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Thread: Opera Terms

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  1. #16
    Dramatic Mezzo

    Some of those voices are today singing the roles of alto-coloratura (drammatica d'agilitŕ) that Rossini created: Malcolm, Isabella, Angelina, Arsace, Tancredi, Neocle... even the original Rosina. However, there are no longer voices like that of Adelaida Malanotte or Rosmunda Pisaroni. Those roles are usually sung by mezzos like Marilyn Horne some years ago, or Daniela Barcellona today. Also, given that castrati are even in less availability that Malanottes or Pisaronis, singers like Vivica Genaux take charge of some roles from Handel, Vivaldi and other Baroque composers, .

    Other roles need darker voices, of greater weigth in the lower octave, but able also to rise safely to the top notes: Dido from Berlioz's Les Troyens, Azucena, Ulrica, Eboli, Amneris, Laura, Dalila,... Historically we can find singers like Irene Minghini-Cattaneo or Gianna Pederzini. Then, in more recent years, Fedora Barbieri, Giulietta Simionato,... Today, one of the best representatives of this fach is Dolora Zajick:

    In German repertoire, there are also several important roles: Waltraute, Fricka... even they can be cast as Ortrude, Venus or Kundry, dramatic roles that can be sung either by sopranos or mezzos. Arguably the greatest active singer, Waltraud Meier, is a good example:

  2. #17

    This is a male voice produced by a widening of the head register. It's a falsetto voice, emitted through the high pitched resonances in the head, after an extensive training.

    From the point of view of timbre, it's a voice between soprano and contralto. A clear, piercing, pure voice.

    From a historical point of view, the origin of this fach lies in the Middle Ages, in choral music. However, the appearance of the castrato was a blow for the countertenor. Composers like Handel were writing parts for this fach (for instance, in the Messiah), and then rewriting for castrato.

    The resurgence of the fach took place just after the Second World War, with artists like Alfred Deller, and new roles like Oberon in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

    Sometimes, there is a tendency to confuse the countertenor with the French 'haute-contre' that in reality is a singer more in the likeness of Juan Diego Flórez, or the English light tenor roles, that are more for someone like John Mark Ainsley.

    We can recognize three types of countertenor:

    1) Soprano

    This is the lightest countertenor voice. It can easily reach beyond C5, and perform some coloratura. Michael Maniaci, Aris Christofellis or Dominique Visse are singers belonging to this fach:

    2) Mezzo-soprano

    This is the more usual vocality, and it was the voice of Alfred Deller. It was also, probably, the color of the castrato voice. There are many singers we can enjoy in this fach, like James Bowman, Andreas Scholl, Brian Asawa, David Daniels or Iestyn Davies:

    3) Alto

    The timbre is similar to the woman alto. It can also use some resonance outside the head voice. Some examples are René Jacobs or Carlos Mena:

  3. #18

    This was the old 'altus' of ancient poliphony, that was many times incorporated by countertenors, castrati or even children.

    As a woman's voice, it's very rare. Her dark color, her velvety tone, her cello sound, her consistency are trademarks ot this fach.

    What operatic roles are suitable for altos?. Not very many. The Sorceress from Dido and Aeneas, Zia Principessa, Clitemnestra, even Ulrica... Some Wagnerian roles like Erda o Waltraute... They are mostly sung by dramatic mezzos, anyway.

    Great historical altos:

    Kathleen Ferrier - Where 'er You Walk - Semele

    Marian Anderson - Re dell' abisso - Un Ballo in Maschera

    Ernestine Schumann-Heink - Höre mit sin - Götterdämmerung

    Ewa Podles - Ogni indugio d'un amante - Rinaldo

  4. #19

    This is the lowest voice, used since antiquity to offer a harmonic support for the melodic lines sung by lighter voices.

    The chest resonances are paramount. Passage is usually around D-flat 3, with an average tessitura of F1-G3.

    In the Baroque period, there low notes were writtenmore often, descending to E1, D1 or even lower. However, the composers of the Romantic era rarely go beyond F1, that is about a kind of limit. Even in Verdi's times, everyone in the audience was expecting the F1 of Sparafucile at the end of the duo with Rigoletto, to judge the note and the singer. But the tendency to give the bass higher notes, a lighter line of singing, was unstoppable. Wagner, for instance, never requires anything lower than a G1.


