- Operatic songs for one singer acting as an expression of a character and its journey
- Often form the most memorable tunes from an opera
- Used widely in popular culture
- Sometimes partly repeated or used as a musical theme throughout an opera
- Popularly split into three parts as a ‘Da Capo’ aria
- Not easy to identify in ‘through-composed’ operas
DetailIf you’ve never experienced opera before, then the easiest way to think about an aria is that it is an operatic song written for one singer. It is derived from the Italian word for ‘air’, and is a musical expression of a character and its journey. Arias usually form the most memorable tunes and melodies of a given opera, and usually represent plot developments or character-defining reflections.
An opera sometimes does more than just feature an aria. It may also have a small part of that aria repeated by the opera singer as a reminder of that character’s intentions. @AdrianBennay summarises it as being “a song in an opera often repeating [the opera’s] main idea & often melodic”. For example, in The Marriage of Figaro the title character Figaro sings an aria about tricking the Count, and he repeats part of a verse from that aria once his plan begins to unfold later in the story.
Even if an aria is the very first musical piece to be sung, it could be expected that you would hear snippets of that aria’s tune being played by the orchestra throughout the opera. An aria can therefore be viewed as a means of developing a scheme or model for the music (The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera, 2nd Ed). In other words, the melody used in a particular aria could be applied to parts of the rest of the opera to set a mood and add a sense of continuity to the music.
Though there are several different types of arias, one of the most famous and widely used is that of the ‘Da Capo’ aria, which is split into three parts. The first part includes the main lyrics and melody, the second part includes a related or contrasting musical key to develop the first part, and the third part is a repeat of the first, with the opera singer adding ‘ornamentation’ (in other words, artistically developing and decorating that section).
Not all operas use typical arias. Some composers (the most notable being Wagner) have ‘through-composed’ operas, meaning that the music is not easily separable into aria and dialogue/recitative (Stay tuned for our future Opera Basics post: ‘What is a recitative?’).
For the most part, however, the aria has taken on a key expressive role in the majority of operas and remains one of the most loved operatic traditions, providing opera-goers with memorable tunes and melodies which can quickly recall the mood and emotion of a particular opera, its characters and plot.
Arias in Popular CultureChances are that, without knowing it, you would already recognise many arias. Both samples and full operatic arias are widely used in movies, pop music and advertising. Here are five examples of famous arias which have formed recognisable tunes in popular culture:
‘La donna e mobile’ from Rigoletto:
‘L’amour est un oiseau rebelle’ (The Habanera) from Carmen:
‘Der Hölle Rache’ (The Queen of the Night aria) from The Magic Flute: (Really famous bit at 38sec)
‘Largo al factotum' from The Barber of Seville:
‘Votre Toast' (The Toreador’s Song) from Carmen: (Really famous bit at 1min30sec)
By Anna McDougall, Digital Marketing Officer