After winning the International Mozart Competition of the Vienna State Opera in 1991, she received invitations for concert and recital appearances, most notably an all-Mozart recital on the stage of La Scala. She also made a recital recording with EMI Classics of Mozart arias that was an extraordinary success.
Quickly engaged by major opera houses around the world, she sang Blondchen in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Madame Herz in Der Schauspieldirektor, the title role in Zaïde, Adele in Die Fledermaus, and Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos.
In 1992, Dessay debuted as Olympia in Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann, and in 1993, she sang at the opening of the New Lyon Opéra. In the same year she joined the roster of the Vienna Staatsoper with a triumphant performance as Blondchen. She sang there in an acclaimed production of Tales of Hoffmann with Plácido Domingo, and as Sophie in Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier opposite Anne Sophie von Otter.
Another Strauss opera was the vehicle for her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1994, where she sang Fiakermilli in Arabella. Also that year, she added to her credits the Queen of the Night (Mozart's Magic Flute) in the Aix-en-Provence Festival, and the title role of Delibes' Lakmé at the Opéra-Comique in Paris.
Dessay enlarged the scope of her repertory in the mid- to late '90s, singing Strauss' rarely heard Die Schweigsame Frau (The Silent Woman) on her home stage in Vienna, Stravinsky's Nightingale at the Châtelet under Boulez, and Ophelia in Thomas' Hamlet at the Geneva Opera. Since then she has added Offenbach's Orphée aux Enfers, La Sonnambula, Lucia di Lammermoor, Massenet's Manon, and Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro to her repertory. She has made a specialty of Bellini and Donizetti heroines, excelling in roles both comic (La Fille du Regiment) and tragic (Lucia). Her performances in those roles were featured in Live from the Met Simulcasts in 2008 and 2011, respectively.
Her recital album, Vocalises, won a Diapason d'Or award and a Classique d'Or RTL in 1998. Despite the need for vocal cord surgery, which put her career on hold from 2002 until 2005, EMI's recording of Lakmé with Michel Plasson conducting and Dessay in the title role won the award for French Recording of the Year at the Victoires de la Musique Classique. Other releases include Offenbach's Orphée and a Mozart aria disc on Virgin. She has recorded both the original French and Italian versions of Lucia di Lammermoor. Her list of awards also includes the Opera News Award and the Laurence Olivier Award (both 2008), and her designation as a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor (2011).
In 2013, Dessay retired from live operatic performance (her final role was as Massenet's Manon in Toulouse, France). But she has continued to record, taking on several projects beyond the scope of opera (something she had previously avoided). Her 2013 release, Entre elle et lui, was a duo project with veteran French film composer and jazz pianist Michel Legrand. In 2017, Dessay released Pictures of America, her first English-language album, featuring a program of selections from the Great American Songbook.
Opera Glossary A - Z
A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z
A capella - Unaccompanied vocal music
Act - The division of sections of the story similar to Acts in a play
Afficionado - "affectionate"; a Spanish term for a passionately knowledgeable individual.
Apron - The forward part of the stage between the curtain and the orchestra pit.
Aria - A song for solo voice with instrumental accompaniment. Arias appear in cantatas, oratorios, and operas beginning in the 17thc. They emphasize musical and emotional expression more than text. Often reflective rather than descriptive of action, arias provide lyric interludes that temporarily halt the action of the plot.
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Baritone - A male voice with a range between that of a Bass and Tenor. Baritone roles can be expressive and lyrical, such as Figaro in Rossini's The Barber of Seville or heroic, as in the role of Count di Luna in Verdi's Il Trovatore.
Baroque - The period in music history that spans from ca. 1600 to 1750. During the Baroque period, opera was born through the efforts of the Florentine Camerata and operas of Monteverdi (Orfeo). Late Baroque operas would include those of G. F. Handel (Rinaldo).
Bass - The lowest male voice. There are several types of bass voices, outlined below. A typical bass role is that of Boris in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov.
Basso Buffo - A bass voice that specializes in comic roles often seen in operas of Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti. The title role in Donizetti's Don Pasquale is a typical example.
Basso Cantante - A bass voice that demonstrates a melodic, lyrical quality, such as the role of King Philip in Verdi's Don Carlo.
Basso Profundo - The lowest and often serious bass voice. Sarastro in Mozart's The Magic Flute or Osmin in Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio are typical examples.
Bel Canto - "Beautiful song." The art of Italian singing that emphasizes beautiful tone, masterful vocal technique, elegant phrasing. Bel canto flourished in the early 19th c. in the works of Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini.
Blocking - The moving of people around the stage by the stage director to effect the patterns to be followed in the performance of the opera.
Brava! - A term used during applause to commend the performance of female performers on stage. Bravo for male performers, Bravi for the entire ensemble or male and female performers together.
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Cabaletta - A brisk aria in Italian opera, usually on the heels of a more lyrical, thoughtful aria. The cabaletta usually expresses a contrasting state of mind frequently inspiring the character to a course of impassioned action. The term cabaletta comes from 'cavallo' (horse): the accompaniment of the cabaletta often resembles a horse's galloping gait.
Cadenza - A musical flourish, often spontaneously sung by the performer at the close of an aria or section of an aria. Until the mid 1800s, cadenzas were expected to be improvised by the singer, and were rarely notated by the composer. An example of a cadenza would be the long passage for flute and soprano during the mad scene sung by the title role in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.
