Opera | Useful basic definitions of commonly used terms

Opera: a drama created through music

Why are people still interested in opera?  What is so intriguing and striking about it? Many told me: passion, which is quite right.

The Oxford dictionary defines opera as a drama created through music. According to this definition opera is made of two elements: a plot able to build up moments of tension and music.

Music, a powerful dramatic tool

More than simply reinforce the words or create the atmosphere and a mood coherent with the story, music is used in opera as a powerful dramatic tool in itself.

Music can convey a number of meanings to reinforce, outline or even contradict words. It can suggest conflicts, unions, lies, relations between characters that aren’t or cannot be expressed by words.

The joint effort of the best poets and composers in music history

Opera is the result of the joint effort of some of the best poets and composers in music history who worked together in perfect synergy to create a work of art as a whole.

One example? Mozart‘s trilogy over Da Ponte‘s librettos.

The libretto: the text of an opera

The text of an opera is called Libretto which literally means “little book” . It was provided by writers and poets called librettisti.

The text of the libretto can be sung in the form of a recitativo. Or else be “fully” sung in solo, duets, trios, quartets, quintets and so on, depending on the number of singers involved in a single piece delivery.


Recitativo is a declamatory speech-like singing that serves for dialogues and narrative parts. In the recitativo parts the action generally moves at a faster pace, whilst the aria has often a more static and reflective character.

In the 17th and 18th century the distinction between recitativo and aria is well marked. From Mozart on recitativo has a a more expressive and inventive function.

The different kinds of Recitativo

There are different kinds of recitativo depending on the type of accompaniment. The main ones are: accompagnato – with the full accompaniment of an orchestra – and strumentato or secco – only occasionally accompanied by harpsichord, chords or other instruments, playing the bass line of the melody.


Aria is opera true pillar and the most memorable part of many operas. It is in the aria that the melodic idea, shaped by words, becomes a memorable tune; the “music souvenir” that people sing or whistle at the end of a performance on their way home.

Aria con da capo

Aria is essentially a solo vocal piece. Till the end of the 18th centuty aria had a fixed form, called the ABA form or aria con da capo. It consisted of a first part in which the main theme is stated (A), a usually slower central part (B) and a last part which is a repetition with variations of the first part (A).

Aria con variazioni

During the 19th century the structure of arias became increasingly complex and elaborated taking the name of Aria con Variazioni. Those arias could be sung indifferently and independently from the opera. They were part of the singer’s repertory who could chose any of them depending on the situation described in the plot.

For that reason those arias were minutely classified as: aria cantabile-slow and smooth, aria di portamento-with long notes and a dignified style, aria di bravura o agilità– fast and difficult, with many embellishments requiring a very good technique, aria d’imitazione– imitative for example of birds, aria concertata-with an elaborate instrumental accompaniment.

Cavatina (and cabaletta)

In the 19th century a more complex type of aria started developing, called cavatina. A cavatina is basically a long and articulated aria, sometimes inserted within an even longer scena.

The term is specifically used to refer to the solo piece of the virtuoso. In that meaning is connected with the cabaletta, usually the last part of this long aria, in a rondo form and with many variations and embellishments.


The overture is a completely instrumental piece, which opens the opera. The modern overture was organized, just like arias, in the three-parts-form (quick-slow-quick) by Domenico Scarlatti.

Gluck was the first to give to the ouverture a thematic connection with the rest of the opera. Later on Weber used it as an orchestral synopsis of the opera themes.

20th century operas not always have an overture. Some composers prefer to start the action immediately at the beginning of the opera.

However in Italian opera overture have been generally retained, also as a way to stop the audience from chatting or to give latecomers the chance to reach their seats.

About Sara Filippini

Opera music along with destination management and communication are my fields of expertise. Music and singing are my passion combined with travel and exploring the connection between places and their stories. Coming from Italy I am blessed with wealth of history and adventures to be explored from Sicily to the Alp's. The real dept of any story can be best felt from the place of its origin were the surroundings add to the sense of connection and true appreciation.


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