Begun by a composer—Gian Carlo Menotti—whose operas are performed across the globe, Spoleto Festival USA is well known for its opera programming, which consists of new productions created and built in Charleston—a rarity in the world of opera productions.

All three 2014 Spoleto Festival USA operas have debuted, but there are still opportunities to see these magnificent productions. You might want to take this opportunity to brush up on your opera lingo. Being comfortable with these terms is not necessary to enjoying or understanding an opera, but they might enhance a post-performance conversation or help you understand the role different people play in the productions.

Spoleto Festival USA opera schedule:

El Niño, May 23, 26, 30 at Memminger Auditorium
Kát’a Kabanová, May 24, 29, 31, June 2, 6 at College of Charleston Sottile Theatre
Facing Goya, May 25, 27, 31, June 4, 7 at Dock Street Theatre

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Aria: a lyrical piece for solo voice generally found in an opera, oratorio, or cantata. You won’t hear any plot development in an aria, but rather the emotion and feelings of a character in that moment.

aria(Spoleto Festival USA production of Kát’a Kabanová)

Blocking: directions for movement on the stage. Similar to choreography, but the end result is acting rather than dancing.

Cadenza: a flashy addition to an aria (when talking about opera) towards the end of the piece, sometimes improvised.

Composer/Director/Conductor: The composer wrote the music, working with the libretto (and sometimes with the librettist). The director leads the stage production, coming up with a concept and leading a team of people in its execution. The conductor leads the music, positioned in front of the orchestra members but also leading the on-stage singers.

Dress Rehearsal: a final rehearsal including all elements that will be a part of performances: costumes, lights, orchestra, etc. An attempt is made to go through without stopping, but it is sometimes necessary to stop for corrections.

dress-rehearsal(Spoleto Festival USA production of Facing Goya)

Fach: the German term for “voice category.” The broadest categories are soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass, but more descriptive divisions exist, including coloratura soprano, mezzo soprano, countertenor (a high male voice, rarely heard in modern times, but three of whom are cast in John Adams’s El Niño), etc. Fächer—the plural of fach—also takes into account the weight and color of a voice, not just its range regarding pitch.

Libretto: The script to the opera—that is, just the words or text.


(El Niño libretto)

Marking: for a vocalist, holding back in rehearsal in order to conserve the voice. Singers who are marking might sing an octave lower than what is written or disregard dynamic markings in passages that call for very loud or strenuous notes.

Pit: the area built under the stage to house an accompanying orchestra to a staged work. The conductor’s podium is in the pit, usually so his/her head pokes out just a bit in order to communicate with the singers on stage.

Score: The written music—this word refers to any music, not just that of opera (whereas “libretto” is an opera-specific word).

Sitzprobe: a seated run-through of an opera with orchestral accompaniment. This is the first time an opera cast gets together to sing with the orchestra, before they add blocking/staging.

Supernumerary: a person on the opera stage who does not sing.


(Spoleto Festival USA production of El Niño)

Supertitles: The opera’s text projected above the stage. In many cases, the sung text is not in the vernacular language, so the supertitles serve as translations.


(Spoleto Festival USA production of El Niño)

Wandelprobe: in this context, wandel roughly means “stroll,” so a wandelprobe is a run-through of an opera with orchestral accompaniment and blocking (blocking, strolling, you get the idea).

All performance imagery by Julia Lynn Photography.