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What's in an Opera?

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Based on material contained in EPOC’s interactive presentation Opera Blocks, this is a brief explanation of the building blocks of opera. It was inspired by the notion that one can ‘unpack’ the constituent building blocks of opera.

Let’s assume you have a story to tell. It is a story that demands to be told with more than words – with music in fact. Let’s look at the basic ingredients..

The Basic Ingredients

For us at EPOC, opera is any story, from any country in the world, told using three basic ingredients: Action, Words and Music. With these key ingredients, such a story might be transformed into a Musical, an Indian Bollywood Film, an operetta, a cartoon, or even a Pantomime. Elements of story telling with music and words are shared by all these art forms. The opera that gets ‘unpacked’ here comes from the western classical music tradition — a European opera that places special emphasis on the music.


The Italian word for a simple story or a little book. A libretto, the story, is the essential first ingredient.


Music could, if it wanted to, tell a story on its own but then it would not exactly be opera. Music has the power to enhance a story. It can convey what the weather is like (from sunrise to sunset, rain to thunder). It can tell you about the characters in your story — whether they are nice or nasty, happy or sad! It will tell you whether they live in a castle or a wood. It can tell you what they are thinking about — whether it is beer, having a party or even football. Music, namely pure music, without words, is used throughout an opera in much the same way as it is in film. 

Reflective Aria Show-off Aria Action Aria Story Aria


Quite simply songs — for one person to sing solo (another Italian word meaning ‘alone’). We classify arias in the following ways:

‘Show-off’ aria An aria to show off the vocal dexterity of the singer Cinderella’s final Rondo aria from Rossini’s Cinderella
Reflective aria An aria that allows the audience to know what a character is thinking Aria from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.
Story aria An aria that relates events The Toreador’s aria from Bizet’s Carmen
Action aria An aria that happens in real time. No thoughts, just action Figaro’s second aria from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro


Aria Duet Trio Quartet


Where more than one character sings at the same time. If another joins the character that sings an aria then it is called a duet. If there are three people it’s called a ‘trio’, four people make up a ‘quartet’, five a ‘quintet’ and so on.


Many singers who come together and sing at the same time are called a Chorus. All classes that get to see Opera Blocks are invited to join in a chorus.


Narration Dialogue Secco Recitative Accompanied Recitative


All the above formats — Arias, Ensembles and Choruses — help with the main story but they can also slow it down. Connectors (a term peculiar to EPOC) connect the Arias, Ensembles and Choruses and help keep the story moving.

Narration To keep the story moving along you can use the narrated story to tell the story without music Introduction to Sondheims’ Into the Woods
Dialogue Quite simply — spoken, declaimed words between characters but without music Queen of the Night/Pamina dialogue from Mozart’s
The Magic Flute
Melodrama or ‘Spoken Text over Music’ Could be dialogue, could be narration but this time over the top of music Act I of Bizet’s Carmen
Recitative (secco) [an Italian word meaning ‘dry’] Or ‘recit’ (as it is known) comes from the verb ‘to recite and is dramatic speeches sung and accompanied by one or two instruments only From Handel’s Messiah
Accompanied Recitative Unlike ‘secco’ recitative, this is dramatic speech-patterned music set to the accompaniment of the whole orchestra Hai gia vinta la causa from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro