Definition of Opera

Discover a definition of opera that is relevant for you.

Listen to opera music online

March of the Toreadors (“Les voice! Voice la quadrille!) from Act 4 of the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet. Performed by the K&K Philharmoniker and K&K Opernchor. Musical direction by Myron Yusypovych.

Continue to discover the many definitions of opera.


What is a Simple Definition of Opera?

Opera is Music
Opera is Music

According to a simple definition, opera is:

  • a drama
  • set to music.

The simplest definition of opera can be found on Wikipedia. It states that opera is “a dramatic work in one or more acts, set to music for singers and instrumentalists.”


What is a Dictionary Definition of Opera?

Opera is Theatre
Opera is Theatre

According to a respected dictionary or classical music, opera is:

  • sung
  • theatrical.

The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians by Don Michael Randel is considered an authoritative dictionary of classical music and opera. On pg. 464 of this dictionary, opera is defined as:

“A drama that is primarily sung, accompanied by instruments, and presented theatrically. That opera is primarily sung distinguishes it from dramatic pieces in which music is incidental or clearly subsidiary to the drama. That it is presented theatrically distinguishes it from oratorio, which has similar musical components.”


How do the Italians Define Opera?

Opera is Spectacle
Opera is Spectacle

For many people, opera is associated with Italy and Italians. This is not surprising, since Italy is where opera was born.

According to a definition proposed by Lorenzo Bianconi and Geiorgio Pestelli, opera is:

  • poetry
  • music
  • spectacle.

Lorenzo Bianconi and Giorgio Pestelli are two authorities on opera within the Italian world of music. In their book Storia dell’opera Italiana (translated and published in English as Opera Production and Its Resources), Bianconi and Pestelli argue that opera emerged as a result of the various social and cultural discords and struggles in Florence during the 1600s.

Bianconi and Pestelli envision opera as a triangle or triad, consisting of “the spoken text, the music to which that text was set, and the visual realization of text and music on the stage”


What is the Definition that Contemporary Opera Organizations Use?

Opera is Singing
Opera is Singing

According to the definition proposed by Opera Europa, the meaning of opera is:

  • music
  • singing
  • drama
  • poetry
  • the plastic arts
  • dance.

Opera Europa is an association of 116 opera houses and festivals in 36 European countries. For Opera Europa, “Opera is a total art form, which joins music, singing, drama, poetry, the plastic arts and sometimes dance.”


How Does an Opera Conductor Define Opera?

Opera conductor Myron Yusypovych
Opera conductor Myron Yusypovych

Since an academic definition of “opera” can be found in any encyclopedia or dictionary, I would like to comment not on the formal characteristics of this genre or its historical development, but on what can be labeled as the “opera phenomenon”. By this, I mean the unique emotional state experienced by audiences of this genre, which has allowed opera to remain in the forefront of human culture for more than four centuries.

In the Holy Scriptures is is said that: “in the beginning was the Word”. And so it is with opera, where it is “the word”, which carries the meaningful information, develops the story line and creates the necessary dramatic intrigue. But, opera audiences, participating in an opera experience, want, nay, need to engage with more that just “the word”.

“The word” in opera can describe the situation and provoke certain emotional states in the listener. But, “the word” by itself is incapable of elevating the audience to a level of emotional euphoria. It is only when “the rational words” are supported by the full spectre of sounds that the listener is transposed into a completely different state of emotional heights than that, which can be provided by “the word” alone. And, it is this that the audience subconsciously awaits and yearns for in an opera.

Music ensure that the emotions evoked by words can be developed, deepened and, what is most important for humans, given the opportunity to be sustained in this state, over a certain period of time.

“Rational words” lay the foundation for the melodies, harmonies, vocal and instrumental colours, rhythm, tempi, that develop and guide us, the listener to the highest of expressions and emotional states. For the most part, the audience participates in what is going on, on stage not through “the word”, which is sung on stage, but through the emotions evoked by the music. In themselves, the words become secondary.

In classical opera, a full aria may sound from 3 to 6 minutes. And yet, this same aria might consist of one or two sentences, which allows for only the core ideas of content to be transmitted. All else that is born via this content is portrayed and expressly developed through the music leading to what is most important and worthy – the emotional state.

For example, in G. Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Rosina’s aria “Una voce poco fa” has few words. But, the joy, delight and happy anticipation of a girl in love are clearly communicated through the bright coloratura passages. And they are performed using just a few select words.

In opera “the rational word” is the seed planted to introduce the emotional state. The development of this emotional state, the pleasure of remaining in this state and the ability to relish this process of ever escalating musical drama is this phenomenon of opera that is particularly enticing and unique.

But, and this is indeed a big “but”, there is one very important nuance. For the opera phenomenon to occur, it is imperative that brilliant, or at least highly professional performances of opera be staged. Otherwise, opera becomes something that is difficult to understand and frequently, just plain ugly. In a poor production, the “opera phenomenon”, which is the quintessence of the genre, just won’t happen.

Two extremes reign in this genre: brilliance and misery. A third, middle ground just doesn’t exist.

(Myron Yusypovych blog entry – September 16, 2010)

For opera conductor Myron Yusypovych, the meaning of opera includes:

  • words
  • sounds
  • staging

all of which evoke an emotional response in the audience participating in the opera experience.