What is an Aria?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 13 October 2019
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Aria comes from the Italian word meaning “air.” While aria now usually designates a piece for solo voice with lyrical lines, there are several factors that are open to alteration. An aria may, in exceptional cases, be for more than one voice. It may be accompanied or a cappella. It may be a standalone piece, or form part of a larger work, such as an opera, an oratorio, or a cantata. On occasion, it has been used to describe an instrumental work that bears similarity to a vocal aria. More rarely, it is used to simply refer to a melody or tune.

The meaning of the word aria evolved over time. In the seventeenth century, an aria could also be a recitative, but the two styles became distinct as time went on. Several distinct aria patterns emerged:

• da capo aria: ABA’ or AA’BAA’
• dal segno aria: AA’BA or AA’BA’
• compound ternary aria: AA’BA’’A’’’ or AA’BA’’


as well as many other variations.

Many of the most famous arias were written as part of operas but are enjoyed out of context. Giuseppe Verdi is known for his arias, including “La donna e mobile” from Rigoletto, and “Celeste Aida” from Aida. Some of Giacomo Puccini’s outstanding arias are considered to be “O mio babbino caro,” from Gianni Schicchi, and “Che gelida manina,” “Si, Mi Chiamano Mimi,” and “O Soave Fanciulla” from La Bohème. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is known for many arias, including his trouser’s role aria, “Voi che sapete” from Le nozze di Figaro — in English, The Marriage of Figaro. Georges Bizet’s most well-known arias include “Habanera" from Carmen. And Gioachino Rossini’s aria from Il barbière di Siviglia — in English, The Barber of Seville — “Una voce poco fà” is also quite popular.

Opera singers known for their performance of arias include tenors Luciano Pavaroti, José Carreras, Plácido Domingo, Jussi Björling; sopranos Kiri Te Kanawa, Montserrat Caballé, Renata Tebadi, Dame Joan Sutherland, Leontyne Price, Kathleen Battle, and Kirsten Flagstad; mezzo sopranos Frederica von Stade, Grace Bumbry, Ceclia Bartoli, Marilyn Horne, and Anne-Sofie von Otter; baritones Sherrill Milnes, Tito Gobbi, and Thomas Allen; and basses Jerome Hines, Ezio Pinza, and Bryn Terfel, who is actually a bass-baritone.


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