French Language Blog

Not Just Fat Ladies – Opera Terms in French Posted by on Jun 9, 2016 in Culture, Music, Vocabulary

One of my favorite things about moving to San Francisco was the opportunity to speak French. I’d invested so much time learning it, and where I formerly lived, it was hard to find native French speakers to talk to. When I moved here, I found a large francophone community and was even able to obtain a bilingual job. Something else that attracted me to the city was the fact that an opera house was right downtown. When I was in high school, I developed a passion for opera, but the only way to see it live was a 2+ hour drive. Here, I can just hop on the bus and be there in no time.

This isn’t the first time this blog has discussed opera. Hichem wrote about the history of l’opéra français and also about one of the most famous French arias in the entire repertoire: Habenera from Georges Bizet’s Carmen (which, coincidentally, opened San Francisco Opera’s summer season with a risqué production).

Have you been to the opera? There’s a lot of misconception about the art form. It’s not fat ladies in horned Viking helmets screaming made up words – it’s very similar to musical theatre in the sense that there is a staged story put to music, but the major differences are the style of singing, the language being sung in, and the fact that the voices are not amplified with a microphone. People who say they don’t like opera often cite the style of singing as their main reason for not liking it. The fact of the matter is, this type of singing takes around 7 years to master to be able to sing over a full orchestra without a microphone. It’s really quite fascinating that your vocal cords can be trained to allow that to happen! As for not understanding what’s being sung? No worries – every opera house today has a screen that projects a translation above the stage of what’s being sung.

So you’ve decided you want to see an opera – what’s next? First, you can purchase votre billet (your ticket) from la billetterie (the box office) or you can buy it en ligne (online). On the night of le spectacle (the show), you can show up in a nice suit or evening gown, but don’t feel bad if you show up in jeans and a shirt. Many opera houses, including the National Paris Opera, do not have un code vestimentaire (a dress code). Still, though, you’ll see more people dressed up than dressed down. Once you’ve found your seats, just sit back and wait for the show to begin. My suggestion is to always look up – opera houses are absolutely beautiful, and the art work and chandeliers on the ceilings shouldn’t be missed.

While you’re waiting, you might hear l’orchestre (the orchestra) en train d’accorder les instruments (tuning their instruments). Fun fact: the instruments tune on the note known as concert A. Once the lights go out, you’ll hear an announcement asking you to éteindre vos portables (turn off your cellphones). Not long after, le chef d’orchestre (the conductor) enters la fosse (the pit), and the audience begins to applaudir (to applaud). After a bow, he or she takes la baguette (the baton) and starts to conduct l’ouverture (overture) – the opening piece to an opera that includes many excerpts from the show). Finally, the singers rentrent sur la scène (come on stage) and the story starts.

In opera, your voice type dictates what you can sing. This is a guide and definitely not always the case, but generally:

Une soprano (soprano – the highest female voice) will sing the role of a heroine or the main love interest. She has une voix aiguë (a high voice).

Un mezzo-soprano (a mezzo-soprano – a woman who sings slightly lower than the soprano) will sing a villain, a seductress (like Carmen!), and sometimes even a guy! When a mezzo sings a guy (think Cherubino from The Marriage of Figaro), the role is called a “trouser role” because the woman is wearing pants and not a dress!

Un contralto (alto) is the lowest female voice, and she generally sings the part of a maid, grandmother, or witch!

Un ténor (tenor) is the highest standard* male voice. He’s the hero and lover – the Don Juan of the opera world.

Un baryton (a baritone), like a mezzo soprano, sits right between the high and low extreme of the voices. A baritone will generally sing the role of a villain.

Une basse (a bass) has une voix grave (a deep voice) and will generally sing the role of kings, old men, and sometimes the devil.

(* What do I mean by standard male voice? There is another male voice type called un contre-ténor (a countertenor) which is similar to a mezzo’s voice. The man sings entirely in falsetto, and it can really throw you off if you’re not expecting it).

These singers are generally joined on stage with un chœur (a chorus). As the singers belt out their songs (individual opera sings are called un air, or an aria in English), you’ll often hear people in the audience shout out bravo or brava (bravo for men and brava for women) if the singer did an excellent job.

Just like a musical, an opera can sometimes last 3+ hours, so it’s not uncommon to have un entreacte (an intermission). You can go out in the lobby and get some champagne. Mmm. Once you hear a bell chime or see the lights dim, you know it’s time to go back in because the show is about to start back up.

The second half of the show is where the story is completed. An opera will generally end one of two ways: a happy ending or a very tragic ending. They’re total opposites, but they both produce wonderful music. At the end, the curtain closes and the applause starts. The first to bow are the minor characters. As the principal singers start to come out, the applause will become louder. If you really enjoyed the show, you can give the performers une standing ovation.

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About the Author: Josh Dougherty

Just your typical francophile. If you have any topics you'd like me to discuss, feel free to let me know!


  1. Denise: