Opera


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Opera 101

If you're new to the opera or just need a little refresher, we've put together this slim primer of Operatic facts to help improve your enjoyment and understanding of our performances.

In the following sections we've covered the different vocal parts in the Opera, the role of the orchestra and at bottom you will find a glossary of common opera terms.

Voice Types in Opera

Did you ever wonder what the difference is between a soprano and a mezzo-soprano or what voice type can sing the lowest notes? Most opera singers fall into a voice type that reflects the singer's ability as well as the dramatic requirements of a particular role. *

So how does one categorize a soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone, or bass, the five most common types of voices? It all depends upon one's vocal range, or the span from the lowest note to the highest note that a particular singer can produce. One's range one can sing is related to the size of the vocal chords and the speed at which they vibrate. Also taken into consideration when determining a singer's voice type are: the consistency of timbre (sound quality or color of the voice) and the ability to project the voice over a full orchestra -- remember, there are no microphones in opera, and there are small, medium/large and extra large voices.

Vocal range in order of lightest to heaviest

Coloratura

Typically a voice with a very high range with the ability to sing complicated passages with great agility.

Dramatic

A heavy, powerful voice with a steely timbre.

Lyric

An average size voice, but capable of singing long beautiful phrases.

Lyrico spinto

A somewhat more powerful voice than that of a true lyric.

Helden

A German term referring to a powerful voice capable of singing very demanding roles.

Falsetto

The upper part of a voice, more often used in reference to male voices.

 

Common Opera voice types

Soprano

For females, the highest voice type is the soprano. In operatic drama, the soprano is almost always the heroine because she projects innocence and youth. Within this category, there are other sub-divisions such as, coloratura soprano, lyric soprano, and dramatic soprano. Some of the roles sung by these voice types include: Mimi in La bohème (lyric) and Ariadne in Ariadne auf Naxos (dramatic).

Mezzo-soprano

The mezzo-soprano has a lower range than the soprano. Many mezzo-sopranos sing the so-called "trouser" roles, portraying young boys or men. They can also be the villainesses or motherly types. This category is also sub-divided into coloratura mezzo, dramatic mezzo, and lyric mezzo. One of the most well known roles for a dramatic mezzo is the fiery gypsy Carmen in the opera of the same name.

Contralto or Alto

The contralto or alto is the lowest female voice and the darkest in timbre. This voice type is usually reserved for specialty roles like the earth goddess Erda in Richard Wagner's Nordic fantasy-epic The Ring of the Nibelung. Since this is such a rare voice type, dramatic mezzos often sing roles in this range. Marian Anderson, a Philadelphia native, was one of the world's most famous contraltos ever.

Tenor

For males, the tenor is generally considered to be the highest male voice in an opera, and is most often the hero or the love interest of the story. There are many different types of tenor voices. Two of the more common ones are lyric tenors, whose voices have high, bright tones, and dramatic tenors whose voices have a darker sound with a ringing quality in the upper range. Some of the more famous roles for tenors include Rodolfo in La bohème (lyric) and Radames in Aida (dramatic).

Countertenor

A countertenor is able to sing even higher than a tenor. This voice actually falls within a female's voice range. Through the use of a man's falsetto voice, the voice produces a sound that is sometimes described as "otherworldly".

Baritone

A baritone is the most common type of male voice whose range lies midway between the high tenor voice and the low bass voice. In comedic operas, he is often the leader of the funny business, but he can also be the hero, who sacrifices himself for the tenor or soprano, or the villain. This voice has a dramatic quality capable of producing rich, dark tones. The hunchback court jester in the title role in Rigoletto (dramatic) and the popular Toréador Escamillo in Carmen are favorite roles for baritones.

Bass

In general, a bass is the lowest and darkest of the male voices and is ideal for several types of roles. The word bass comes from the Italian word basso, which means low. Some singers in this category are referred to as bass-baritones because they have voices that range between the bass and the baritone voice. A basso serio or basso profondo portrays characters who convey wisdom or nobility such as Sarastro in The Magic Flute. In contrast, a basso buffo sings comedic roles such as Dr. Bartolo in The Barber of Seville.


(Courtesy operaphiladelphia.org)




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