What is Opera?

Opera, the art of emotions

Opera is a total art form which joins music, singing, drama, poetry, plastic arts and sometimes dance. In each work, all the components of opera combine their expressiveness and their beauty.  This complex alchemy makes an opera performance an extraordinary show, monopolising the sight, hearing, imagination and sensibility of the audience, where all human passions are at work.


The libretto

The libretto is the ‘script’ of an opera. It can be an original creation, sometimes written by famous poets or novelists (as Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Stefan Zweig for Richard Strauss’s works), but often it is an adaptation of plays (Shakespeare was a great source of inspiration for librettists), tales or novels. The subjects developed in libretto are various: forbidden love, infidelity, revenge, craving for power, war, ancient myths or historic events...

With such subjects, opera inhabits a universe where human passions explode. Love, Tragedy and Death are often at the heart of the plot. The characters, sometimes torn between their feelings and their duty, are confronted with extraordinary situations and are carried away by heightened feelings. This excess burns them, leading them to commit acts of violence and sometimes to death. Love at first sight, sacrifice, enchantment, courage, suicide and murder appear together in the libretto. Some characters are punished for their crimes, other find redemption or are stricken with remorse… and sometimes there is a happy ending!

The singing

Unlike most theatre, the text is sung by the artists in operas. The emotion and the intensity of singing have an impact on the weight and the meaning words. 

There are different voices classified in six principal categories, from the more high-pitched to the lower: soprano, mezzo-soprano, contralto for women; and tenor, baritone and bass for men. Moreover, voices are characterized according to their power and agility: they can be light, lyric or dramatic. A light voice is not very powerful but can easily reach the high notes and vocalises, unlike a dramatic voice which is powerful but less agile.

Voices are generally associated with types of roles. They emphasize some aspects of the characters like their personality or their nature.  In Bizet’s Carmen, Carmen is a wild seductress who has experience of the world: so she is played by a mezzo soprano with a dark and warm voice. Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto is a lyric soprano: her clear and high-pitched voice symbolizes her purity, innocence and naivety.

You may also look at the ‘Glossary’ page to find out more about opera voices.

The music

Music expresses in another way the emotions and the action taking place on stage. In the mind of the camerata fiorentina(see ‘History’ page), whose researches and studies on Ancient Greek theatre led to the creation of the operatic genre, the music was at the service of the libretto: ‘Prima le parole, dopo la musica’ (‘The words first, the music after’). But this conception is questionable. It is an old and continuing debate: according to the eras, libretto and music have alternately claimed primacy. 

Actually music does not only serve the libretto and the singing: it completes and exalts them by highlighting the intensity of situations and the characters’ passions and feelings.

By playing with rhythms, tones, melodies, nuances, the composers exploit the extraordinary suggestive power of the music in order to create particular atmospheres that lyrics or staging can not create. Some authors use recurrent musical motifs to represent a character, an emotion or a concept. In the prelude to Das Rheingold, Wagner manages to relate the Rhine’s birth. The opera begins with a unique triad which slowly emerges from silence and resonates in infinite depths: the Rhine comes out of original chaos. Little by little motifs add to this triad until creating a melody: first brass instruments, majestic, then strings, more ethereal, like sparkling waves on the river’s surface. The more the orchestra becomes animated and enriches the prelude, the faster the motifs become as the more the Rhine swells and stirs, until foaming.

Music is beyond words. It addresses directly the audience’s heart and appeals to its sensibility and imagination.


The staging

Before the 20th century, the theatrical dimension was marginalized: in the 17th century, opera productions were quite static and looked like a costumed concert. The staging became important when the programming of opera houses became more focused on an existing repertory than on new creation. Moreover, during the 20th century, the importance of singing and dramatic gifts began to be considered as equal. 

But opera stages have always be an extraordinary place, with spectacular visual effects and big machinery. The possibilities of staging have benefited from technical progress, and now special effects, digital technology and image projections are used in many productions.

A staging is not a simple illustration of a work: it carries a concept or meaning. The director proposes a view of an opera.  This view may be close to the libretto and the author’s conceptions or a more personal interpretation of the work. Some directors transpose the action to another era, in another situation or in a timeless and immaterial context.

These transpositions bring out certain dimensions of the works and enrich their significance by disclosing some of their unknown aspects. For example, in a modern production, the themes developed in a baroque opera can be revealed as very actual. These perspectives adopted by directors change the way that audience sees and understands the works. Opera recreates and reinvents itself constantly. Before the rise of the curtain, nobody knows what will happen on the stage.  That is what makes opera so exciting.