Archives for 

Singing Guides

Successful Singing Free Guides. Free Singing Lessons, Free Vocal Exercises, Free Scales etc. Also We have free guides to help you with your voice, performing tips, audition tips, practice advice, help and so much more. We hope you find it useful.

The Voice And Ageing

The Voice & Ageing

By Sara Harris, Speech and Language Therapist specialised in Voice Disorders.


How do we change with ageing?

Ageing is natural and affects us all. People’s voices do change with age, but the age at which these changes become noticeable is very variable, and many people weather ageing extremely well. The older voice is different from that of youth, but it also reflects the wisdom and rich experience of a lifetime.


Ageing and the body

Ageing changes occur throughout the body and may affect us in many ways. These general body changes can and do affect our voices adversely.

Joints and bones
Joints stiffen so that movement is restricted and often painful. The spine loses flexibility altering our posture. This can affect how the larynx is suspended from the skull and can also impact on free movement of the ribcage, making breathing more difficult.

Bones become brittle and break more easily if we fall. Breaks in the arm, wrist or hip are particularly common as we get older and take longer to heal making it hard for us to get out and about, exercise and socialise.

Muscles weaken and lose tone, becoming thin and stringy. We notice we have less stamina and are not as strong as we once were. This loss of muscle tone may directly affect the muscles in and around the voice box (the laryngeal muscles). It also contributes to changes in general body posture. Injuries or other medical conditions may mean long periods of inactivity, which also result in loss of muscle tone.

Our hearing deteriorates as we get older. From middle age many of us start to notice that we cannot make out what is being said against background noise. This is because the higher frequencies are lost, making sounds like “s” “sh” and “f” hard to discriminate.

If hearing is more severely affected we may find it is hard to monitor the clarity of our speech. Certain sounds may be omitted or run together making us sound slurred or muffled.

Even if our own hearing survives well, that of our nearest and dearest may not. We may have to shout to make ourselves heard and this can irritate our voices making us hoarse.

It is important to keep up regular dental checks. Our gums tend to recede with ageing and teeth may become loose and need removing. Missing teeth or dentures that do not fit well affect the articulation of speech, making it less clear.

Breathing (the respiratory system)
The lungs lose capacity with ageing, making us more breathless. Our vocal folds rely on a steady air stream to vibrate them effectively, so speech may become effortful and we may notice we run out of breath before the ends of phrases.

The digestive system
The digestive system slows down and is less efficient. Disorders such as diverticulitis and hiatus hernia are more common in older people causing abdominal pain or increasing the risk of acid reflux. Abdominal pain can affect the way we control breathing for speech or singing, while acid reflux can irritate the throat and gullet.

Occasionally, acid from the stomach manages to spill over into the larynx causing violent coughing and irritation of the delicate membranes of the vocal folds and larynx. Even the threat of overspill is often enough to cause the larynx to rise and constrict in order to protect the airway.

The neurological system
The neurological input to our muscles changes with ageing. The overall number of nerves we have reduces and the spinal cord and brain shrink. The number of muscle motor pools is also reduced.

A motor pool consists of all the motor nerves that serve (innervate) a single muscle. The motor nerves (neurones) are the nerves that carry electrical impulses from the brain to the muscles, preparing them for movement. Every muscle fibre is innervated by a motor neurone; however, each motor neurone may innervate several muscle fibres.  As these diminish with age our fine movements, coordination and balance are likely to suffer.

This may affect swallowing, making it less coordinate so we are more likely to choke. Any food or drink that ‘goes the wrong way’ and gets into the larynx will cause paroxysmal coughing and irritation of the vocal folds.

It may also directly affect our speech in that movements of the tongue, palate and lips may slow down making speech less clear. We may also develop a tremor that affects the head, neck and voice as well as our limbs.

The brain
The brain also ages, causing it to shrink as it loses nerve cells. Most of us will notice some changes in our memories. We begin to forget things more easily, especially words and people’s names. While this is unlikely to affect our voices directly, these changes may affect our confidence in our ability to communicate easily with other. Conversation is a skill and we need to keep in practice!


Ageing and the voice

Normal vocal folds, closed
Normal vocal folds, closed (Photo: Tom Harris)

Bowing vocal folds with false fold recruitment
Bowing vocal folds with false fold recruitment (Photo: Nicholas Gibbins)

Bowing vocal
Bowing vocal folds in phonation (Photo: Nicholas Gibbins)

Our voices, as well as our bodies, alter over time. The most obvious change comes in boys at puberty when the larynx and vocal folds undergo a growth spurt. As the larynx grows, the vocal folds become longer and thicker and the pitch of the voice drops.

Both sexes are likely to notice some lowering of vocal pitch during middle age. Gravity causes the larynx to drop in the neck altering the distance from the vocal folds to the mouth (the vocal tract). The increase in vocal tract length alters its resonant features enhancing lower frequencies so the voice sounds lower.

Towards the end of middle age ageing changes begin to affect men and women differently. In women, the hormonal changes associated with menopause alter the vocal folds in a number of ways. They become stiffer and slightly thickened/swollen. The number of glands producing the mucus that lubricates them reduces, causing dryness, while the quality of the mucus alters becoming thicker and more difficult to clear. These vocal fold changes will significantly lower the pitch of the voice and the vocal quality will be rougher and breathier.
Men are more likely to notice that the vocal pitch rises after middle age. The vocal folds tend to lose their bulk becoming thinner and stiffer. They may lose their straight edges, so that when they close in the midline they no longer meet. A spindle-shaped gap develops between them, through which breath can escape, making the voice sound weak and breathy. This condition is usually referred to by doctors as “presbylarynx” “bowing vocal folds” or “glottic insufficiency”. Although presbylarynx is most common in elderly men, it can also occur in women in their later years.

Presbylarynx leads to a higher, often unstable vocal pitch that may yodel into falsetto. Occasionally two notes can be heard if falsetto and the normal lower voice are produced together (diplophonia). This instability of vocal pitch is most likely to occur when the volume/loudness is increased. The weak, breathy voice is harder to maintain and is physically effortful. Speaking is more tiring and may feel uncomfortable and strained. Changes in the neurological system may result in a tremor which will make the voice sound shaky, tight and strained.

The laryngeal cartilages calcify with ageing and the cricoarytenoid joints involved in opening and closing the vocal folds become stiffer. This may make it harder to close the vocal folds at the back (posteriorly), leaving a gap between the arytenoid cartilages through which breath can escape. Loss of fat and thinning of the vocal tissues may also cause a gap to develop at the front (anteriorly). This may also cause a breathier vocal quality and higher notes to ‘cut out’ in singing.

For most of us, these changes are gradual and never become severe enough to significantly affect our ability to communicate. Some people, however, are not so lucky. For them the deterioration associated with ageing occurs early and does impact on their communication and social activities. When this happens help is needed.


My voice has changed, what should I do?

Unfortunately many of the vocal changes associated with ageing also occur with other medical conditions. It is therefore important to eliminate any other cause before assuming any hoarseness/vocal change is due to ageing.

In order to do this you will need to see your GP and ask for a referral to an ENT surgeon or preferably a voice clinic. The general ENT surgeon can give you a general examination of ears, nose and throat, including the vocal cords. They can organise a hearing test and, if it is required, arrange for you to have a hearing aid. They can also refer you to your local speech and language therapist. However, he/she may not have access to the specialist equipment that is needed to see small vocal fold defects, such as scars, that may be altering the voice quality. The general ENT surgeon may not have a special interest in voice or be familiar with the ways in which voice production can cause hoarseness.

Voice clinics, on the other hand, are staffed by voice specialist ENT surgeons and speech and language therapists (SLT), and may have support from other related professionals, such as singing voice coaches or voice specialist osteopaths or physiotherapists. The clinic will have specialist equipment available to rule out the presence of any small or hidden vocal fold problems and the clinic team will be able to identify any ineffective patterns of voice use.

