The Orchestra

The orchestra is very important to the opera, mainly because it provides the singers with a cushion of sound to sing over, while at the same time being independent and equal in importance. The orchestra used for opera is a lot like a symphony orchestra, with four instrumental families and other various instruments. Each instrument family has instruments that sound in four different categories, much like voices. Those four main categories are soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.

The conductor, or maestro, has many responsibilities. He or she stands in the pit, in front of the orchestra, and ensures that the opera progresses as it is supposed to. The conductor is in charge of keeping the music in balance by making sure that the orchestra doesn't drown out the singers, and vice versa. The orchestra must also have a certain blend, with each instrument getting equal representation during the opera, and the conductor is in charge of that as well. The conductor also must make sure that the tempo, or speed of the music, does not rush or drag, and must cue the singers before they begin their piece. In some opera houses, video screens are placed around the stage and other places and show the conductor cueing the singers, so they will not have to look down at the pit so often.

String Instruments

The instruments in the string family are almost always played with a bow drawn across the strings, but sometimes a composer will mark music as pizzicato, which is Italian for "plucked", and indicates to the musician that the passage should be plucked with the fingers. The violin we know today has been around since the 1500s, but have been around much longer than that in simpler forms, known as fiddles. The four different types of string instruments are called the violin, viola, cello, and the double bass.

  • The violin is the soprano of the string family. There are two groups of violins, the first and second violins, which each play their own music. First violins play higher than second violins, and all violins play the melody for most of the time. The Concertmaster or Concertmistress is the first violinist.
  • The viola is a little larger than the violin, and it is the alto voice of the strings. When it plays, its sound quality is dark and somber, not at all like the violin.
  • The tenor or baritone voice of the strings is the cello. It is much larger than the viola or violin, so large that the player sits on a chair and plays the cello between his knees while the bottom peg rests on the floor. Its sound quality is beautiful and somber, like the viola.
  • The double bass represents the bass of the string family. It typically has some sort of rhythmic line, and is so much larger than the cello that the player must stand up in order to play it.

Woodwind Instruments

The woodwind family instruments are played by blowing air either across a hole or into a reed, making vibrations that make sound.

  • The soprano of the woodwinds is called the flute. There are three main flute sizes, the smallest being the piccolo, the medium size called the C flute, and the larger size called the alto flute. Flutes are usually silver-plated or made of silver, some are gold-plated or have gold-plated keys, and the earliest flutes were made of wood, which is why they are in the woodwind family though they are now made of metal.
  • The oboe is the alto of the woodwind family, and sometimes it can sound a little like a duck. Mostly, though, it carries the melody and has a sad sound. It is related to the English horn and bassoon, and all three instruments are known as double reeds. They are called double reeds because instead of having a reed strapped onto a mouthpiece like a clarinet or saxophone, it has two reeds tied together and no mouthpiece.
  • The tenor voice of the woodwinds speaks through the clarinet, a single reed instrument, which means it has a reed strapped to a mouthpiece. The clarinet often accompanies the prima donna, and has a wide range and a woody sound.
  • The bassoon's name means big bass, so it's easy to guess what voice this instrument sounds. It is related to the oboe, contrabassoon, and English horn.

Brass Instruments

The brass family instruments are played much like the woodwind family, except they are made out of metal, usually brass or silver or silver-plated, and their mouthpieces are made of metal only, with no reeds.

  • The trumpet is the soprano voice of the brass family. It evolved from the cornet and other types of ancient horns, but the earlier horns did not have valves like the modern trumpet does to change notes. The players would have to use their airstream and lips to change the sound of the notes.
  • French horns add an alto voice to the brass family. The player must keep his or her hand inside the bell of the instrument and bring the mouthpiece up to his or her lips. The French horn has so many bends of piping that if someone was to unravel the whole thing, it would measure over eleven feet in length!
  • Tenor voices sound through the trombone section of the brass family. There are many types of trombone, slide trombone, which is most common, valve trombone, tenor trombone, and bass trombone. The typical trombone used is the tenor slide trombone. It has a nine-foot-long slide to change its notes. Its sound, which is very consuming and foreboding, is associated with Hell.
  • The tuba is the bass voice of the brass family. It usually plays the rhythm part along with the string family's double bass.

Percussion Instruments

The percussion family has the most amount of instruments in its family, with everything from cymbals, tambourines, and xylophones to gongs, triangles, and bells. Every percussion instrument has its own unique sound, and no two instruments sound alike. Believe it or not, percussion instruments are actually melodic instruments, even though most of them are not tuned to a specific note.

  • The snare drum is the smallest of the concert percussion. Underneath the drum is a belt of metal snares that, when the drum is struck, rattle against the bottom of the drum to produce the distinctive sound of the snare.
  • The tenor drums, or tom-toms, are a set of two to four drums and are used in conjunction with the snare drum to give the drumline a more melodic part.
  • The timpani, or kettle drums, are very low-sounding drums, two to four or more in number. They look like big copper bowls, and have drum heads stretched across them for the percussionist to strike to make the sound. Timpani have pedals beneath them that stretch or slacken the drum head to make the sound lower or higher. They are used either to build suspense or announce triumphant moments.
  • The bass drum can be the loudest and lowest instrument, but it can also be the quietest instrument to build suspense. Sometimes it is used to give the effect of a cannon.

Other Instruments

There are other instruments in the orchestra that are not included in any other group, because they are not always used:

  • The harp is often associated with heaven or dreams, and the player plucks the strings with his or her fingers.
  • The saxophone is not a usual orchestra instrument. It is like a clarinet, because it has a reed strapped to a mouthpiece, and like a brass instrument, because it is made of metal.

Used with permission from the San Francisco Opera Guild