Although most people think of singers when they think of opera, the accompaniment of musical instruments is vital to the drama, as it sets the mood, tone and pace of an operatic performance. An opera is typically performed in an opera house, accompanied by a full orchestra or a smaller ensemble of instruments.
Like the symphony orchestra, the opera orchestra is made up of four families of instruments. In fact, many modern orchestral instruments had their beginnings in opera orchestras. According to the San Francisco Opera website, one instrument in each of the instrument families corresponds to one of the four main categories of voice (bass, tenor, alto and soprano). The leader of the opera’s orchestra is the maestro or conductor, who leads all the musicians in the orchestra pit and the singers onstage, cuing the soloists when they are to begin their parts.
A string instrument is played by the musician drawing a bow across the strings. The string section of an orchestra typically consists of 16 first violins and 14 second violins. Ten cellos and 8 double basses play the lower string parts. The first chair violinist also serves as the concert master, who comes onstage last and presides over the orchestra’s tuning before a performance. The harp is also considered part of the strings.
The woodwind instruments are primarily made of wood except for the flute, which is metal. Except for the flute, woodwinds all have a wooden reed on the mouthpiece. The woodwind section contains flutes, clarinets, oboes and bassoons, and sometimes saxophones. If an orchestra has more than two of each woodwind instrument, additions might be a piccolo (small flute), English horn, bass clarinet and contrabassoon.
Brass instruments, louder than any other in the orchestra, are called so because they are all made of brass. Any brass instrument is sounded by the musician buzzing his lips against the mouthpiece. According to the Philharmonia Orchestra website, the combination of brass instruments in an orchestra varies, but commonly includes 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones and 1 tuba.
The percussion section serves to provide rhythm for the orchestra, and includes a wide variety of instruments, all of which make a sound when they are struck, shaken or scraped. Percussion instruments fall into two categories: tuned and untuned. Untuned percussion includes drums, cymbals, maracas and tambourine. Tuned percussion includes the marimba, xylophone, bells, gongs and timpani. The piano and harpsichord are also technically considered part of the percussion section.