The multidisciplinary voice clinic has a holistic approach to diagnosis and usually offers longer appointments for new patient assessments. This makes it easier to identify patients with other contributing medical conditions such as neurological conditions, chest disease or gut problems. They can then be referred to the appropriate speciality for further assessment/treatment.



Bowing vocal folds following injection

Glottic incompetance following injection adduction (Photo: Nicholas Gibbins)

Often vocal changes from ageing respond well to voice therapy. The voice clinic SLT will arrange this and monitor the outcome. In some cases of presbylarynx, voice therapy alone is not enough. The ENT surgeon may then offer surgical intervention. The vocal folds can be injected with fat (or some other medically appropriate filler) to increase their bulk so they are able to meet fully in the midline again. This is usually known as a ‘vocal fold augmentation injection’ or occasionally as a ‘voice lift’. The voice is usually lower and louder following the injection and the stamina improves but it may remain a little hoarse in quality.

What can we do to keep our voices good?

It is a case of ‘use it or lose it’. We need to exercise out voices just as we would any other muscle. This can be difficult for older people who may have few social contacts. They may need to be encouraged to keep using their voices and to find new ways to socialise.

We should all make the effort to see or telephone friends and relatives regularly and to talk to people in shops or on the bus when we are out. Even talking to the dog, the cat or yourself will help!

  • Try starting the day with a vocal warm up.
  • Singing has been shown to be effective in keeping the voice working well and improving wellbeing. Consider taking lessons or joining a choir. You can search online to find choirs in your area, and many do not require you to read music or audition for a place. If you don’t have access to a computer, ask in the local library and the librarian should be able to help you find one.
  • Make sure you exercise regularly – this helps keep you stronger, more flexible and improves your breathing and posture. Walking, swimming and cycling are great ways to exercise, or join a local Tai Chi, Yoga or Pilates class.
  • Make sure you eat a healthy and varied diet and try to keep your weight right for your height.
  • Keep well hydrated – eight glasses of water a day is usually recommended in addition to any teas/coffees you may drink. It helps to cut down on caffeine, too.
  • If you smoke, ask your GP for help to give up. Smoking is like taking sandpaper to your voice and puts you at higher risk of cancer of the lungs and airway.
  • Keep alcohol to a minimum. It is irritating to the membranes of the mouth, throat, gullet and stomach. It may contribute to acid reflux and it also has an adverse effect on your brain and neurology.
  • Keep mentally active. Reading the papers, doing crosswords, puzzles and games like Scrabble all help keep your mind active and your vocabulary from shrinking.
  • Make sure your hearing has been checked and use your hearing aid if you have one. It helps you monitor your speech so the articulation stays clear. It is frustrating to have to say things twice!

Although we cannot stop the ravages of time, we can all improve our physical and vocal health by following the simple guidelines above and improving our lifestyles. We are likely to feel fitter and happier as a result.


With thanks to: Kristine Carroll-Porczynski, Jackie Ellis, Sophie Harris, Tom Harris and John Rubin for their editing skills and to Nick Gibbins and Tom Harris for the photographs.



    Leslie T. Malmgren. In: Professional Voice: the art and science of clinical care. Volume 1: basic science and clinical assessment. Chapter 11: P 205: Ed. Robert Thayer Sataloff, Plural Publishing, 2005
    American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. Patient Health Information at:
    Elefant C, Baker FA, Lotan M Lagesen SK, Skeie GO. Journal of Music Therapy, 49(3):278-302, 2012
    Kristine A. Olderog Millard and Jeffrey M. Smith J Music Therapy (1989) 26 (2): 58-70
    Justin Davidson, New York Magazine, October 6th 2016 (see also the hard copy edition of 2nd October 2016)
    Jeremy Fisher and Gillyanne Kayes. The Wellcome Collection, 2016,
    American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and neck surgery. Patient health information at:


This information is intended for guidance purposes only and is in no way intended to replace professional clinical advice by a qualified practitioner.

Vocal Nodule

Vocal Nodule

A Vocal nodule develops as the result of repeated trauma to the vocal chords.  An example would be if you wear shoes too tight, they are going to rub , get sore and eventually will cause a blister or callous. With regards to your vocal chords, a small, soft swelling will develop at the site of the trauma, and this could interfere with the closure and vibration of the vocal chords causing hoarseness.

Signs and Symptoms

Symptoms of a vocal nodule may include: the voice may become husky and less responsive over a certain pitch range, losing clarity and brightness.  The voice may be slow to warm-up and may sound deeper, weaker and more breathy, particularly in the upper range.  The voice may also start to cut out around certain notes.   Over time this may lead to the speaking voice becoming more noticeably hoarse and breathy.

A soft nodule can usually be treated successfully with vocal rest, voice therapy and good vocal care. A singing teacher or speech therapist can help you with your voice technique, and provide you with carefully targeted exercises to ensure your voice muscles are used effectively, and how you can use vocal care to prevent them from returning

If soft nodules are ignored, then more persistent damage may produce more fibrous scar tissue, which is often referred to as a hard nodule.  A Hard nodule doesn’t respond well to voice therapy and may require surgery.

If you think you are experiencing symptoms of nodules, please don’t ignore them.  The sooner you seek treatment, the better the result.  Speak to your GP about it.  The may suggest voice rest, or seek out voice exercises/technique from a singing teacher or vocal coach.  If your symptoms are more severe, then you may refer you to the local ENT department for further investigation.

In the past surgical outcome for vocal nodules was poor giving nodules the reputation of being the end of your career. However, surgical techniques have changed considerably recently, allowing most vocal nodules to be removed safely and effectively.

Vocal nodule (s) are a nuisance, but don’t beat yourself up about it.  If diagnosed early, then you can work at what caused them and how you can prevent them coming back:

Some self-help techniques to help prevent developing a nodule:

Avoid shouting and whispering

Try not to cough or persistently clear your throat

Keep your body well hydrated and avoid irritants such as smoke

Inhaling steam can help soothe irritated chords.

If you are singer, always warm-up  your voice before you start singing, and don’t sing too loud or too quiet for any length of time.

Listen to your voice.  If it starts sounding croaky, or begins to feel tired or sore, then you are probably overdoing it, so take a break.

Rest your voice whenever possible.

This information is intended for guidance purposes only and is in no way intended to replace professional clinical advice by a qualified practitioner.

Singing Tips

Top Singing Tips

Man Singing with Passion

Man Singing with Passion

Improve your singing with Successful Singing and our free singing tips and resources.
Whether you are a professional singer, sing in a band or community choir. Perhaps you join in at your  local on the karaoke, or just sing in the shower, there’s something here for everyone.     Why not pick up a few singing and performing tips from our free guides, or browse the above tabs to see our large range of backing tracks, sheet music, song books, equipment and accessories.

The human voice is one of the most fragile instruments, and is incredibly difficult to master. If you want to learn how to sing well, it’s going to be a long battle, but here are some great singing tips to help you avoid some common pitfalls.

1. Breath from the diaphragm. You really need to control the air that you’re expelling when you sing, and breathing from the diaphragm gives you more control to do this.  Breath in  so that you feel your stomach moving gently outwards when you inhale.

2. Practice your scales.  Yes they  can be boring, but they really will exercise your singing muscles and help strengthen your voice and extend your range.  They will also help your sense of pitch.

3. Don’t strain your voice.  Warm up before you start and don’t try to sing too loud or too high as you might damage your vocal cords. Take it slow and steady and you’ll sing well in no time. Keep your practice time to an hour or so a day, then move up if you feel like it. If you ever feel like your voice is straining, or if you feel soreness or pain, stop right away.

4. Seek out people’s opinion. Learning to sing well takes a long time, and during this time you may hear people’s comments about your voice. Use their comments constructively and if there is something you can improve on, try to work on the problem.

5. Make recordings of yourself. This is the best way to hear your problems, because you can separate yourself from your voice and listen to what other people hear. You may not like the sound of your voice at first, but keep at it; you’ll improve vastly, and you’ll start to notice stuff you like about your voice and really expand on those things.

6. Talk to established singers. Most of them will be happy to give you some tips and exercises that helped them out, and any time you need to ask for directions, the best idea is to ask the person that’s already at your destination.

