MUSIC 261 - Opera

Laura Gray

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Table of contents

Elements of Opera


  • Sacher, Opera: A Listener’s Guide, Chapter 1, pp. 3-10 (“The Nature of the Beast”)
  • Sacher, Chapter 2, pp.20-22 (“The Filter of History” – “Opera’s History – An Overview”).

In the readings, author briefly discusses

  • opera’s focus: drama through music.
  • difference between opera and musical.
    • nature of singing. Musical’s singing close to simple songfulness. Opera singers develop high notes.
    • Diction. Opera: stylized vowel production. Musical: speaking habits of characters.
    • Opera enough power to be heard without mic.
    • In opera, characterization relies exclusively on voice and instrument, rather than appearances.
  • opera’s history.
    • Baroque era: Monterverdi, Scarlatti, Lully, Handel. Opera seria, comic opera.
    • Classical era. Simpleness, naturalness, melody elaborateness. Farbic of voices and instruments. Constant variety, interchange of motives among vocal and instrumental. Gluck, Mozart, Beethoven.
    • Romantic Era. Tone, richly varied colors, passionate emotionalism.
      • first four decades of 1800s: Rossini, Weber, Bellini, Donizetti.
      • next four: Verdi, Wagner. Musorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Meyerbeer, Gounod, Bizet, Offenbach.
      • final decades of era: Puccini, Debussy, Richard Strauss.

What is Opera?

The literal translation of the term “opera” does not tell us much:

  • Opera = Latin for “works” (plural of opus “work”)
  • Short form for “opera in musica” (work in music)
  • Different names through history:
    • Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607) was labelled “favola in musica” (a fable in music)
    • French Baroque opera: Tragédie lyrique or Tragédie en musique (lyrical tragedy or tragedy in music)
    • Dramma per musica (drama for music): term used for Italian serious opera from 17th century to early 19th century
  • Different forms of opera: e.g.
    • Comic opera
    • Serious opera
    • Singspiel: German opera with spoken dialogue

Opera: a play that is sung = drama with continuous music, staged with scenery, costumes & action

  • multi-media, collaborative, expensive genre:
  • controversial: strong reactions for and against
  • powerful: emotionally; socially; politically…
  • relevant today?
    • Universal themes of life, death, love, hatred, pain…
    • a place in contemporary collective popular imagination

Musical elements

operas start with words before one note is written:

Libretto: (“little book”):

  • The words or text of an opera
  • dramatic text + scene instructions for an opera
  • Normally written by someone else (librettist) to be set to music by the composer
  • The librettist will often indicate places to be set to:
    • recitative (prose, no poetic meter)
    • Aria (poetry, regular poetic meter)
  • The composer takes the libretto and dramatizes the story through music!


Aria: solo song

  • A solo piece written for a main character
  • focuses on expression of character’s emotions/reactions to plot
  • Time stands still
  • Often inner thoughts and emotions of character
  • monologue in poetic stanza form
  • Features repetition of text & music
    • usually in patterned form

Here are some examples of arias

Monteverdi, L’Orfeo (1607), “Vi Ricorda”:

  • Orpheus expressing his happiness thanks to his bride, Eurydice
  • Strophic: same music with different words (verses)
  • Separated by instrumental interludes
  • Strong regular rhythm

Handel, Messiah (1742), “Rejoice Greatly

  • Da capo aria (A B A’ form):
    • an opening section, a contrasting section, return of the opening music & words but more ornamented
    • Strong meter (notice the strong meter in 3s here (12/8) here compared to most versions!)

Mozart, Don Giovanni (1787), “Batti, Batti” (Zerlina)

  • Zerlina tries to persuade her fiancé Masetto to forgive her
  • Flowing cello accompaniment


Recitative: reciting style, sung declamation (朗唱法)

  • Halfway between singing and speaking
  • fits natural accents, rhythm, pace & inflections of words
  • No strong regular accents
  • Syllabic: usually just one note per syllable of text
  • Usually used to moves plot forward
  • Sometimes consists of dialogue between characters
  • “Invented” in 1600:
    • made opera possible
    • More “efficient” style of singing that tells the story more quickly than full song


  • the instrumental accompaniment is usually quite spare and sparse
  • Allows the voice to flow naturally like speech rhythms with minimal structure

Here are 2 examples of recitative:

Giulio Cesare, Act II, sc. 1: “Eseguisti…” recitative

  • Cleopatra and her friend Nireno conspire to enchant Julius Caesar
  • Notice how spare the accompaniment is, allowing the voices to follow the natural speech rhythms in their dialogue.
  • The accompaniment style here is called “secco” or “dry”

Monteverdi, Orfeo, Act II:

  • Messenger delivers bad news of Eurydice’s death
  • Long narrative, very emotionally charged scene
  • Delivered in recitative with spare accompaniment & flexible vocal line

Accompaniment: depending on the storyline, the instruments can accompany the recitative in different ways: 2 styles of accompaniment:

  • simple chordal punctuation (secco: “dry”). Consists of just a bass line and instrument filling in the chords (basso continuo)
  • Orchestral: added instrument (accompagnato: “accompanied”). Fuller accompaniment that includes the addition of other instruments of the orchestra

Handel, Messiah: alternates between the 2 styles. although Messiah is not an opera, it uses operatic elements, like recitative and aria, and is a great example of alternating styles of accompaniment

Pergolesi, La serva padrona (1733):

  • Mix of secco & accompagnato recitative
  • Serpina & Uberto in dialogue: secco
  • Serpina leaves and Uberto thinks to himself: accompagnato (~1:00)

Check the top comment of youtube link:

If you are here for your music history exam I wish you the best of luck!

Orchestra & Chorus

Orchestra: Plays an important dramatic role in telling the story

  • It accompanies singers, plays interludes or separate orchestral numbers
  • Overture: orchestral introduction to an opera

Handel, Overture to Messiah (1742)

  • Typical Baroque form: slow opening section, fast 2nd section (both repeated)

Mozart, Overture to Don Giovanni (1787)

  • Sonata form with a slow introduction (D minor/D major)
  • Microcosm of Don Giovanni’s 2 sides
  • Some music returns in the opera

Bizet, Prelude to Carmen (1875)

  • Acts like a medley of music to come in the opera, including foreshadowing a “fate” motive

Chorus: group of singers representing group (vs individual) identity. Sometimes they act like a Greek chorus:

  • empathize with main characters
  • deliver the moral of the story
  • Other times they are the crowd

Handel, Messiah, “Glory to God

The Birth of Opera: Monteverdi, Orfeo

Back to top

Copyright © 2017-2024 Sibelius Peng.