Opera Characteristics. What is The Opera?

Characteristics of the Opera
Characteristics of the Opera

Opera is one of the most loved and enduring forms of art. What are the features, traits and characteristics of classical opera that have contributed to its success? Does opera have a special terminology?

Click for a definition of opera and to listen to the Toreador Song and March from the opera Carmen.

The following are 15 characteristics and features that contribute to what opera is today. These 15 characteristics expand on the definition of opera and help us understand this art called – opera.

To get more details on what is opera, click on each characteristic.

  1. Music is the Main Component of an Opera
  2. Drama in an Opera Comes Through the Music
  3. Operas are Composed by Opera Composers
  4. A Composer Score is Used by the Opera’s Music Conductor
  5. Opera Libretti are the Script
  6. An Orchestra Provides the Instrumental Music
  7. Soloists Sing in an Opera
  8. A Choir Performs in an Opera
  9. Ballet Dancers Perform in an Opera
  10. Supernumeraries are Often Part of The Opera Performance
  11. Operas are Usually Performed in a House of Opera
  12. Opera is a Theatrical Production
  13. An Opera Performance Must Have an Audience
  14. Surtitles Provide a Translation of the Opera Libretto
  15. An Opera Conductor is Responsible During The Opera Performance

What is The Role of Music in An Opera?

An opera is a drama or dramatic piece of work performed entirely to music. Music is central in classical opera.

Music is a natural medium for expressing emotions, moods and feelings. As a result, classical operas tend to be very dramatic.

Traditionally, music was the most important element of opera. In contemporary opera productions, other features have also become important, such as: acting, staging and costumes.

The finale of Act I, from Nabucco, a G. Verdi opera, conducted by Myron Yusypovych

Click to hear the finale of Act I, from Nabucco, a G. Verdi opera, conducted by Myron Yusypovych.

How is Drama Portrayed in An Opera?

Dramatic Finale in Cavalleria Rusticana
Dramatic Finale in Cavalleria Rusticana

An opera is a dramatic work.

The dramatic feelings and emotions, that are experienced when audiences participate in an opera production, are mostly due to the music. Drama, in an opera production, comes from and through the music.

Joseph Kerman in his book Opera as Drama (2005) writes: “… opera is properly a musical form of drama, with its own individual dignity and force.” This statement is a paraphrase of the ideas that were originally presented by Richard Wagner in his literary work Opera and Drama (published in German in 1852 as Oper und Drama).

To a lesser degree, drama also comes from the plot of the opera. An opera tells a story, which is performed on stage before an audience.

Operas have themes which provide dramatic elements:

  • conflict
  • love triangles
  • murder
  • jealousy
  • political strife.

What is The Role of The Opera Composer?

Opera Composers Photo
Opera Composers Photo

Most classical operas are associated with the composer, who wrote the music for the opera. Famous composers that composed opera include:

  • Gioachino Rossini
  • Piotr Tchaikovsky
  • Richard Wagner.

Some opera composers have managed to write many operas.

  • Giuseppe Verdi composed 28 operas.
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed 22 operas.

Some opera composers are well known because of one particular opera. This, even though they actually composed many operas.

  • Ruggero Leoncavallo wrote 11 operas, but the only one most audiences know is the opera Pagliacci.
  • Georges Bizet wrote 14 operas, but Carmen, is the opera most people know and love.

What is The Opera Score?

Composer Score for Opera
Composer Score for Opera

An opera has a musical score, sometimes referred to as an opera music score or a conductor score. Every note that the musicians play on their instruments and the soloists and choir sing, is written on separate staves on a large piece of paper.

The opera conductor uses an opera music score:

  • to prepare for an opera production
  • to rehearse with the orchestra
  • to conduct the opera performance before an audience.

Music conductors frequently make markings and reminder notes in their personal composer score.

What is The Script Called in An Opera?

Opera Libreto for Manan Lescaut by Puccini
Opera Libreto for Manan Lescaut by Puccini

An opera has a libretto. The word “libretto” comes from Italian and means “a booklet” or “a little book”. Although the correct plural form is libretti, many people prefer to use the term opera librettos.