7. Eat and drink well. Eat healthy and drink plenty of water. Don’t do anything that’ will affect your  voice and prevent you from singing well. Caffeine isn’t particularly good for you,  as is anything that causes mucous build-up like dairy products (drinking milk before singing is a  particular bad choice). Don’t smoke or drink too much alcohol as this can really affect your singing voice.

8. Sing for the style. If you’re singing country, listen to country singers. If you’re singing rock, listen to rock singers, etc. Notice things that are the same in each style and emulate those. Be careful, however, to keep your voice unique, and not to simply copy another singer’s voice. Allow your personality and your voice to come out in your music.

9. Experiment with different sounds. Play around with different sounds. If  you sang something with a nasal sound or perhaps a growl, would it improve what you are trying to convey in your song.  Have fun too singing your songs in a different genre ,or in the style of a different singer.

10.  Stay positive! If you’ve had a bad session, that doesn’t mean your voice is going to be bad forevermore. Have a break, address the problem and try again another day. Don’t get down on yourself, and don’t think that your voice is bad,  Mindset is definitely a big part of singing, and you need to be positive. If you don’t think you sound good, neither will anyone else.


Singing Techniques

Singing when done with correct singing techniques will help improve your singing voice.

Are you singing through your nose? Sing an open vowel sound such as AH whilst pinching your nose.  Listen to how your tone sounds. Does it sound normal.  If it doesn’t or is difficult to do, then you are singing through your nose.

Open your mouth  Cradle your face in your hands and gently pull down so that your jaw opens more than usual.  Now try singing with your mouth in this position and see how much easier it feels to sing.

Lip Trills This is where you blow air through your lips as if you were mimicking a horse or an engine noise with a gentle sound coming from your throat..Brass players also use this technique to play their instruments.   It sounds a bit  like you are blowing bubbles underwater.  It might take a bit of practice at first to get used to it, and if you smile, you’ll lose it.   Yes I know  you feel stupid and that it tickles your nose, but it’s a fantastic way of keeping your larynx down and not straining your voice when practicing scales or even songs.

Tongue Trills This is where your tongue rolls and vibrates against the back of your teeth, as if you were saying Brrrrrr on a cold day.   It may not come naturally to some people, and may take a bit of practice to get used to.  Its another gentle way of exercising your voice along higher notes without straining your voice.

Tongue Tension Does your tongue have too much tension?    Press your thumb up into the flesh behind the bone of your chin when you are singing.   It should feel soft and supple.   The base of your tongue is almost attached to your larynx, so if your tongue is tense, then your voice has to work harder.  Try to relax and open your mouth more when you sing.

How much air do I need? Try humming/singing through a straw.  Try not to let any air escape through your nose either.   This will give you an idea of how much air you really need to be able to sing.


Problems With Your Voice

Singing Should Never Hurt.   If you try to sing a song and it hurts, you are doing something wrong.  Don’t continue as this is going to cause damage to your throat and vocal chords.  You will need to identify what you are doing that is causing you to hurt.

Did you warm-up your voice before you started singing?   You wouldn’t see an athlete tearing around the racetrack without having gone through a warm-up routine.  You should do the same for your vocal chords

Are you singing too high or to low? Maybe you should think about changing the key of the song to make it more comfortable for your range.

Is it your singing technique? Many singers have never learned good singing technique, so seek advice from a singing teacher or vocal coach.They will be able to help you to identify where you are going wrong, and point you in the right direction

If this doesn’t help then a visit to your Doctor may identify what could possibly be causing your singing voice to hurt.


Vocal Care

Your voice is your instrument, so always take care of your body.

Drink plenty of water.  This allows the cells around your throat and larynx to be well hydrated

Eat healthy.  Junk food is so called for a reason

Avoid drinking alcohol and smoking,

Don’t shout or whisper.  It really strains your voice

Try to give your voice a day off every week, especially if you have a busy schedule.  That means no singing or talking.


Top Tips For Singers



An Introduction To Opera

operabackingtracksAn Introduction To Opera

Opera was developed in Western Europe in the late 16th century. A combination of mixing music and drama.

The Baroque period developed in the last decades of the 16th century. It is distinguished, above all, by the development of what has become known as dramatic monody. Here a simple form of melody closely follows the rhythms and intonations of speech, accompanied by simple if occasionally startling chords. The new technique of composition made opera possible. Plays with songs and dances were one thing, but works providing a dramatic combination of words and music throughout were something different.

There were three principal elements from the ancient world that influenced the development of opera: Greek and Roman tragedy, ancient rhetoric, and the work of the philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Interest in classical Greek tragedy brought with it the understanding that music and dance had been essential elements of performance. With the ancient music now lost, a new music was created. At the same time the rules and conventions of classical Greek and Roman rhetoric came to be reflected in drama. The new art of opera could also seek theoretical support from the works of Plato and Aristotle.

From Plato came the idea that certain kinds of music were rightly associated with certain states of mind or soul. In the philosophical dialogue The Republic Plato’s hero Socrates suggests that some kinds of music should be banned, because of the effect they have on character. Others are to be encouraged as fostering bravery or prudence. This was at the basis of what became the Doctrine of the Affections, the association of certain pieces of music with certain states of mind, so that a sad song, for example, might both express the feeling of the singer and arouse a similar feeling in those who heard it. From Aristotle came the now fundamental connection of music with poetry and rhetoric, together with the suggested moral purpose of drama. Through the proper exercise of the emotions of pity and fear, exercised on suitable subjects, an audience would undergo a moral cleansing, a catharsis. Opera, then, had a moral purpose. It was soon, of course, to have a political one.

From the very beginning, opera brought together all the arts. It involved painting, poetry, drama, dance and music, making it the most complex of art forms. It was, as Samuel Johnson later pointed out, exotic and irrational, and, as many have found, remarkably expensive. It remained, nevertheless, of continuing social and political importance.

Opera development around Europe and beyond


Early Opera

There was always argument about who composed the first opera. Some of his contemporaries regarded the Roman composer Cavalieri’s La rappresentatione di anima e di corpo (The Representation of Soul and Body), from 1600, as the first true example. Written for the Oratorian movement of St Philip Neri, and with a dramatic content recalling that of medieval morality plays, combining drama with the new music, the work had some claim to priority. Allegorical figures dispute in a work that seeks to show the superiority of the spiritual. The composer himself claimed to have been the first to unite music and drama in this way, although rivals claimed to have done the same things some years before.

While Cavalieri’s work entertained and edified the entire College of Cardinals in Rome, other early operas were designed as court entertainments of a more secular kind. Such works were staged, notably, for the Medici rulers in Florence and, most memorably of all, at Mantua. It was there that Monteverdi had his Orfeo staged in 1607, followed the next year by Arianna, now lost. The subject of Orfeo (Orpheus) had already been treated in Florence by the composers Peri and by Caccini. The story had an obvious relevance. The legendary musician Orpheus, grieving at the loss of his beloved Eurydice, attempts to save her from the Underworld by the power of his music and is almost successful, thwarted only at the last minute by his own doubts. Orpheus not only demonstrates the importance of music. He is also represented as a shepherd among shepherds, making it possible for the poet and composer to draw on an existing literary and musical tradition. Pastoral poems and romances were set in a conventional Arcadia, where the only troubles that arose came from the thwarted love of amorous shepherds, whose heartache often proved fatal. The Italian madrigal, the part-songs of the 16th century, often set pastoral verses, drawing on another tradition of the ancient world. Here the life of the shepherd was idealised in an urban or court view of the country, a convention that could present the ageing Queen Elizabeth of England as Oriana, Queen of the Shepherds, shortly before her death.

