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Beginners Guide to Opera!

Hi all! And welcome to our new Overdressed blog! Here is the space where we dive into all our nerdiness and share what we love about the music we make!

Today, I wanted to start with the basics for those who are not yet classical music nerds. There are three main topics I want to cover

1) Common opera words

2) The briefest history of opera

3) How is opera different from music theater?

Here we go!

First, Terms.

Opera was developed back in Italy in the late 1500s. Because of that the musical terms that were developed and are still in use today are all in Italian (with the occasional French or German word sprinkled in). Since most of us are not fluent in Italian, here is a guide to some commonly used opera/classical music terms.

Songs and Song parts

  • Aria- A sung solo song. Aka- a diva moment

  • Duet- two people singing

  • Ensemble- Everyone is singing!

  • Recitative (or recit.)- music between full ‘songs’ that is kind of half sung/half spoken. It is where all the action is based in an opera. The songs (arias, duets, etc) are mainly just about how the character is feeling.

  • Cavatina- Found in the bel canto genre. This is the slow first part of an aria.

  • Cabaletta- Part two of a bel canto aria. Usually fast and full of fireworks


Consonant- A pretty sound. Nice. In tune

Dissonant- Crunchy. Makes you cringe. Sounds wrong but was intentionally written that way.

Singing styles

  • Cadenza- where the piano/orchestra basically falls away and the singer improvises or sings a prewritten bit of complicated notes just to show off.

  • Coloratura- songs that have all the notes coming oh so fast. An ab workout.

  • Lyric- the pretty, flowing music

  • Dramatic- passionate, loud, and well… loud. Can come in lyric and coloratura varieties.

Voice types from high to low!


Mezzo Soprano




Part 2, History!

Below is a very broad overview of the history of opera! It is a very old musical style and a lot has changed between when it started and where it is today! Once you dive in, the history is much more nuanced than I have listed below, of course, but there are some general things you can hear in the music that will give you a sense of just how old a certain song is!

Time periods and opera styles

  • Baroque- 1600-1750. Opera was just getting its bearings. The music was very formal with each song having specific parts that needed to be included. Lots of notes, cadenzas, coloratura, and ornaments (single notes added to decorate the melody). Think Handel, like the Handel’s Messiah.

  • Classical- 1750-1830. Square. Neat. Precise. With witty plots. Tends to have lots of notes. Think Mozart.

  • Romantic-1830-1920. Beautiful. Dramatic. Full of feeling. Each composer crafted their own unique sound so there are many mini genres within Romantic Opera. 

  • Beethoven- his moody piano and orchestra music is said to have started this whole era. Though his opera isn’t all that great..

  • Bizet- wrote the most famous opera of all time, Carmen. But it was a flop during his lifetime and only became famous after he died. 

  • Puccini- considered ‘too common’ at the time, Puccini’s music is now considered some of the most beautiful and heartbreaking opera ever written. Puccini is the most famous Verismo composer. A genre based in realistic story telling.

  • Verdi- the beginning of realism and complicated political intrigue. Verdi has great orchestral music and very complex characters.

  • Wagner- Big. Epic. He is the guy who put the orchestra in a pit and turned the lights off in the theater so everyone would be quiet and watch his shows. Before this, the house lights were just on..

  • Russian composers like Tchaikovsky, and Mussorsky grew to prominence during this time as well. The Russians wrote a lot of ballets, like The Nutcracker and Swan Lake.

  • 20th Century- 1920-1980??(debated). Things got weird. Sounds are complicated and dissonant (not pretty). Storylines are steeped in Freudian psychology. Alternative techniques like minimalism and atonal music come into play. Strauss came on the scene and his music has some epic climactic moments. If you love weird complex things, this is the time period for you.

  • Modern opera- 1980-current. Opera is still being written. Plots now are often based on true stories. A lot of the dissonance and complexity of the 20th remains, but it's not as in your face. The music is becoming a bit more tuneful and the stories continue to be more relevant to modern audiences.

Third, What is the difference between a musical and an opera?

Generally speaking, opera is sung all the way through and musicals have spoken lines. But there are exceptions to this rule! Operetta, like Gilbert and Sullivan’s work and Mozart’s The Magic Flute have spoken bits and are still considered operas. Whereas Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables are fully sung but are generally considered musicals.

The real difference is that American Musical Theater is a new genre all its own. Composers here borrowed trends from Opera Buffa (comedies) and combined them with popular folk songs. There are also influences from minstrel shows and Vaudeville that give American musicals their big heart, catchy tunes, and elaborate productions.

There are European musicals! But as Americans, we might not recognize them on sight. European musical theater has its roots way back in Greek tragedy. These shows are much more obtuse, moody, and avant garde than the American musicals we know and love.

That’s the end! You are now a classical music expert! Even if you still don’t feel like one, that's ok! All you need to enjoy opera is a pair of ears.  All these fancy words and history, thats extra credit! We look forward to seeing you at our next show! And feel free to ask any questions to us in person! We love to talk opera. 🙂

Your friendly neighborhood soprano,


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