An opera libretto is the script that is sung by the soloists and choir. A libretto also includes stage directions and instructions, which are usually written by the librettist, for the singers and dancers. A librettist is the person, who writes the libretto.

Sometimes, the composer and the librettist are one and the same person. The most famous composer-and-librettist-in-one is Richard Wagner.

However, it is more common that two people have collaborated on the writing of an opera: a librettist and a composer.

Some operas are created where the composer takes a piece of dramatic work and writes music. Sometimes the composer and the librettist collaborate very closely during the creation of an opera, adjusting both as the work progresses. And sometimes, the music is written first and then the librettist has to fit the words to the music.

What Members of the Orchestra Perform During an Opera?

Classical Symphony Orchestra at the Lviv Opera House
Classical Symphony Orchestra at the Lviv Opera House

A classical opera is performed with a full orchestra composed of the various musical instrument sections:

  • strings – violins, violas, cellos and basses
  • woodwinds – oboes, flutes, bassoons, clarinets
  • brass – horns, trumpets, tuba
  • percussion – drums, metal plates, chimes, xylophone

The lead musician of an orchestra is the concertmaster. The name “concertmaster” comes from the German “Konzertmeister”, which literally means “the concert chief”. The concertmaster plays the violin and sits at the front of the orchestra, near the opera conductor.

In an opera house or opera theatre, musicians perform an opera either every night or every other night. Such an active schedule is acceptable for the strings and percussions. However, musicians that play woodwind and brass instruments can’t perform 5 or 6 evenings a week without experiencing burn-out or loss of quality. Therefore, many companies will rotate their woodwinds and brass or have alternate musicians.

Classical operas require large orchestras that have from 70 to 100 musicians.

What are Cantate de Opera?

Tenor and Soprano Soloists in Aida
Tenor and Soprano Soloists in Aida

Soloists are singers that play a leading or secondary role in the opera plot. The leading female singing role is sometimes referred to as the prima donna. Female soloists, who have sung many leading roles are often called divas.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, soloists were required to only sing. Today, however, engaged audiences demand that soloists have more. They must:

  • look the part
  • act well
  • sing beautifully.

During an opera, soloists sing:

  • solos –sung by one soloist
  • duets – sung by two soloists
  • trios – three soloists singing singing individually and together
  • ensembles – several soloists, each singing their own part, sometimes together and sometimes with the chorus.

The various types of soloist voices in opera are:

  • soprano and mezzo-soprano for women
  • tenor, baritone and bass for men.

What is The Role of The Opera Chorus?

Opera Choir in Act I of G.Verdi's Nabucco
Opera Choir in Act I of G.Verdi's Nabucco

An opera has a choir. The full choir is composed of male and female singers, who sing soprano, alto, tenor and bass.

In some parts of an opera performance only a male choir might be necessary, when only men sing of stage. Other times, there are parts in operas, when only a female choir is needed.

Chorus scenes sung by the full opera choir, together with the soloists are some of the most memorable scenes for an opera audience.

What is the Relationship Between Opera and Ballet?

Ballet and Opera in G. Verdi's Aida
Ballet and Opera in G. Verdi's Aida

Opera & ballet is not what most opera lovers consider together. However, many operas have scenes, that can only be performed by classically trained ballet dancers.

Operas often require ballet performers. Large ballet and opera companies draw on their ballet soloists and corps-de-ballets to provide the dance numbers, that are required in an opera production.

Ballet performers “express extremes of emotions through music alone”, whereas opera singers do the same through their vocal capabilities, writes Jessica Duchen in her article “Ballet and Opera – The Odd Couple” in The Independent on November 20, 2009. The two art forms of ballet and opera together, make an incredible combination for audiences.

What are The Non-Singing Actors in an Opera Called?

Supernumeraries in Pagliacci
Supernumeraries in Pagliacci

An opera has actors that don’t sing, but are present on stage during the performance. These nonsinging actors are called supernumeraries.

