Opera 101

LEARN ABOUT OPERA

Are you an inquiring mind? Do you enjoy learning about the nuts and bolts of opera? If you’re new to the opera or just need a little refresher, we’ve put together a selection of operatic facts to help improve your enjoyment and understanding of our performances.

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What is opera?
Who sings opera?
What are operas written about?
Do I need to speak Italian?
How many people does it take to put together a performance?
How long do singers rehearse for an opera?
I loved Phantom of the Opera! Is that an opera?
What is opera?

Imagine having the ability to express your emotions—happiness, sadness, love, anger—with a tool exponentially more effective and evocative than words alone. This is the power of opera. Put simply, opera is storytelling through music. These characters have real emotions, real conflicts, and real relationships. To experience an opera is to see a complete audio-visual production, complete with sets, costumes, and a live orchestra. The information on this page will give you a bit of insight into what to expect from an opera, as well as some basic terminology involving the art form.

Who sings opera?

Opera singers train for years, learning the ins and outs of their voices in order to deliver beautifully sung phrases to halls with as many as 5,000 seats. Singers come in all shapes and sizes. They are typically sorted into five basic voice types.

SOPRANO
This is the highest voice type for female singers. These roles are typically the leading lady type, ranging from Wagner’s Brünnhilde (see: the infamous horned helmet) to Verdi’s Violetta in La traviata, Mozart’s Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, and Puccini’s Mimì in La bohème.

MEZZO-SOPRANO
This is the lowest voice type for female singers. Here we see characters ranging from witches, as in Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, to leading ladies like the title character in Bizet’s Carmen.

TENOR
This is the highest voice type for male singers. These characters are often the male romantic leads, such as Rodolfo in Puccini’s La bohème, Don José in Bizet’s Carmen, and Alfredo in Verdi’s La traviata.

BARITONE
These male singers have lower voices than tenors. They usually play strong, heroic and/or embattled characters, such as the title character in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the title character in Verdi’s Rigoletto, and Marcello in Puccini’s La bohème.

BASS
This is the lowest voice type among male singers. Basses are often older characters, sometimes having evil inclinations. Examples include Sparafucile in Verdi’s Rigoletto, Sarastro in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and Méphistophélès in Gounod’s Faust.

What are operas written about?

Since its inception during the late 16th century, opera has been written about almost every topic imaginable. They deal with everything from kings and queens—such as Donizetti’s three operas about real-life Tudor queens (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux)—to everyday people and topics (Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers, Mozart’s Così fan tutte). A number of operas are even based on well-known fairytales (Rossini’s La Cenerentola, Dvořák’s Rusalka, Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel). No matter what your experience or lifestyle, you’re sure to find at least one character or situation on stage that you can relate to.

Do I need to speak Italian?

Not at all! It is true that most opera in America is produced in its original language (with the most notable exception being Opera Theatre of St. Louis, where everything is performed in English). The original language of an opera—whether that’s Italian, French, German, English, or others—is usually the best vehicle for the composer’s intentions, and it’s not always possible to translate into another language with a great deal of accuracy in meaning. But today, virtually all companies (including Pensacola Opera) project English translations line by line above the stage, so audience members can follow along in real time and know exactly what each character is saying. We also include a synopsis of each production on our website and in the program booklet, so you can read up on the story ahead of time, if you choose!

How many people does it take to put together a performance?

Opera is one of the biggest “team sports” of all time. In addition to the performers you see on stage (which can sometimes number upwards of 50 people for large chorus scenes), there is a full crew of stagehands, stage managers, costumers, orchestra musicians, a conductor, and more that go into making a performance happen. All of these people come together to create one of the most immersive, collaborative art forms in existence.

How long do singers rehearse for an opera?

It takes a good amount of individual practice time to learn a role, understand the language, and memorize sometimes up to three hours of music. Once the singers come together with the stage director and conductor, the rehearsal process typically lasts two to three weeks. During this time, the director helps the singers learn where to move on stage, what’s going on with the story, and other dramatic considerations. The conductor also helps to shape the musical storyline, and makes sure that the singers are performing the score accurately and stylistically.

I loved Phantom of the Opera! Is that an opera?

There are numerous ways to look at this question, but let’s keep it simple. Phantom of the Opera has been one of the most enduring pieces of musical drama composed during the 20th century. Andrew Lloyd Webber has a gift for developing drama, passion, and some of the most memorable melodies you’ll ever see on stage. The goal for any sort of musical theatre (opera, musical, ballet, etc.) is to use music to tell a story and to move the audience in some way. Phantom absolutely accomplishes this mission in much the same way as operas like La bohème or Carmen. So, we can say that the musical and dramatic impact of Phantom is very similar in scope to that of many pieces traditionally regarded as “opera.” Therefore, if you enjoy Phantom, you’ll probably enjoy most operas!

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