    The old "serioso" of Italian music. It needs a stupendous consistence in the middle and low ranges. Also, to offer the dramatic function usually required from them, they need the proper timbre and color for that.

    Some standard repertoire roles are Sarastro, Prince Gremin, Cardenal Brogni, Marcel (from Huguenots), the Grand Inquisitor, Rocco, Pimen... In Wagner operas, Hunding, Hagen, Fafner,.... granitic voices. A little more lighter roles like Gurnemanz or Heinrich also need this kind of bass voice. Even Sir Morosus, the Strauss character from Die schweigsame Frau.

    A few examples of outstanding bass profondo voices:

    Ivar Andresen - Brogni's cavatina

    Alexander Kipnis - O Isis und Osiris

    Emanuel List - Lohengrin

    Gottlob Frick - Hagen

    Today, we have still a giant like Salminen, or good singers like Hans-Peter König.

  5. #20
    Buffo Bass

    There are parts written in a bass tessiture that are comic in nature. For instance, Osmin (that can be also served by a profondo with acting abilities), Leporello, Don Bartolo, Don Magnifico, Don Pasquale, Dulcamara...

    In German opera, this voice is commonly named Spielbass.

    There is usually a fine line here to walk between the acting and the singing. Comic effects are welcome, but can't be the only basis of the performance.

    Historically we can find singers like Salvatore Baccaloni, Enzo Dara or Fernando Corena (this last one, bordering with the excess of caricature mentioned above). Today, one of the best singers of the fach is Carlos Chausson.

    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); January 5th, 2018 at 01:45 AM.

  6. #21
    Lyrical Bass

    This is the traditional basso cantante.

    Many roles are written for this fach. Roundness, balance, strong low notes, but ability to sing also with the same colour in the center of the tessitura...

    Verdi was one of the composers that made use frequently of this kind of voice: Zaccaria, Silva, Fiesco, Procida, Attila, Filippo,... In Italian opera we can find also the Mefistofele from Boito, Raimondo, Baldasarre, Colline,... Roles like Ivan Susanin, Dosifei, Varlaam, Don Alfonso, Gounod's Mefistofeles, Daland, Marke, ... are more examples.

    Of course, the first name of a singer coming to mind is Fiodor Chaliapin. In the Russian school there are also very good basses, like Mark Reizen. From Bulgaria, Boris Christoff or Nicolai Ghiaurov.

    Perhaps the most accomplished singers of the fach came from Italy: Nazareno de Angelis, Ezio Pinza, Cesare Siepi, Tancredi Pasero... Historical French basses like Pol Plançon or Marcel Journet, Jerome Hines,...

    Still singing are artists like Samuel Ramey or Ruggero Raimondi but the best bass of our times is the German René Pape.

    Feodor Chaliapin - Ivan Susanin

    Boris Christoff - Attila

    Tancredi Pasero - Don Carlo

    Samuel Ramey - Mefistofele

    René Pape - Tristan und Isolde

  7. #22

    The singers par excellence of the 18th century and Opera Seria.

    The Castrato is a male singer that was being castrated before his puberty. The objective of this operation was to prevent the normal evolution of the larynx, and in this way get in an adult male the same tessitura of a female singer. Combined with extensive training, the final result was a tremendous lung capacity and breath control, associated with exciting top notes and extraordinary flexibility. Soon, they were the most famous and well paid singers in Europe. Instead of castrati, they were referred usually as 'musici'.

    It seems the origin of this practice was in Spain and Italy, in the 17th century, mainly to use them as Church singers (in many places, female singers were forbidden to sing in the religious services), as they were preferred to the falsetists. It was just a small step to get them also singing Opera.