Supernumeraries provide dramatic background for the soloists and choir.

Stage directors often use supernumeraries so that the singers can concentrate more on their singing and less on theit acting.

What Venues are Used for The Opera?

Lviv National Opera and Ballet House
Lviv National Opera and Ballet House

There are about 400 opera theatres and houses of opera that currently stage and produce operas. The most well known of these opera houses are in Europe. About 40 are situated in Asia and over 60 in North and South America.

Most people imagine opera houses to be guilded and opulent. And although this may be true of many of the great opera houses of Europe, the more recently constructed opera theatres have tended to place more emphasis on acoustics and audience comfort.

What Kind of Stage do Operas Need?

Opera Spectacle in Aida
Opera Spectacle in Aida

Operas are performed in theatres, on an open-air stages and, sometimes, even in an arena. Some opera audiences like to see an opera spectacle.

Opera companies employ stage designers to design sets, scenery and props.

Costumes are an important feature of opera productions. For the soloists, chorus members and supernumeraries costumes can be quite elaborate. On the other hand, orchestra members are usually dressed in black.

An important feature of contemporary operas is the lighting, which can enhance the drama of the music.

Operas are theatrical productions. However, when there are limited budgets or facilities, an opera can be performed as an opera-in-concert, with no costumes, scenery or lighting.

What are the Characteristics of an Opera Audience?

Opera Audience in Lviv, Ukraine
Opera Audience in Lviv, Ukraine

“A performance of opera in itself is nothing without its audience”, stated Graham Vick, artistic director of the Birmingham Opera Company, during a keynote addressed delivered at the Valencia Conference of Opera Europa on March 11 – 13, 2005.

There are many types of audience. An opera audience is one that likes opera and enjoys it primarily for the music.

Opera is an art form that has a potentially large world audience. Because it tends to be sung in a foreign language, most audience members have come to accept that they needn’t understand every word to appreciate and enjoy the performance.

“The audience for opera is groing faster than for any other arts medium except film” was the conclusion reached in the “Opera For Now” report in the United Kingdom.

“The audience for all art forms, except opera, are aging faster than did the entire sample”, which included various age groups, is concluded by the “Age and Arts Participation” study funded by the National Endownment for the Arts in the USA.

For the soloists choir, musicians, conductor interacting with your audience is not an easy matter. A laughing audience at an opera usually means that something is wrong. On the other hand, a clapping audience, particularly at the end of a difficult aria or choral ensemble, is very desirable.

What are The Flashing Words Above the Stage at an Opera?

Surtitles During An Opera Performance
Surtitles During An Opera Performance

Surtitles are shown on electronic boards often placed above the stage.

Today, opera productions are performed in the language written by the librettist. In many cases, the audience doesn’t understand the language. Sometimes soloists and choruses are difficult to understand, even if you know the language they are singing in.

This wasn’t always so. During the 19th century and for most of the 20th century, opera singers sang translations, so that audiences could understand.

The first surtitles in operas were introduced by the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, Canada in 1983. Today, they are a common feature of most theatres and opera houses around the world.

What is the Responsibility of The Opera Conductor?

Opera Conductor Myron Yusypovych
Opera Conductor Myron Yusypovych

A musical conductor stands in front of the orchestra and waves his baton or hands in time to the music’s beat. What a simple job! Or, is it?

An opera conductor’s job description includes:

  • researching the music and opera background before rehearsals begin
  • developing a common vision for the opera production with all support staff
  • planning the rehearsal schedule
  • rehearsing the orchestra
  • working with the soloists and choir members
  • conducting the opera performance in such a way, as to ensure the best possible performance from each participant.

Audience applause is something that some opera conductors know how to handle and others don’t. Knowing when to restart the performance, when to cut into the applause and when to let it continue will either ensure the smooth contintuation of the opera performance or cause it to limp on awkwardly.

Most opera conductors use a baton, although there are instances when, during an opera performance, a conductor will lay aside the baton and use only his hands. Some musical and opera conductors reject commercially produced batons and prefer to either have them custom made or make them themselves.


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