Opera as court entertainment continued, often under enlightened patronage. It was in Venice, in 1637, that the first public opera house was opened. Venice was a commercial republic, ruled by an oligarchy, but without a royal court. The commercial aspect of opera could here be exploited, so that by the end of the century there were seven Venetian opera houses, dominated, after the death of Monteverdi in 1643, by the composer Cavalli, followed by Legrenzi. Venetian opera, not uninfluenced at first by the opera of Rome, spread throughout Italy and to other parts of Europe. As a more popular form than early courtly opera, it offered a mixture of the serious and the comic. Monteverdi’s Orfeo had no comic relief, but his two later surviving operas, written for Venice in the early 1640s, include elements of comedy. They also followed a convention now established, that of the happy ending. There was still, as before, a strong element of spectacle, with elaborate stage machinery that allowed transformation scenes and grandiose effects, with a complementary extravagance of costume and decor. Leading composers of the later years of the 17th century and early years of the 18th also include Alessandro Scarlatti in Naples and Rome, father of the keyboard composer Domenico Scarlatti.

Early opera had involved madrigals, dramatic monody and set songs, or a mixture of these. As the 17th century went on, there developed a gradual distinction between recitative and aria. The first of these, lightly accompanied often simply by chords, follows the rhythm and stresses of speech without the formal structure of a melody. Recitative, in fact, is dialogue set to music. The aria is a song, often in a form that frames a middle section in identical outer sections, the second of which might be ornamented by the singer. While the plot may be carried forward by the recitative, the aria tends to embody one state of mind. Both had an important part to play in what followed, although audiences tended to pay more attention to arias and much less to recitative, which seemed tedious.

Opera Seria

The later years of the 17th century brought the beginnings of operatic reform. This came about partly as a result of French criticism that opera libretti were not based on the Aristotelian principles that dominated French classical tragedy, according to which the ‘dramatic unities’ of time, place and plot were to be observed. These demanded a closer connection between time in the drama and time on stage, some limit on the changes of place possible, since in Greek tragedy no change of scene was allowed, and a final unity of plot, without primitive diversion into unconnected sub-plots. Under the leadership of the librettist Apostolo Zeno in Venice, the art was purged of its comic elements. The new form, later known as opera seria, followed clear principles of classical propriety and led to a certain stylisation. There were clear categories of major and minor roles, usually for six or seven solo singers, and of the number and type of arias to be allocated to each. Subjects tended now to be historical rather than mythological. Opera seria held a central position in repertoire for three-quarters of the 18th century. It brought the rise to prominence of the castrato, now cast in the principal male roles, and allowed a similar importance and scale of fees to the prima donna, the first lady. Each would expect a similar number of arias of varied mood, sad, angry, brave or meditative, irrespective of the demands of the plot, while the secondary singers would have their own demands to make.

After Zeno the principal librettist was Metastasio, regarded as the most outstanding dramatist and poet of his time. The new libretti, the operatic texts, were set again and again by major composers of the day, including Vivaldi. The music, in fact, became relatively expendable. It was often a case of first the words, then the music. In England Handel had opera seria libretti adapted for the varied requirements of London audiences. He was followed in London, later in the century, by another German composer, Johann Christian Bach, the youngest son of old Johann Sebastian, but the art remained essentially an Italian one.

Opera Buffa

In the 18th century there was a parallel development of what was later known as opera buffa (comic opera). This had its roots in the ancient Roman comedy of Plautus and Terence and this in turn had been derived from ancient Greek New Comedy. Features of these were stock characters, comic and cunning servants, angry and parsimonious fathers, passionate lovers, amorous daughters and bragging soldiers. With them came a preoccupation with what was recognisable as ordinary life, however simplified. Another source of Italian comedy was found in the associated improvised theatre of the commedia dell’arte, with its similar array of stock characters. Opera buffa corresponded to contemporary spoken drama and opera texts owed a great deal to the work of the playwright Goldoni. Oddly enough, the earlier historical process was now reversed. In the 17th century tragedy had acquired comic elements. Now serious characters began to find a place in comic opera, which became less comic and more realistic. These more dramatically credible plots found a place in Italian operas such as those written in Vienna by Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte and their contemporaries.

Reform Opera

Serious Italian opera, again at first in Vienna, underwent a marked reform with the work of Gluck and the librettist Calzabigi. Between them they succeeded, largely under French influence, in introducing simplifications. The formal requirements of the old opera seria were reduced, allowing a greater degree of realism. Gluck, in fact, claimed that he made music the servant of poetry, never introducing novelties or distractions from the dramatic situation. He explained his principles clearly in his introduction to the opera Alceste, published in 1768. These had already been put into practice in 1762 with his version of the story of Orpheus, Orfeo ed Euridice (Orpheus and Eurydice).

From Rossini to Verdi

The 19th century in Italy brought some of the best-known operas of all. These are found first of all in Rossini, a master of comedy, as in Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), in which the barber Figaro abets his master Count Almaviva in his wooing of Rosina and the gulling of her guardian, old Doctor Bartolo. Rossini also tackled more serious subjects, as in his heroic melodrama Tancredi, with its ingredients of love, jealousy, misunderstanding and final resolution either, as in the first version, in a conventional happy ending, or, as in the revised version, in the hero’s death. Tancredi provides a demanding title role characteristic of the so-called bel canto style that Rossini so much admired. This involved a fine voice and the flexibility and evenness of tone to cope with elaborately florid vocal writing.

In Italian opera Rossini was followed by Bellini and Donizetti. The former had a mastery of extended lyrical melodies, shown in the intense romanticism of operas like Norma, with its story of love and heroic self-sacrifice by the Druid priestess of the title. Donizetti showed an equally marked dramatic sense, exemplified in Lucia di Lammermoor (Lucy of Lammermoor), based on a novel by Sir Walter Scott and including what became a popular operatic element, a mad scene for the heroine. His sense of comedy is evident in L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love), with its quack doctor and forlorn lover, and in Don Pasquale, the fooling of the elderly bachelor of the title by a pair of young lovers, anxious to be united. Stock characters of Italian comedy occur in both.

The 1840s brought to prominence one of the greatest of all operatic composers. Verdi held a leading position in Italian opera for some half a century and continues to dominate operatic repertoire. From Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar) in 1842 to Falstaff in 1893 he served, as he claimed, in the galley, to produce masterpiece after masterpiece. In these he created a very personal amalgamation of current trends of increased dramatic power and cogency, influenced at times by France and at times by Germany, but always essentially Italian in his own idiom. His career coincided with the rise of Italian nationalism and often his operas suggested a contemporary relevance. This is found, for example, in the chorus of Hebrew slaves in Nabucco and in the chorus of the oppressed people of Scotland in his Shakespearian Macbeth. It was Shakespeare, whose work had a new appeal in a period of relative freedom from earlier classical convention, who inspired Verdi’s last two operas, the tragedy Otello and the fine comedy of Falstaff, based on The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Verismo and Puccini

The later years of the century brought verismo (realism), a reflection of current literary trends, in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry), a down-to-earth story of love and jealousy in a village, peasant setting, and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (Actors). This last brought to the opera a police-court murder case, in which a jealous actor had killed his faithless wife on the stage. Pagliacci provides a famous example of the dramatic treatment of drama itself, a contrast between the actor himself and the part he is forced to play.

Realism of this kind had its effect on Puccini, whose operas form a major part of modern repertoire, from Manon Lescaut and Tosca to Turandot. While he might seek the exotic in the Japanese setting of Madama Butterfly or the China of Turandot, in

Tosca, in spite of its historical setting, he presented a story of political intrigue, murder and deception of contemporary relevance. Like Verdi, Puccini too was able to provide a successful synthesis of current musical and dramatic trends.

20th Century and Beyond

Opera has, of course, continued in Italy, both in its more traditional form and in modern experiment. The story has not ended. The later 20th century and the new millennium offer obvious difficulties of succinct summary, with the general musical eclecticism that has characterised music and the other arts.


France has had its own dramatic and operatic tradition. While Italian opera has had some influence, affected itself by its contact with the principles of French classical drama, French opera has remained true to its own cultural and linguistic traditions.