    By early 18th century, most of the male protagonist roles in Opera were trusted to a castrato. This was due basically to aesthetic convictions (a preference for the high-pitched voices as a symbol of spirituality), and also the musical demands of the "canto fiorito". Opera Seria was the ideal scenario for the castrati and some very famous singers like Nicolo Grimaldi (NICOLINI), Antonio Maria BERNACCHI, Francesco Bernardi (SENESINO), Giovanni CARESTINI, Gaetano Majorano (CAFFARELLI), or Carlo Broschi (FARINELLI) were dominating the operatic stage. The only exception was Paris, where they were not allowed to perform in Opera, though they could offer the occasional concert.

    Carestini, Nicolini, Senesino and Farinelli

    By the 1740s there were growing concerns about the ethics of castrating young males to make them singers (we know the story of some important and famous castrati, but most of the children operated were not finally able to sustain a succesful career), and also Opera Seria started its long decline. The castrato roles were little by little disappearing, though we can find some of them even as late as early 19th century, like in Meyerbeer's Il Crociato in Egitto, written in 1824. After they were no more employed in the Opera House, some of them were still performing in Church, one of the latest being Alessandro Moreschi, the only castrato voice ever recorded, in 1902 and 1904, when he was still in his forties.

    The roles written for castrati are now performed usually by mezzo-sopranos or, more recently, countertenors. Sometimes, they are adapted for baritone or tenor.

    We will never know for sure how the great castrati really sounded on stage. They will always be there, the heroes and the victims of an instant suspended in time, the promise of a great beauty forever unattainable to us.

  8. #23

    This is the most characteristic form for the aria in the Opera Seria repertory (also in other genres of the period, like the Oratorio). Structurally, it's divided in three sections, being the first and second sung with a different text, and the third a repetition, with some variations, of the first.

    Section A

    This first section of the aria tipically starts with an orchestral part, called 'ritornello'. The melodies present in this 'ritornello' are then used in the rest of the aria, both instrumental and singing, they keep coming (hence, the 'ritornello'). After this, there is the vocal part singing the text, twice, again separated by the 'ritornello', usually in shortened form. To close the section, we find the 'ritornello' again.

    Section B

    Should be a marked contrast with the first, not only because the text is different, but also because the composer will normally use another tonality, or will indicate a different tempo. Also, the orchestral accompaniment is usually more sparse, and there are less ornaments in the vocal part.

    Section A'

    It's a repetition of A, but now the singer is free to ornament the vocal line according to his fantasy. This was very important for the period divos and divas, and partly explain why this type of aria was so popular.

    Additionally, it was customary to execute some cadences at the end of the vocal part of each section (mainly in sections B and A'), also at the will of the singer, that can easily show his virtuosity while the orchestra is waiting for an agreed signal (a thrill, for instance) to pick up the score's music.

    The poems in the A and B stanzas allowed different metres and rhymes. In the score, "(fine)" was used to mark the end of section A, and "(da capo)" for the end of section B, that was also the signal to go back to section A and starts with the singer's abbellimenti.

    A beautiful example is Händel's "Sta nell'Ircana" from Alcina.
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); January 5th, 2018 at 01:45 AM.

  9. #24


    This Italian word comes from portare, and it means simply to slide the voice from one pitch to another, passing audibly for all intermediate pitches, but without stopping in any of them. This is the main difference between portamento and glissando, where the intermediates notes can be individually heard.

    The decision to execute a portamento comes sometimes from the composer himself, indicated by a line joining together the two pitches. A Verdi's example is in the score for Otello, during Desdemona's aria in the fourth act, between the words 'testa' and 'Salce!' (in this case, on top of the sign, Verdi also wrote portando la voce).

    Let's hear Victoria de los Angeles singing "The Willow Song" (at 5:22):

    [Video here before was removed from YouTube]

    But more often, the decision to execute a portamento comes from the singer, and it's an expressive resource. Perhaps a good way to find out the difference is to use the same aria, with the same singer, but sung in two different ways. We are going to listen to the great Italian tenor Carlo Bergonzi, in one of his signature roles, Radames, singing the very famous aria: "Celeste Aida".

    Here from the Arena of Verona, in 1966, singing with portamenti, providing a feeling of swinging with the music:

    In this other performance, from Tokyo in 1973, he is much more restrictive with portamenti (there is a little bit towards the end):

    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); January 5th, 2018 at 01:46 AM.

