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Opera Basics

What is an opera, anyway?
Opera is drama told through music. It is a play in which the dialogue is sung rather than spoken. It is usually presented on a very grand scale, with large, imposing sets, elaborate and colorful costumes, and stylized stage direction. There is often a chorus-an ensemble of singers who make up the townspeople and other supplemental characters. Often dancing (e.g., ballet) is part of the spectacle as well.

How did opera start?
The history of opera as it is presented today in America goes back to the late Renaissance in Italy (1500-1600), when a group of composers "invented" it to resemble what they thought music-drama was like in classical Greece.

Operas are usually sung in the language in which they were composed, which means that opera singers must be able to sing in Italian, German, French, and other languages, as well as in English. Most of today's opera houses offer English supertitles.

See a detailed timeline on the development of American opera.

What makes an opera different from a musical?
The biggest difference is the musical style. The singers who perform in a musical usually have mikes hidden in their wig or costume, while singers who perform in operas usually do not use microphones.

A musical is a drama told by interweaving songs and music with spoken dialogue, while most operas are sung throughout with little or no spoken dialogue.

Voice types in opera
Classically trained singers learn to use their voices so that they can be heard over a full symphony. They do this by learning to strengthen their diaphragms so they can project a steady stream of air that helps create a big sound.

Female voices are divided into three categories:

  1. Soprano (highest)
  2. Mezzo-Soprano (middle range)
  3. Contralto (lowest)

Male voices are divided into three categories:

  1. Tenor (highest)
  2. Baritone (middle range)
  3. Bass (lowest)

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 Last Updated: Monday, 01-Dec-2008 15:28:23 Eastern Standard Time