Comédie-ballet and Tragédie lyrique

Paradoxically French opera owes its origin to a composer of Italian origin. Jean-Baptiste Lully was brought to France as a boy and as time went on established himself in a leading position in the musical life of his adopted country. In collaboration with Molière he contributed to the art of the comédie-ballet and with the poet Quinault he created the French five-act tragédie lyrique, itself indebted both to earlier French forms of ballet and drama and to Italy. Lully came to hold a dominant position, with a royal monopoly that gave him control over music in the theatre. While it is now usual to perform Molière’s comedies without their music or their ballet, the plays were originally conceived with a closely related element of dance and music. Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, for example, which has had other more recent musical offshoots, finds a natural place for music as Monsieur Jourdain, the nouveau riche of the title, tries to acquire the arts of a gentleman. In addition to the comic musical episodes of his singing lesson and the scene in which he is supposedly ennobled by a Turkish Mufti, there is a final comic ballet for a mixture of French, Spanish, Italian and other dancers and singers. The form was stifled when Lully claimed ownership not only of the music but of the texts and succeeded in exercising intolerable control over Molière’s collaboration with another composer.

The tragédie lyrique created by Lully and the poet Quinault was not necessarily tragic but it was, at least, serious in its treatment of subjects usually drawn from mythology. The tradition was continued by composers such as Campra and Charpentier and resumed with signal success by Rameau from the 1730s onwards. These operas, however, have never found a place in international repertoire. They belonged essentially to the French court of the ancien régime and often had political relevance in prologues that praised the King and plots that reflected recent royal successes.

Opéra Comique

As in Italy, comic opera itself developed from more popular sources in the 18th century, notably from the Paris Fair Theatres, the Foires. Here existing tunes were often used for new words, as they were to be in The Beggar’s Opera in England. Travelling companies of players and the actors of the Italian theatre played an important part in the development of a form that mixed speech and music and closely involved a popular audience. As the century went on, what had often been a coarse form of entertainment developed into something much more acceptable to the educated. Writers like Favart and the social philosopher Rousseau turned to simple country life for their plots, although the picture they offer is highly idealised.

The 1750s brought the famous quarrel between those who favoured the Italian opera and those who held to older French traditions. This revived a deep-seated opposition between the French and the Italian that had occurred 100 years before, when the Italian-born Cardinal Mazarin was blamed by politicians for the high cost of Italian opera that he had had staged in Paris and was forced into exile. Now, in 1752, an Italian company presented a series of Italian shorter, lighter-hearted intermezzos in Paris with reasonable success. The literary war that arose, known as the Querelle des Bouffons, was initiated by the German diplomat and critic, Baron Friedrich Melchior von Grimm, at one time a friend of the Mozarts. He had harsh comments to make on French opera and was later joined in his strictures by Rousseau. Their attacks led to a series of pamphlets, espousing one side or the other. While the Italian troupe engaged at the Opéra duly left Paris in 1754, Italian influence remained, to lead to a new form of French comic opera of greater musical and dramatic interest.

Reform and Revolution

In the 1770s Gluck’s reformed opera was introduced to Paris, treating very differently the kind of subjects that had been the substance of the tragédie lyrique. French versions of his earlier Italian operas, already staged in Vienna, were now mounted in Paris. Gluck was able, in fact, to show a new compromise. The subjects of his operas might be drawn from classical mythology and legend, like the subjects chosen by Lully, but these were treated in a modern way. The operas were less stylised and very much more dramatic in their effect. At the same time the form of so-called opéra comique could also turn its attention to more serious subjects, as comic opera had in Italy, catering largely for a new middle-class audience. The period before the Revolution also brought the building of provincial opera houses, where such works would provide the general repertoire.

The Revolution brought obvious changes. French serious opera, in the form of the tragédie lyrique, was essentially associated with the monarchy, and had, in any case, been affected by the Paris operas of Gluck, with their new element of dramatic realism. The 1790s, however, demanded work of revolutionary relevance. This trend lasted only a short time. The new century brought a reorganisation of opera throughout the country under Napoleon, who instituted reforms in the opera in Paris itself, exercising a limiting control over all theatres. Under the restored Bourbon monarchy opera flourished. The period saw the success in Paris of Rossini and his operas written for the French stage. At the same time there was a continuation of the opéra comique by composers like Auber, Halévy, Berlioz and Bizet. Subjects varied from the light-hearted to the tragically serious, with productions at the Opéra-Comique, the company established in 1714, distinguished from those at the Opéra, the leading official company, by their less formal requirements. French opéra comique, in the 19th century at least, does not have to be comic; the descriptive term indicates a much wider category of work.

Grand Opéra

From the later 1820s Paris saw the creation of operas of greater pretensions in the grand opéra staged by the Opéra itself. These operas, which reach a height of grandeur and spectacle in the work of Meyerbeer, were held in the highest esteem. The first grand opéra, in 1828, was Auber’s La Muette de Portici (The Dumb Girl of Portici), followed in 1829 by Rossini’s last opera Guillaume Tell (William Tell). From Meyerbeer came Le Prophète (The Prophet), Les Huguenots (The Huguenots) and L’Africaine (The African Maid). These involved elaborate and complex spectacle. The scenery offered a degree of realism and often of grandeur. Crowd scenes allowed the chorus to act, rather than stand in formal poses, while music added to general effect. Examples of grand opéra retain in themselves their own place in operatic history but also deserve attention for the effect they had on other opera on a similarly grand and spectacular scale, works by Verdi and by Wagner. Socially the Opéra was important. Its magnificence reflected the growing wealth and prosperity of the country and of its upper classes.

The Opéra-Comique

French opera continued in the 19th century with the official company known as the Opéra-Comique, itself derived from the tradition of the same name and allowing more freedom in choice of subject and treatment. The company had been established early in the preceding century, derived from the performances of the Paris Fairs. It had amalgamated with the Paris Italian Theatre and then with other establishments offering similar repertoire. In particular, the Opéra-Comique, in the various theatres in which it performed, allowed some spoken dialogue. Outstanding examples of works staged by the Opéra-Comique include Gounod’s Faust and Bizet’s Carmen. Neither of these, of course, is a comedy. In Gounod’s opera Faust sells his soul to the Devil, a bargain from which he is finally rescued by the intervention of the spirit of the girl he has seduced. Carmen is a story of low life in Spain, a tale of criminals, jealousy and murder that has much in common with Italian verismo. The tradition continued with some of the operas of Massenet, a composer of importance in the last part of the 19th century. His Manon, in which the heroine is convicted of immorality and transported, to die in the American desert, was staged by the Opéra-Comique, as was his treatment of the story of Cinderella, Cendrillon.

Opéra Bouffe

It would be impossible to leave Paris without mention, at least, of the genre of French opéra bouffe in the second half of the 19th century. This owes its name to Jacques Offenbach and is very much lighter in style than the comedies of opéra comique, which, by comparison, grew in seriousness of purpose. Best known of Offenbach’s works in this form is Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld). This mocks the serious legend tackled earlier by Monteverdi and by Gluck, among many others. Now Orpheus is glad to be rid of Eurydice, while she is quite happy to enjoy herself in the Underworld, where the Blessed Spirits have greeted her with a spirited can-can. Opéra bouffe is light-hearted operetta, designed to satirise and to entertain. As such it seems typical of the French Second Empire, the period of Napoleon III, brought to a disastrous end in the defeat at Sedan in 1870.

20th Century and Beyond

The new century brought various changes. The traditional form of opéra comique had come to involve itself in more serious subjects, and composers understandably preferred other descriptive titles for works that lacked any trace of comedy. The early years brought Debussy’s remarkable Pelléas et Mélisande, based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck, set in an impressionistic pre-Raphaelite world. Other French operas reflected the interests and trends of the day. Ravel collaborated, after the First World War, with the writer Colette in his delightful L’Enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Magic Spells), in which a naughty child is tormented by his victims. Darius Milhaud collaborated with Paul Claudel in Christophe Colomb (Christopher Columbus) and Francis Poulenc with the surrealist poet Guillaume Apollinaire in Les Mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresias). Later in life he was to tackle the weightier subject of religious martyrdom in Dialogues des Carmélites (Carmelite Dialogues), while Olivier Messiaen turned to the life of St Francis for a subject.


