.


Verismo, or “realism” opera, emerged in the late 19th century as a reaction to the more stylized operatic genres.

This operas style often portray the everyday lives and emotions of ordinary people in a realistic, sometimes gritty manner.

The music in these operas tends to be more dramatic and character-driven.

Examples of famous verismo composers include Ruggero Leoncavallo, Pietro Mascagni, and Giacomo Puccini.

Grand Opera

This opulent opera style was popular in the 19th century. Grand opera combines large-scale musical and dramatic elements with grand staging, costumes, and ballet sequences.

This is a spectacular style of opera, featuring elaborate sets and costumes.

The themes often involve historical or mythological events. In addition, its music typically features large orchestras and choruses. It requires many people to make it happen.

Moreover, it typically revolves around royalty, heroism, and a grand ballet scene and is often quite lengthy.

Notable composers of French grand opera include Daniel Auber, Giacomo Meyerbeer, and Hector Berlioz.

Short Tips about Opera Style

Opera seria and its comedic counterpart, opera buffa, dominated the models of the 18th century. It comes with sung recitatives and rigid aria structures.

Additionally, other types of opera gained popularity. Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, for instance, was a tragédie opéra.

Also, the French opéra comique and German Singspiel utilised spoken dialogue. French grand opéra, on the other hand, required five acts and ballet.

Despite these categories, composers often choose their own labels for their works. For instance, Mozart called Don Giovanni a “drame giocoso or “jocose” opera.

Verdi frequently chose melodrama, while Wagner used various descriptions for his operas.

In the same sense, Mussorgsky coined the term “national music drama” for Khovanshchina.

Impact of Opera Music on Classical Music

Opera music has had a significant impact on classical music. It has been a major influence on the development of classical music, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Opera music inspired many classical composers, such as Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky, who incorporated elements of it into their own compositions.

It has also had an impact on the development of other musical genres, such as musical theatre and film scores.

Indeed, opera music has influenced many musicals, including “Les Misérables” and “The Phantom of the Opera.”

Film scores, such as those composed by John Williams, often incorporate elements of opera music, such as arias and orchestral accompaniment.

In addition to its influence on classical music, operatic music has also had a significant impact on popular culture.

Filmmakers, television producers, and other creators have adapted many operas, such as “The Barber of Seville” and “Carmen,” into films, television shows, and other forms of media.

Also, advertisers have used opera music in their commercials, such as using the “Queen of the Night” aria from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” in a car commercial.

Vocal classifications In Opera

Opera is an art form that requires a high degree of skill and precision from its performers, particularly when it comes to vocal performances.

Hence, vocal classification is a crucial aspect of opera. It helps to ensure that each role is performed with the appropriate level of capability, skill, and precision.

By understanding the various voice types and their sub-classifications, opera singers can perform effectively.

This is because they can better match their vocal characteristics to the roles that are most suited to their unique abilities.

Several factors, including their range, agility, power, and timbre, determine a singer’s voice type classification.

Male singers can be classified as follows:

  • tenor,
  • countertenor
  • bass,
  • baritenor,
  • baritone,
  • bass-baritone,

On the other hand, female singers can be classified as listed below:

  • soprano,
  • mezzo-soprano,
  • contralto,

The Seven Most Common Opera Voice Types

In the world of opera music, vocal classification is an essential aspect. It helps to identify and differentiate the various types of voices.

Although there are many different voice types, people commonly use seven main types to classify singers.

Voice ClassDescription
CountertenorFor male singers, the countertenor is the highest voice type and can fall within a woman’s vocal range.
TenorTenor follows the countertenor and is the most common high male voice type in opera.
BaritoneThe baritone is the most heard male voice in opera and is known for its rich and deep tones.
BassThe bass voice type is characterised by its low pitch and comes from the Italian word basso.
SopranoFor female singers, the soprano voice type is the highest and is known for its ability to hit high notes with ease.
Mezzo-sopranoThe mezzo-soprano, on the other hand, is lower than a soprano but higher than a contralto/alto.
Contralto/AltoThe contralto/alto voice type is the lowest female voice type and is known for its rich, deep tones.
7 Basic opera voice Classification

Further Opera Voice Classifications

These classifications can be further refined by size and singing style.

For example, people may describe a soprano as a lyric soprano, coloratura, soubrette, spinto, or dramatic soprano, depending on her vocal characteristics.

People use these terms to associate a singer’s voice with the roles that best suit their vocal characteristics.

The Fach system, which is commonly used in German-speaking countries, takes this classification process even further.

It classified singers according to their acting skills and requirements.

For instance, “basso buffo” is a sub-classification that requires a specialist in patter as well as a comic actor.

The table below discusses some further voice categories in opera.

Voice ClassDescription
Coloratura SopranosThey possess an incredibly high range and the ability to perform rapid scales and trills.
Lyric SopranosThey possess lighter voices and typically perform roles that call for grace and charm.
Dramatic SopranosThey boast full and powerful voices and can convey intense passion through their singing.
Lyric SopranoThey possess relatively light and bright voices.
Dramatic TenorsThey have powerful voices and can express heroism through their singing.
Basso PuffosThey are well-suited for comic roles and can sing very rapidly.
Basso ProfondosThey have very low and powerful voices and are typically cast in roles requiring great dignity.
Further Division of Opera Voice Classification

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