Opera shorthand: how to speak like an insiderHumour
Industry jargon is one of those things that can set the professionals apart from the amateurs, and opera is full of shop-talk. Using the term, “choir” instead of “chorus” can signal someone’s (benevolent and innocent) ignorance about the group of singers often found on opera stages; conversely, using the terms “Sitz” or “Wandel” instead of simply “rehearsal” denotes a specific level of operatic in-the-know.
Aside from terminology like da capo and messa di voce - which aren’t necessarily thrown around in casual chats between opera lovers - a lot of that industry jargon centres around the titles of famous operas.
Drop that article
If you pay attention, you’ll notice that the first thing to go around opera-savvy folk are the articles in an opera’s title. In general, we don’t really say, “La bohème,” “Il trovatore”, or “La fille du régiment.” If someone uses that “il” or “der” or any other form of “the,” it has shades of meaning, suggesting that the person speaking doesn’t quite have these opera titles at the front of their brains.
So, if you want to fit in better with that intermission conversation, switch out “La Cenerentola” with just, “Cenerentola”. Like “Facebook,” versus, “The Facebook.”
Often, opera titles get whittled down to one indicative word in the full title. Instead of The Magic Flute, it’s just Flute, the same way it’s just Ballo, not Un ballo in maschera. Così rarely needs the fan tutte in general conversation, Fanciulla will do without the del West, and The Turn of the is redundant when we’re talking about Screw. It’s Dialogues, but no Carmélites, Elixir with an assumption of Love, and one can just say Rake, with the Progress implied. Die Enführung aus dem Serail becomes simply, Abduction, and Suor will do without the Angelica.
And of course, the confusion between two great operas based on Beaumarchais’ Figaro are simply known colloquially as Nozze and Barber.
Lots of operas are named after their main characters; for some reason, saying them both just feels clunky to opera folks. With a couple of exceptions like Lucia (di Lammermoor) and Tristan (und Isolde), most of the name titles get shortened to simply the surname in casual conversation. There’s Cesare (no Giulio), Schicchi (no Gianni) Grimes (no Peter), and Giovanni (no Don); often there’s not even a Madama in Butterfly. Shows like Les contes d’Hoffmann or The Rape of Lucretia become Hoffmann and Lucretia; and those Tudor operas by Donizetti are simply known as, Bolena, Stuarda, and Devereux.
Be cool with nicknames
It may seem counter-intuitive, but shortened titles and nicknames like these speak to someone’s opera know-how more than beautifully pronouncing the correct title in the opera’s original language. Holding fast to an opera’s title in its original language - proudly showing off the nasal [o] in Manon or your loveliest umlaut in Die Zauberflöte - can scream of trying too hard.
Organically, there can arise little pet names for some of our favourite operas. Some of them are simply lazy, like “Trav” instead of La traviata, or “D.G.” instead of Don Giovanni, and somewhere along the road, “Rosenkav” became an acceptable industry term for Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier.
(Insider’s tip: some of the nicknames are just bad puns - both in quality and subject matter - like “The Battered Broad” for Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, and even the classic, “Dildo and Anus” for Dido and Aeneas.)