The many courts of Germany and of the Habsburg Empire and its capital Vienna were open to influence from both Italy and France. It was, indeed, one of the achievements of great German composers of the late Baroque period to bring about their own synthesis of Italian, French and German. This is heard in one form in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and in another in the music of Handel. While Hamburg, even in Handel’s brief time there, found a place for German-language opera, it was, in general, Italian opera that predominated. In Vienna the Emperor Joseph II attempted, principally in the 1780s, to establish a German opera, the National-Singspiel. It was to this that Mozart contributed his successful Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), but the Emperor’s early attempts were unsuccessful.


The traditional German Singspiel had had a longer history, parallel to the popular comedy of Italy and France. As in those countries, the division between the purely popular and the more formal and literary comedy diminished. This led to a form of German-language comic opera, with some spoken dialogue, on a variety of subjects. In some, like Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), elements of earlier popular comedy continue. The comic bird-catcher Papageno is one of a long line of such characters, an ordinary man set in the most extraordinary surroundings. Comedy lies, as always, in the inappropriate situation and the down-to-earth reaction to it.

Singspiel continued also in a serious vein, reflecting the parallel developments in Italy and France, as well as in German theatre, with its middle-class drama, if one may so translate the word bürgerlich (bourgeois), without giving it a pejorative meaning. Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, first staged in Vienna in 1805, deals in generally serious terms with a loyal wife’s attempt to rescue her imprisoned husband. Carl Maria von Weber’s work Der Freischütz (The Marksman), still a Singspiel in its language and elements of spoken dialogue, includes all the elements of German romanticism and leads the way forward to full-blown German Romantic opera.

German Romantic Opera

Vienna brought together Italian opera and German Singspiel. Gluck and his librettist Calzabigi had brought about a reform, influenced, in some respects, by French theatre and in some works by the opéra comique. Here, as in the major cities in Germany, two forms of opera co-existed, the Italian and the German. The 19th century, however, with all its political and cultural changes, gave a new impetus to German opera, not only to Beethoven and to Weber, but to composers like Marschner, Spohr and Lortzing.

Richard Wagner

Towering over his contemporaries in ambition and achievement, Richard Wagner introduced, from the 1840s onwards, new musical and dramatic conceptions of the art of opera or music drama. At first he added to the existing Romantic tradition in Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. The first of these tells of the ghostly Dutch sea-captain, fated to sail with his phantom crew until redeemed by a woman’s disinterested love. Tannhäuser turns to the medieval poet of that name and his temptation by the worldly pleasures offered by the Mount of Venus, while Lohengrin offers a story derived from the legends of the Knights of the Grail. It was, however, with his tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), ParsifalTristan und Isolde (Tristan and Isolde) and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg) that he created a new and comprehensive art form. While the last of these praises true German art in a plot based on the activities of the Mastersingers of the 16th century, The Ring is a massive conception dealing with the superhuman. The four works, to be performed on successive nights in the theatre Wagner built in Bayreuth, are closely interwoven, related by recurrent themes and fragments of themes associated with ideas and characters in the drama. The plot of this massive operatic cycle is derived from Teutonic legend, stories of the old gods and the final destruction of their Valhalla.


Operetta seems typical of Vienna in the later 19th century, exemplified by the music of Johann Strauss, in works such as Die Fledermaus (The Bat), with its light-hearted intrigue and attempted marital deception. The tradition of operetta found other champions in composers like Franz von Suppé, and then, leading into the new century, in Franz Lehár and his contemporaries, with parallel success in Berlin. By the 1920s, however, the formula had worn thin, gradually to be replaced by musical comedy.

After Wagner

While Wagner may overshadow his immediate successors, his influence was enormous, reflected in the operas of Humperdinck and even, however reluctantly, of his pupil, Wagner’s son Siegfried Wagner. Humperdinck’s operas continue to explore a German world, but rather one of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy-tales than of gods and heroes. In 1893 Humperdinck won his first success with his opera Hänsel und Gretel (Hansel and Gretel), following this with other fairy-tale operas. Siegfried Wagner turns to weightier German legends in a series of operas that are only now finding an audience.

Richard Strauss

The true successor of Wagner is Richard Strauss, particularly in the remarkable series of operas in which he collaborated with the writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal, after the earlier success of Salome, based on Oscar Wilde’s play of that name. Wilde’s work had been banned in England, and Salome as an opera suggested new realms of sensuality to be explored, both dramatically and musically. Elektra in 1909 was followed by the moving nostalgia of Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose), a work of comedy and poignancy, an autumnal reflection of a mood of the time, set in the age of Mozart. Strauss continued after Hofmannsthal’s death in collaboration with Stefan Zweig and others. His last opera, Capriccio, was first staged in Munich in 1942. His debt to Wagner may be seen as musical rather than dramatic, reflected in orchestration and harmony.

The Weimar Republic and National Socialism

The intervention of National Socialism had, in opera as elsewhere, an immensely damaging effect on the general creativity of German opera. The 1920s had brought a period of experiment, often outrageous enough in its defiance of tradition. Composers like Franz Schreker had explored the exotic world opened by Strauss’s Salome. He was dismissed from his position in Berlin and died in 1934. Other younger composers like Schoenberg, Zemlinsky, Weill, Goldschmidt and Hindemith were driven into exile and often, therefore, into other forms of musical activity. America, where some took refuge, lacked the traditions of the German opera house. Kurt Weill, who had collaborated with Bertolt Brecht in Berlin in Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), a modernised and political version of The Beggar’s Opera, turned to the American musical. Schoenberg left his great opera Moses und Aron (Moses and Aaron) unfinished. Zemlinsky did the same, never completing his last opera. Goldschmidt in England found almost as little opportunity as Hindemith in America, both having suffered from official censorship before their forced or chosen emigration. Schoenberg’s pupil Berg, however, had added his own very distinctive contribution to German opera in Wozzeck, a study of madness and murder. At the time of his death in Vienna in 1935 he left his second opera, Lulu, unfinished.

Contemporary German Opera

Germany and Austria continue to offer a fertile ground for new opera. This is encouraged by the existence of a large number of efficient provincial opera houses and a measure of enlightened public support. There have been notable new operas from composers such as Hans Werner Henze and remarkable experiment from Karlheinz Stockhausen, among others, expanding the possibilities of music theatre.


England, like other European countries apart from Germany, France and Italy, lacked an established national tradition of opera until the 20th century. Henry Purcell, in the later 17th century, wrote a wealth of incidental music and contributed to a genre that recent scholars have called semi-opera, an amalgamation of spoken drama and a strong and often supernatural musical element. It was Italian opera, however, that entertained the fashionable world in the 18th century, in spite of the damaging effect of the anti-opera of John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera. This last began a new form, the English ballad opera, with its use of popular melodies. The musical borrowings, at least, must recall the practice of the Paris Fair Theatres.

19th Century

While there were English, Scottish and Irish composers of opera, there is relatively little trace of their work in continuing repertoire. Two Irish composers, however, Balfe and Wallace, are remembered, respectively, for The Bohemian Girl and Maritana, staged in London in the 1840s. Another composer of paternal Irish origin, Arthur Sullivan, survives triumphantly in his operettas, collaborations with W.S. Gilbert.

National Opera

The 20th century brought an element of national opera through Vaughan Williams, Holst and others. Their work in this form was largely for local audiences. A more markedly international school of English opera started with Britten’s opera Peter Grimes in 1945. The subject was local but its implications, as a study of an outsider in a closed community, were much wider. This was followed by a remarkable series of works, chamber operas and operas for the larger stage, culminating in Death in Venice, based on the novella by Thomas Mann.


In those parts of the Habsburg Empire that were later subsumed for much of the 20th century in Czechoslovakia there arose, with the general nationalism of the mid-19th century, national opera. This is represented in Prague by Smetana and Dvořák. Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, in its Czech village setting, is a comedy that continues in international repertoire. Dvořák’s Czech operas have travelled less satisfactorily, with language an obvious barrier. It was primarily in the second and third decades of the 20th century that the Moravian composer Janáček came to wider notice with operas that depend, in their vocal lines, on the intonations and rhythms of speech. National traditions of Czech, Slovak and Moravian opera continue.


