1. Aria

    Literally means "air," an older word for "song". This is where, generally speaking, the action stops, and characters think about their situation or explore their emotions in a self-contained musical form. The word setting is more complicated than in recitative, and text may be repeated. This is generally accompanied by larger forces in the orchestra. Compare with Recitative.

  2. Libretto

    Means "booklet" in Italian. This is the name given to the text of an opera, often regardless of which language that opera is written. In French you often see livret which is the same thing, but people working in opera tend to use libretto for pretty much any operatic text. A writer who writes a libretto is known as a librettist (in English). The relationship between librettist and composer is a fascinating one, which there isn't room to discuss here!

  3. Opera Buffa

    A comic form of opera that began in the early 18th century and lasted to around 1850. In contrast to Opera Seria, these operas focused on contemporary plots with normal people - masters, servants, lawyers, maids, sailors, soldiers, etc. With roots in the archetypes of Italian Commedia dell'arte, the plots are full of stock characters with familiar names. One of the great achievements of the form was the development of complex ensembles in which the plot could be advanced whilst retaining a fully fleshed-out musical form accompanied by the whole orchestra, as opposed to the simplicity of recitative. This ultimately led the way to "through-composed" opera, in which the old boundary between recitative and aria was dissolved.

  4. Opera seria

    A form of opera that was very common in the 18th century, following the often convoluted intrigues of gods and kings. The focus was squarely on mythological or historical subjects, rather than the concerns of the current day, however political and social allegories were weaved through. The greatest writer of libretti for opera seria was Pietro Metastasiso (1698 - 1782). In the latter half of the 18th century it was composer Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) who developed the form to its height. Compare with Opera Buffa.

  5. Recitative

    Denotes a particular mode of setting words to music, which prioritises speech rhythms as well as melodic and harmonic formulas. This allows the plot to be moved along through conversation. Often this is accompanied by only a few instruments, called the continuo section. Compare with Aria.

  6. Singspiel

    A particularly German addition to the opera world, this translates as "sing-play", and it describes a dramatic form in which spoken dialogue is interspersed with numbers. The most famous example today is Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) by Mozart. In the development of the singspiel one can see the seed of Musicals.