Talk Like An Opera Geek: Musical Signposts

Know your rallentando from your accelerando? Opera singers must follow the composer's musical road signs. (iStock)

(Talk Like An Opera Geek attempts to decode the intriguing and intimidating lexicon of the opera house.)

From basics like speed limits to STOP, YIELD and KEEP RIGHT, traffic signs tell us how to navigate the road ahead. The same is true for opera singers. Their roadmap is the composer's score, and in it lie plenty of explicit directions (usually in Italian) on how to drive a voice or any other instrument through any given stretch of music.

This week, buckle up for a brief tour past a few of the dozens and dozens of musical road signs, with examples from some of opera's greatest chauffeurs.

Have a bit of operatic jargon that confuses or delights? Let us know.

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Think of staccato as a bumpy road, but with each bump clearly delineated. Staccato comes from the Italian "detached," meaning that notes should be articulated cleanly and completely separate from one another. In Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, the cavatina "Se vuol ballare" finds Figaro alone and feisty, talking trash about his boss. Figaro sings: "If, my dear Count, you feel like dancing, it is I who will call the tune." Notice how each note is shaped by bass-baritone Anton Scharinger.


The opposite of staccato is legato — a very smooth road indeed. The word refers to being "bound" in Italian. The singer's job here is to connect each note seamlessly, phrasing the music in a flowing, apparently effortless style. Breath control is key, in that it should sound as if the singer never takes a breath. The sinuous opening notes of the "Seguidilla" from Bizet's Carmen need to pour forth easily, as mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore displays in this example.


There are times when you need to step on the gas, as it were — that would be an accelerando. It comes from the Italian, "quickening." The direction here is to pick up the speed, often over several bars of music. In this example, baritone Ruggiero Raimondi, as the title character in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, sings about the "splendor of unlimited power" in one relaxed tempo, then makes an accelerando as he begins to fret about "secret underhanded plotting." The speed gradually quickens like a racing heartbeat.


Rallentando is the opposite of accelerando. It means applying the breaks, with the word in Italian referring to gradually slowing down. Back in the 18th century they often used the term lentando, and even today there are a number of directions that mean roughly the same thing, the closest being ritardando, and also ritenuto, which generally implies a more sudden slowdown. Near the end of Verdi's Otello, Desdemona (soprano Renata Tebaldi in this excerpt) sings her haunting "Willow Song." Note the slight crescendo (see below) on the word "amarlo" in the opening phrase, and then a smooth slowdown on the words "e per morir" (and to die) — a portent of what awaits her in the opera's final scene.

Crescendo and Decrescendo

Crescendo comes from the Italian crescere (to grow), and in this case we're talking about growing louder. Decrescendo (or diminuendo) is the opposite. There are various ways to turn up the volume: crescendo il forte means simply get louder, while crescendo sin'al forte requires an increase to the dynamic level marked "forte." The precision and sculpting of the crescendo is also an important factor. At the end of Puccini's Manon Lescaut, the heroine, played here by soprano Angela Gheorghiu, is suffering and near death (of course, it's Puccini!). After she sings "Io la deserta donna (I'm a deserted woman), the crescendo comes on the phrase "Ah, non voglio morir" (I do not want to die), and the volume increases with each note up to a B-flat. Afterward, a decrescendo on the second "morir."

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