While the lighting and set pieces provide reference to the time and setting of an opera, cueing you in on whether it is day or night or if the characters are in a forest or a grand banquet hall, the orchestra creates the “sound world” of an opera. It lets you know the emotions of the opera’s characters, warns of impending drama, and provides an overarching aural commentary on the events unfolding onstage.
With the support of a good orchestra, and with the baton of a skilled conductor—often referred to as a “maestro,” the Italian expression for master or teacher—opera singers are provided with the symphonious springboard they need to both vocally and dramatically launch themselves into their roles.
The orchestra and the singers take their cues from the conductor, who with the gesticulation of his or her baton can wrench the most plangent of fortissimos or finesse the most gossamer of pianissimos from the orchestra. The conductor manages the tempo and the dynamics—how loud or soft—of the music and makes sure the players are perfectly balanced with the singers onstage.
Opera orchestras vary in size from small chamber opera orchestras like the 13-piece ensemble in Britten’s Turn of the Screw to leviathan orchestras like the 110-piece ensemble in Strauss’s Elektra. El Milagro del Recuerdo—the first mariachi opera to ever feature an orchestra—is written for an orchestra of 15 musicians and features eight violinists, two violists, one cellist, three trumpet players, and one harpist. The instrumental sound world is further fleshed out by three mariachi singers who also play instruments—a guitar, guitarrón, and a vihuela—onstage while interacting with other members of the cast.
Listen closely as the orchestra plays throughout this performance so you can better grasp its important scene-setting role. And don’t be afraid to sneak a peek into the orchestra pit before the start of the opera—the only members who bite are the violists.