The making of an opera requires three things; a plot, someone to tell the story in a way suitable for setting to music, and someone to compose the music.
Most operas take their titles from their hero or heroine. Famous operas like Aida, Carmen and Don Giovanni are good examples. A title of this kind suggests that the opera is about the life of the central character. In many cases the story will already exist, either because it relates real historical events one or it has formed the basis of a novel or play.
But to add music to a novel, for instance, would produce a work far too long to perform. To make such a literary work a suitable subject for an opera it is necessary for someone (not, usually, the original author) to select, adapt, shorten and rewrite the story. Often the opera is made to concentrate on just one aspect of the original, or to focus on one period in the hero or heroine’s life. The person who prepares the story in this way is called a librettist and the script he or she produces is known as the libretto, the text the performers will sing. The music is then created by a composer.
The librettist and composer work closely together. Indeed a few composers have preferred to prepare their own librettos. A finished opera is always associated with the name of the composer: unfortunately for the librettist, his or her name is seldom remembered!
The process of creating a stage performance from something written on paper requires teamwork. The person responsible for guiding and organizing what happens on stage is the director. The conductor (maestro) or music director is in charge of the music and the designer is responsible for creating the set (scenery), as well as for designing the costumes. It is vital that these three people work closely from the outset, sharing ideas and agreeing how they wish to interpret and perform the opera.
Once decisions have been made, other ‘behind the scenes’ personnel set about their tasks: first making a scale model of the stage set to ensure that ‘ideas’ can be put into practice, then constructing and painting scenery, making costumes and props (loose items used on stage such as tables, chairs, tankards) under the supervision of a production manager. A suitable lighting scheme is planned and make-up designs are worked out.
Once on stage, scenery, props and costumes are the responsibility of the stage crew and the wardrobe department. Lighting requirements are attended to by the lighting staff, and ensuring that everything and everyone is in the right place at the right time during the performance is the responsibility of the stage manager.
The orchestra is rehearsed by the conductor or the assistant conductor and the chorus is trained by the chorus master or mistress. Singers with solo parts work with a répétiteur, an accompanist and singing coach who helps singers learn and prepare their parts, through repetition.
The singers can be divided into two groups, the chorus and the principals. The chorus is used to provide crowds or gatherings of people of all sorts. For example, in one opera the chorus might appear as villagers, in another as slaves, or as soldiers, monks, gypsies, smugglers or courtiers. The role of the chorus depends entirely upon what the opera requires. Often the chorus is used effectively to form a procession. They do not remain static, like a choir, for example.
The principals are the singers who perform leading roles, the solo parts. An opera will normally include several principal roles, perhaps two or three, which are technically demanding but which offer an opportunity to show off the voice to best advantage. (These are the roles with which great opera singers are often associated.) They are usually supported by others whose parts are important but not as extensive and demanding as the main characters. Some principals may have ‘character’ parts which, again, are shorter and often less glamorous but which are crucial to the dramatic unfolding of the plot.
Although singing voices are divided into four main types – soprano, alto, tenor and bass – the voices of principals are more precisely defined. There is an extra category between soprano and contralto referred to as mezzo-soprano and one between tenor and bass referred to as baritone. Some operas include a role for a very high soprano, who is required to perform very elaborate music with big leaps, fast scales and trills. Such a singer is known as a coloratura soprano.
During the past two and a half centuries or so, different voice types have been associated with particular character types. For example, by far the majority of heroines are sopranos and by far the majority of heroes are tenors. But there are famous exceptions: Carmen is a mezzo-soprano, Don Giovanni and Rigoletto are baritones and Porgy (in Porgy and Bess) is a bass.
Mezzo-sopranos are often used as friends of the heroine, as maids, servants or, perhaps, as ladies at court, or in roles associated with maturity and responsibility – as a mother figure, for example. Similarly, contraltos are almost invariably seen as experienced and trustworthy characters – perhaps as a nurse or Mother Superior. Baritones and basses (and tenors who are not performing the hero’s role) share a wider range of characters. Basses, in particular, make fine captains of the guard, doctors, priests, gods and, of course, villains.
Sometimes (and especially to bring an act to its close) a small group of principals will sing together, each commenting on his or her own situation or emotions. Such a group is described as an ensemble.
See also What is opera?