Italian opera was brought to Russia in the 18th century and Italian composers were also involved in the setting of Russian libretti. This may be seen as part of the westernising policies of Peter the Great, much as Kemal Atatürk in Turkey in the 20th century saw the introduction of opera as a concomitant part of his programme of modernisation.

Russian Nationalism

A true Russian tradition of art music was established in the 19th century. This was started by Glinka with the supposedly historical opera A Life for the Tsar, followed by Ruslan and Lyudmila, based on Pushkin and exploring more exotic, oriental elements, as Russian composers were to continue to do. Three, at least, of the five nationalist composers who made up what became known as The Five (or The Mighty Handful) made notable contributions to Russian opera. Mussorgsky achieved this, in particular, in his historical Boris Godunov and Borodin in his exotic Prince Igor. Rimsky-Korsakov may be better known abroad for his orchestral works, but he also wrote a series of important operas, ending with the exoticism of The Golden Cockerel, which, after trouble with the censors, was only staged after his death. Tchaikovsky, not one of The Five, but thoroughly Russian in his music, is known in international repertoire for two operas based on Pushkin, Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades.

Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Stravinsky

Russian opera continued in the 20th century, particularly in the work of Shostakovich, whose Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District won official condemnation. Its subject might have seemed quite acceptable to a Communist regime that believed in the social and political purpose of the arts. The opera is based on a story by Nikolay Leskov in which a young wife murders her father-in-law and, with the help of her lover, her husband, crimes for which she and her lover are punished. This certainly follows political teaching in showing the degeneracy of the capitalists at the heart of the drama. For Stalin, however, the score was chaos instead of music.

Prokofiev left Russia in 1917 and spent a number of years abroad, before finally returning home in 1936, in time for the official attack on Shostakovich. For Chicago he had written the opera The Love for Three Oranges, but his next opera, The Fiery Angel, was not performed until after the composer’s death in 1953. His most ambitious opera in Russia was the monumental War and Peace, based on Tolstoy. This was completed in 1948 but not staged until 1960.

Stravinsky, in exile from Russia, contributed to the genre in very Russian style in his earlier period, but his later opera The Rake’s Progress, however characteristic in musical idiom, belongs rather to English and American repertoire in subject and language. With a plot based on Hogarth’s series of engravings, the work is neoclassical in form and texture, combining the Rake’s progress to disaster with the legend of Faust.


It may seem cavalier to include the rest of the operatic world in a geographical ragbag. South America at first inherited operatic traditions from its colonial past, from Spain and Portugal. The United States also relied on European tradition but, in the 20th century in particular, went on to develop its own musical idiom. In opera this is reflected in the work of Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and others. Most characteristic, although with no direct successors, is Gershwin’s black opera Porgy and Bess, while the expatriate Italian composer Menotti added his own very personal contribution in operas like The Medium and The Consul. Although many composers, forced into exile from Germany and German-dominated countries in Europe, found a place in the United States, there was little scope for opera. Some were able to work in Hollywood, while others, like Kurt Weill, made a dramatic contribution to the American musical in music that often had its basis in earlier operatic experience.

In Europe Spain and Portugal shared in the earlier developments of Italian opera and provided inspiration for other countries in choice of setting. The popular Spanish zarzuela, with its song, dance and spoken dialogue, has a long history, but flourished particularly in the second half of the 19th century. Composers who wrote operas drawing on national sources of inspiration include Enrique Granados, Manuel de Falla and Roberto Gerhard.

Countries of Eastern Europe have again built on national musical and cultural traditions. In Hungary Kodály offered what has been described as a Singspiel in the very Hungarian Háry János, dealing with the comic exaggerations of a boastful old soldier. His contemporary Bartók left only one opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, a work that makes greater demands on an audience. In Poland Szymanowski made his own distinctive contribution to operatic repertoire with King Roger, a medieval drama based on the Bacchae of Euripides, echoing the conflict that the philosopher Nietzsche had seen again between Apollo and Dionysus, the serenely rational and the passionately irrational. While the talents of these composers may not have been primarily operatic, all three contributed to the genre in characteristic ways.


The three great streams that have come together in European opera have flowed from Italy, in the first place, then from France and from Germany. The same might be said of the great body of Western art music. It was that mixture of Italian melody, French dance and German intellect and technique that created Western music as it is now known and the genre of opera that came from it. To this amalgam have been added the colours and cultural flavouring provided by other countries, with the later development of their own individual operatic traditions. Opera itself is essentially a synthesis of the arts. Its music remains a synthesis of different national cultures, absorbed and then diffused once more. Since its early development it has had its enemies, cynics who can find nothing but the ridiculous in stage performances where characters, often in extreme circumstances, sing rather than speak or scream. Yet it is arguably the highest of all arts, the sum and summit of them all, the art, as an early composer remarked, of princes.

This is just a brief summary of opera tradition and is used as a guide only.  An in-depth guide about composers and their works can be found in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, the most comprehensive publication on the subject.



About Performing

About Performing

See our guides about singing and performing.  With helpful tips and great advice

Audition Advice Whether you wish to be the next superstar, or just want a place in a band, choir or musical production, having a successful singing audition will help you achieve your dream.

Using Backing Tracks Backing tracks are audio recordings or computer generated music files that bands/singers play/sing along to.  They may also be known as playbacks, jam tracks, instrumental practice or rehearsal tracks.

Charisma – That Elusive X-Factor  The dictionary describes Charisma as: ‘A rare personal quality attributed to leaders who arouse fervent popular devotion and enthusiasm’. ‘Personal magnetism or charm’. ‘A personal attractiveness that enables you to influence others’.

Worry About Forgetting Your Lyrics We’ve all forgotten our lyrics at some point or another.  You’re mind’s gone blank.  A cold sweat is quickly breaking out on your back, Your audience is looking up at you. What do you do now? Have a back up plan:

Mic Technique  This is just a basic guide into microphones.  Know how to hold a microphone. Learn some mic technique for vocals and how to get the best from your microphone.

Performance Blues What happens if you don’t you love to sing anymore?  Here’s some ideas to help you overcome it:

How To Be More Confident  Feel too nervous to get up and have a go? – You are not alone. Many professional singers suffer with nerves before they sing live!   To sing with confidence? Try the following tips…

Singing With Emotion When you need to work on emotive singing, try our free vocal exercise to to help you discover singing with different emotions.

Stage Fright You hear yourself being introduced.  Your mouth runs dry.  Your heart is pounding in your chest.  There are butterflies in your stomach and you’re ready to flee…

Glossary Of Singing Terms


Successful Singing’s Glossary Of Singing Terms:

A Cappella: Singing without any form of instrumental accompaniment.

Accompaniment: The instrumentation that plays beneath the singing.

Accompanist:  A pianist who plays music beneath the singing.

Adducted: The term for vocal cords getting pulled together when you sing high up in your vocal range.

Alto:  Low Female Voice

Aria: In opera, a song, especially a solo.

Arpeggio:  A staggered scale going up and down in small intervals, most commonly on the 1st,3rd, 5th and 8th notes of an octave.

Baritone: Male voice located between bass and tenor in range and tone quality.

Ballad:  A slow tempo, sentimental or romantic song.

Bel Canto: (Beautiful Singing) Singing that focuses on beautiful sound, not on acting or emotion. It’s characterized by ornate vocal style.

Belting: Using excessive air flow and vocal cord tension in an attempt to sing louder

Adam’s Apple: Common term used to describe the part of the larynx (voice box) which protrudes from the front of the neck. More noticeable in men than women.

Blend: In solo singing, the smooth transition between the head and chest voice. Or, when more than one individual is singing, the sound combination between singers, which preferably makes it difficult to pick out one singer’s voice amid the group.

