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Talk Like An Opera Geek: Arias, Odds And Ends

Soprano Patricia Ciofi sings an aria from Verdi's <em>Rigoletto</em>.
Bertrand Langlois
AFP/Getty Images
Soprano Patricia Ciofi sings an aria from Verdi's Rigoletto.

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

It happens every day. You're at the opera and the know-it-all next to you starts analyzing arias, cataloging cabalettas and generally running on about recitatives. You gulp your champagne with equal measures of disgust and shame.

If you only knew what the oaf was pontificating about, you could call his bluff on buzzwords from da capo arias to ariosos. For such occasions, a little operatic ammunition — in the form of jargon-busting — is necessary.

This week, a few words on the basic song unit of opera — the aria.

Opera has sometimes been called the most complete art in that it presents an elaborate (if sometimes precarious) assemblage of orchestral music, singing, acting, dancing, stagecraft, etc. But however you slice it, opera is clearly about voices.

The aria has evolved over opera's 400-year history, but a couple of characteristics have stuck. It's sung by a single person, and it's usually separated from the music surrounding it — a song plopped in the midst of things.

However, as with many things that seem simple, the term "aria" carries with it a variety of subtleties, moving parts and confusing contradictions.

As the aria gained emotional complexity and popularity, a certain Baskin-Robbins effect emerged. Arias were categorized for almost every occasion: aria di sortia (exit aria), aria agitate, aria infuriata, aria sentimento, aria di imitazione (where voice and instruments imitate sounds of nature), aria di bravura, aria cantabile (gentle or sad), aria di lamento, aria di sono (sleep) and even the aria di sorbetto written for a minor character, giving audience members a chance to get up and grab a gelato.

The list below addresses a few of the aria's major types to clarify some lingo and keep operatic grandstanders at bay.

Have a few favorite arias? Leave your list in the comments section.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.