Characteristic of Music: Opera

What a whirlwind journey we’ve been on!

We set off with a look at one of music’s most adaptable and ever changing genres, pop, before moving into the wider world of music, including classical, jazz, R&B, hip hop, folk, funk, punk, and rock and roll, and more. We even took a peek at the incredible diversity of Canada’s Indigenous music. But even with all this exploration of music and what makes each genre tick, we’ve only just scratched the surface.

Let’s dive straight into out next genre, opera!

What, Exactly, is Opera?

In a nutshell, opera is a dramatic story told through the use of music and song. Some even consider it to be the most “complete” art form, because it combines all the elements of arts; words, music, drama, and dance – you might even include the fine arts, such as painting, when considering set design and construction.

The most unique thing about opera is the use of music to convey an entire story. This can be done thanks to the feeling that music can often convey reactions and emotions more strongly than mere words alone. Opera can take any type of dramatic story and make it more exciting and relatable with music. In fact, countless famous stories have been turned into operas, including Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, and Romeo and Juliet.

2 Key Opera Characteristics

Music

Music is, of course, the most important element of an opera, as it moves the action, expresses emotion and mood, and helps to deepen the audience’s understanding of characters.

  • Orchestra: In the majority of operas, the performance is accompanied by a fairly large orchestra made up of strings, woodwinds, brass, and a percussion section.
  • Score: Much like the soundtrack to a movie, the music of an opera must be heard where it belongs. That means the orchestra has a set score to use to make sure they hit their marks.
  • Musical themes: A musical theme is a complete idea, in musical form, that is designed to be memorable. They are heard throughout operas, and are connected to a particular character, group, situation, idea, object, or even emotion.
Musical Themes

Musical themes can be broken basic categories. Composers use these categories to help describe how characters are feeling.

  • Recitative: Written to sound like the natural patterns of speech, a recitative has a similar rhythm to talking. As such, it’s most often used for conversations between characters and to help move the plot along.
  • Aria: Arias are vocal solos that express deep emotions or reflections.
  • Ensemble: Just like outside of opera, an operatic ensemble is simply a piece sung by two or more characters at the same time.
  • Chorus: The chorus is a group of people that sing together in parts or in unison to provide background music for all of the above.
Vocal Types

Another key element to operatic music is the voice of the singer. A singer cannot choose their voice type – it’s something they are born with, and it cannot be changed. All classical singers fall into one of these categories:

Soprano

Sopranos are the highest female voices, with a range similar to the violin. In opera, the soprano usually plays a young girl or the heroine. The normal range for a soprano is two octaves up from middle C, sometimes with extra top notes. For these reasons, most sopranos are women.

Mezzo-Soprano

Also sometimes called simply “mezzo,” this is the middle female voice and can be compared to the oboe. The mezzo sound tends to be darker and warmer than their soprano counterparts. In opera, composers like to use mezzo to portray older women, villainesses, seductive heroines, and sometimes young boys, like Hansel.

Contralto

Contralto is the lowest female voice and can be said to be like the clarinet. These singers are often cast as older women or special characters, like witches. Due to the lower register of the contralto, “true” contraltos are rather rare.

Countertenor

This is the highest of the male voices and is similar to the mezzo sound of the female performers. As such, countertenors often share their repertoire with the mezzos. Again, due to the high register of this category, like contraltos, “true” countertenors are very rare.

Tenor

Tenors are the next highest male voices, and thanks to the rarity of countertenors, tenors tend to occupy the highest male parts in an opera. Similar in sound to the range, tone, color, and acoustical ring as the trumpet, tenors usually play the hero or live interest.

Baritone

A middle male voice, the baritone singer can be compared to the French horn. In opera buffa (comedic opera), the baritone is usually the comedy ring-leader, while in opera seria (serious or tragic opera), he’s usually the villain.

Bass

As the lowest male voice, bass is often compared to the trombone or bassoon in range and color. In serious operas, low voices signify age and wisdom. In comedy, however, bass singers usually play old characters who are foolish or laughable.

Drama

With all the music and singers in place, it’s time for the drama!

Operas tell the dramatic or comedic story of a protagonist, often in the form of a hero or heroine, and an antagonist. The actors who portray these roles must not only be great singers, but actors as well. Operatic characters fall into two basic categories:

  • Principals: These are the main characters, including the heroes/heroines, villains, and other key characters. Principal roles are usually performed by experiences artists.
  • Comprimarios: These are the supporting roles. Comprimarios are often confidants, maids, servants, messengers, or anyone else the plot calls for. They are usually performed by younger or less experienced artists.

Like most plays and modern films, opera is divided into acts and scenes. Unlike plays or films, each opera scene can be further divided into numbers, with each number representing a different musical form (i.e aria, recitative, chorus number, etc.) Contrasting plays and films, opera text is specifically written to be accompanied by music.

Have you always been fascinated by music, but never had the chance to learn how to make it yourself? Maybe you want your children to get that chance at a young age? No matter the case, it’s never too late or too early to start your musical journey!

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