  10. #25


    Here is my new Italian term for me to learn today: "squillo". It is a vocal technique of projecting the voice in such a way that it cuts through the loud orchestra. Could anyone tell us more? I don't have a youtube example. However, it does have a Wikipedia page: Here.

  11. #26
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    Quote Originally Posted by treemaker View Post
    Here is my new Italian term for me to learn today: "squillo". It is a vocal technique of projecting the voice in such a way that it cuts through the loud orchestra. Could anyone tell us more? I don't have a youtube example. However, it does have a Wikipedia page: Here.
    In english, it's often called 'ring', as in "she has a very ringing voice". I believe it is somewhat related to messa di voce in that they both describe a resonant sound but squillo would perhaps be a bit brighter in timbre? Anyone is free to correct me if I'm wrong.
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); January 5th, 2018 at 01:47 AM.

  12. #27
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    I believe you are right, because squillo is indeed Italian for ring.
    Anyway, once our expert Schigolch gets to this thread, he'll be able to clarify any lingering doubts.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

  13. #28
    This ("squillo", I mean) is one of those terms that, if you introduce into a meeting of 'seasoned operagoers', is likely to cause a heated discussion about what's the right definition, voices with and without "squillo", Plácido Domingo,...

    So, I give you my personal two cents on the matter.

    "Squillo" does come from Italian, but not for the telephone ring, it's related to the sound of a trumpet or a bell, a blast, "squillante". It's not a singing technique, but rather a quality of the voice. It's corresponding to a brilliant sound, determined by the harmonics.

    As you are aware, when a sound is produced this responds to a determined fundamental frequency (for instance, 440Hz for A3), but by resonance there are other sounds also produced at the same time with different frequencies and volumes, those are the harmonics. The combination of those harmonics is what we known as "timbre" of a voice, or an instrument, because the precise nature of those harmonics depend on the object producing the fundamental sound.

    We usually say a sound is "brilliant" when there are many harmonics of loud volume. That doesn't mean, speaking of the human voice, that the voice is big itself. On the contrary, it could be small (it could also be big, of course), but the presence of those harmonics is making the overall sound "brilliant", "penetrating", "able to cut through the loud orchestra",...

    For instance, speaking of great singers:

    'Small' voice, 'big' squillo --> Alfredo Kraus
    'Small' voice, 'small' squillo --> Kiri Te Kanawa
    'Big' voice, 'big' squillo --> Franco Corelli
    'Big' voice, small squillo --> Joan Sutherland

  14. #29
    Aria di sorbetto, is an (usually short) aria sung by a comprimario. The rather funny name comes from the period (early to mid XIXth century) custom of selling different refreshments when the main characters were offstage.

    "Sorbetto", of course, means sorbet in Italian.

    Often, some composers will even let the responsibility to write those small pieces to his collaborators, instead of writing them by themselves. As the century progressed, and into the 20th century, many of those arias were just cut from the score.

    This is one example from Il Barbiere, Berta's aria "Il vecchiotto cerca moglie":

  15. #30
    Messa di voce.

    This is a technique used by the singer to attack a note in piano or pianissimo, let it grows gradually to forte or fortissimo, and then go back to piano. The only feature of the note that is changing, is the volume.

    This is a very difficult technique, only for a virtuoso, and requires an amazing ability to manage vibration of the singer's vocal chords, as well as an stupendous breath control.

    Let's listen to some examples.

    First, Maria Callas in La Gioconda, in her 1952 recording, in the phrase "Enzo adorato! Ah, como ti Amo!", starting with a high B-flat, in piano, and then move to mezzoforte and forte, with a blinding brilliance.

    Then, there is a wonderful high D-flat (not written) sung by Magda Olivero in 1940, just before "Sempre Libera", in origin just a murmur and projected to forte with an amazing technique. We can listen from 3:30 in the link below.

    Also, instead of just one note, there can be a messa di voce linked to a full phrase with several notes. Just listen to Caruso in "Una furtiva lagrima", in the sentence 'Che piů cercando io vo... m'ama! Lo vedo! Lo vedo!'.

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