Break: The sudden change in tone between the head and chest voice, caused by vocal tension. When a singer hits his or her break, there may be a sound that is jarring and ugly. This can be avoided with good vocal technique.

Breath Support: Efficient use of the singer’s stream of breath, controlled primarily by the diaphragm.

Catch Breath: A quick, short, unobtrusive breath.

Cave: The round shape at the back of the mouth.

Centred: Everything balanced, working as one.  Getting the greatest amount of power from your voice, using the least amount of effort.

Chest Resonance: The resonance sounds it comes from the chest area.

Chest Voice: Also known as “chest register.” The lower notes of a singer’s range; in the same general range as the speaking voice. When singing in the chest voice, the vocal cords become naturally thick, and the resulting sound is generally associated with deep, warm tones.  Achieved by using resonance and voice placement.

Consonant: A speech sound produced as the result of a temporary partial or complete constriction of airflow (b d f g l etc)

Diaphragm:  The dome shaped muscle attached to the bottom of the lungs that separates your chest and stomach cavities. Its main function is to initiate inhalation.

Diction: The clear pronunciation of words. This requires attention to both consonants and vowels. Different types of music may require more or less diction; for example, in musical theatre, it’s essential that the audience understand the lyrics, but in jazz or blues, the singer may occasionally slur words on purpose in order to achieve a desired sound. Good diction helps produce good sound, however, so all singers should pay attention to it.

Dynamics: The variations of soft and loud singing in a given song.

Epiglottis:  The leaf-like cartilage that separates the functioning of your oesophagus (channel to stomach) from the functioning of your trachea (channel to the lungs).

Exercise: In singing, a device (a note or sequence of notes sung in a certain manner) used to condition and/or strengthen your vocal muscles to work with the proper airflow.

Falsetto: (False Singing)In male singers, a high register (actually, sung in the female range) similar to the head voice. However, unlike the head voice, falsetto cannot blend with the chest voice.  Female’s can also sing in a falsetto range.  It has a Minnie Mouse Sound about it

Flat:  To be under the correct pitch, not quite in tune.

Forced:  Singing that is forced may sound strained, and is accompanied by unnecessary tension in the throat.

Full Voice:  As loud as a person can sing without creating imbalance between airflow and vocal cord tension. Also refers to a tone that has a balanced resonance quality.

Hard Palate: The hard area of the roof of your mouth, just behind your teeth.

Head Resonance: The Resonance is created within the head cavity. Chest Resonance is created within the chest cavity.

Head Voice: Also known as “head register.” Singing in the higher part of the range. While singing in the head voice, the vocal folds are thin; the head voice is usually associated with light, bright sounds.  Falsetto is resonated in a head voice.

Imagery: The situations, people, or emotions a singer pictures in his or her head while they sing, in order to achieve emotion and a good level of acting in their songs. Imagery may also be used to help a singer achieve better vocal technique.

Intonation: The relation of one note to another, and the relative pitching of each note. Could mean singing in tune or not.

Karaoke:  A music entertainment where the singer sings along to a pre-recorded track and follows the lyrics on a video screen.

Larynx:  The organ at the top of your trachea (windpipe) made up of cartilages, ligaments and muscles. Inside, attached from front to back are your vocal cords. Certain muscles of your larynx affect the tension of your vocal cords as they work with air from your lungs in producing vocal sound.

Legato: Singing as though all the notes were tied together; the notes flow together smoothly.

Major Scale: A diatonic scale with notes separated by whole tones except for the 3rd, 4th, 7th and 8th.

Mask: The area around and including the eyes which is often used to create head resonance.

Metronome:  A mechanical or electrical instrument that makes repeated clicking sound at an adjustable pace.  Used fo marking rhythm in practicing music.

Middle Voice: The middle range or register of the voice when singing or speaking.  Achieved by resonance and voice placement.

Minor Scale: A diatonic scale with notes separated by whole tones except for the 2nd, 3rd, 5th & 6th.

Nasal: When the voice is focused purely around the nose and nasal area.

Nodes:  A type of polyp on the vocal cords that prohibits good singing. When vocal cords get irritated (from fatigue, poor technique, an infection, etc.), they swell. Singing repeatedly with swollen vocal cords causes nodes. The only way to know if you have or are developing nodes is to go to a throat specialist (ENT). If you have frequent hoarseness or a constant sore throat, see one immediately. Treatment is usually rest, although surgery may be required in severe cases.

Over breathing: Taking a huge breath in and then constricting the lungs, making it difficult to sustain a note.

Phrasing:  Refers to the breaths or “stops” in-between notes. Natural phrasing will include “stops” after all periods, commas, semicolons, or colons. Additional phrasing may be necessary for the singer to take catch breaths                                    or to achieve a certain style. It’s an excellent idea for singers to sit down with sheet music in hand and                                                 mark their phrasing before they begin to sing. This helps prevent unexpected losses of breath and                                                       awkward phrasing that draws attention to itself.

Pitch:  The sound of a particular note. When pitch is referred to, it’s usually in reference to being “on” or “off” pitch. “On pitch” means the singer is singing in tune. “Off pitch” means the singer is either flat or sharp.

Placement: A singing technique that uses the sensation of vibrations in the head to achieve healthy sound that resonates and carries well. Most healthy singing is done in what is often referred to as “forward placement” (or “the mask”), with vibrations behind the teeth/lips, on the cheekbones, and sometimes the forehead and/or nose. The resulting sound is full, not nasally or thin.

Projection:  Generally, the ability to be heard by the audience. Sometimes also refers to the ability to communicate emotion to the audience, as in “she projects great sadness.”

Pure Note: A clear, sustained note with a controlled breath and without vibrato.  To create a true pure note, everything needs to be in balance.  Placement of the note and vowel, diaphragmatic control and vocal cords energized yet relaxed.

Range:  Refers to the notes that a given performer can sing comfortably.

Repertoire: The songs a singer knows and can perform well.

Resonance:  Occurs naturally when the voice is free to travel through the cavities above your vocal cords, where it is modified and amplified before leaving your mouth. It determines the final quality of your tone and makes your voice sound different from anyone else’s.

Reverb:  A termed used by musicians, and sound engineers for reverberation.  Usually created by a machine, or mixing desk, it gives the voice more colour, tone and presence. Usually used in studio’s and live performances.

Scale:  A series of notes differing in pitch according to a specific scheme (usually within an octave)

Sharp: To be above the note (often the result of oversinging) when you can’t hear yourself properly, so you are not in tune.

Sight Singing: The ability to look at sheet music and read sing it with near-perfection. Most professional singers can read music and sight read with at least some accuracy.

Siren Sound: Making a sound like an old-fashioned war siren.

Soft Palate: The fleshy part at the back of the mouth.

Solar Plexus: Located at the centre and base of the ribs, the soft part just above the stomach. The centre of diaphragmatic power.

Soprano:  High Female Voice

Staccato: The opposite of Legato. Each note is separate from the one before and after it.

Swallowing the Note: Pushing down too far on the larynx, strangling the vocal cords.

Tenor: Highest male voice

Tone: The quality of your voice that results from the resonance reinforcement of the tone initially produced in your larynx.

Transpose: To change the key of a song; to lower or raise the notes of a song or a portion of a song.

Vibrato:  A slight, but regular fluctuation in your tone. Caused by the normal relaxation and contraction of the vocal muscles as they are activated by alternating nerve impulses. Gives and “energy” to the tone during the vibration process.

Vocal Cords: Two muscular folds that connect from the inside front to the inside back of your larynx. Their change in thickness and vibrating length, due to adjustment in tension, affects the pitch and intensity of your tone.  Also called “Vocal Folds.”

Vowel:  A specific resonance structure through which a tone is sustained. Produced primarily by altering the size and shape of the mouth cavity and changing the position of the tongue, which determines how the resonance cavities will reinforce certain frequencies of the initial cord tone. The result of each alteration is a recognizable sound – Ah Oh Eh Ee Oo.

Warm-up:  Anything that helps the singer prepare for a rehearsal or performance. Typically, a warm up consists of vocal exercises, such as running scales.


clarity trio summer