Camerata - A group of Florentine writers and one musician who regularly met in the late 1600s to discuss art and experiment with art form. The 'Camerata Fiorentina' created opera by combining music, Greek drama and stage spectacle. Member Jacopo Peri, musician at the Medici court, was the composer of Dafne (late 1590s), considered to be the first opera.
Cantabile - "singable"; a term that asks the performer to sing or play in a gentle singing manner.
Cantata - A musical form usually encompassing chorus and soloists or a solo voice and instrument based on a narrative text. The most well-known cantatas are by J. S. Bach who set scriptural texts.
Canzone - "song"; a short lyrical song, usually reflecting the singer's state of mind. In Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, Cherubino sings "Voi che sapete" which is called a 'canzone.'
Canzonetta - "little song"; a shorter, more conversational aria than the 'canzone.' "Sull'aria", a duet sung by the Countess and Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro, is called a 'canzonetta.'
Cavatina - Popular in 18th c. Italian opera, this is a short, simple solo song, often instrumental.
Chorus - the vocal ensemble of men and women who represent townspeople, relatives, guards, who contribute and comment on the action of the plot.
Classical - The period in music history that falls after the Baroque and before the Romantic: ca. 1750 - 1830. Orchestral form and sonority was standardized (pairs of instruments, e.g.); form and structure provided the foundation for vocal compositions: strophic Lieder, e.g.
Coda - "tail"; The last musical section of a composition where a final musical idea is presented by the composer.
Coloratura - A type of soprano, usually, but also a term that describes a voice capable of agility: fast and high singing, trills and embellishments. Coloratura sopranos of note: Lily Pons, Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills, Natalie Dessay. "The Bell Song" from Lakmé is an example of a coloratura aria.
Composer - the individual who writes the music and sets the text to music including the orchestrations, the vocal parts, and the chorus parts.
Comprimario - "next to the first"; A singer who plays a secondary role such as a confidante, servant, messenger. Emilia, Desdemona's maid in Verdi's Othello, is an example of a comprimario role
Continuo - A small group of instruments that accompanies recitatives in baroque music that includes cello, harpsichord/organ. Operas of Handel, Monteverdi, and Mozart use continuo players.
Contralto - "against high" (contra alto); The lowest female voice. Often portraying comic, other-worldy, or matronly roles, such as Cornelia in Handel's Giulio Cesare, Mistress Quickly in Verdi's Falstaff, La Cieca in Ponchielli's La Gioconda.
Countertenor - A high male voice that often sings within the contralto and mezzo soprano range. Popular in the baroque period, the countertenor portrayed young, virile men or innocent, blushing adolescents. Until the 1830s, countertenors were often 'castratos' -- gifted male musicians who were castrated before puberty to maintain and develop their higher range.
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Deus ex Machina - "god out of a machine"; A stage or literary device that represents a last minute salvation of a dicey situation by a god/goddess who's been watching the plot unfold from afar. In the baroque period, elaborate scenery was devised whereby the deity would descend from above the stage in a cloud or carriage. Amor in Gluck's Orfeo ed Eurydice is just such a 'deus ex machina.'
Diva - 'goddess'; A female opera star of rank or pretension.
Dramma giocoso - 'playful drama'; an opera that combines serious elements, often portrayed by the aristocracy, with comic relief, often portrayed by peasant characters who comment on the aristocracy. Mozart's Don Giovanni is called a 'dramma giocoso' but by the librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, not by Mozart. The aristocratic characters would include Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, Ottavio, Don Giovanni while the peasant characters would include Zerlina, Masetto, Leporello.
Duet - A musical composition for two performers.
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Embellishment - Decorations or extra notes added to an existing melodic line. In the Baroque and the bel canto eras, embellishing a vocal line whenever it was repeated was standard practice.
Encore - 'Again'; A term the audience calls out to the performers when they wish the performers to repeat what has just been sung.
Entr'acte - "between the act" A musical composition played between the acts or between scenes; also a term used to mean Intermission.
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Falsetto - A heady, light voice common to the male voice when used to imitate a female voice.
Finale - The end of the scene, act, opera where often the entire ensemble gathers for the last musical scene.
Fioritura - "flowery"; A term describing the actual embellished vocal line within an aria. All coloratura voices must be able to sing 'fioritura.'
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Grand Opera - Opera that is completely sung from beginning to end, with no spoken dialogue. This style of opera treats serious, dramatic subjects, and in 19th c. French opera, was usually epic in scale, providing spectacle with a full-scale ballet inserted in the middle of the opera.
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Heldentenor - A tenor voice with a brilliant top register and a robust baritone-like middle and low voice, capable of great stamina. Wagner wrote for the 'Heldentenor' voice: Tristan from Tristan und Isolde is a prime example.
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Intermezzo - A short musical composition usually offered between the acts of a longer operatic work. These were light-hearted in nature, with very small casts: La serva padrona by Pergolesi is an example. The term can also refer to an instrumental interlude between acts of operas, such as the Intermezzo in Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and the Intermezzo in Massenet's Thaïs.
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Legato - A smooth, connected style of singing and playing.
Leitmotiv - "light motive"; A short thematic musical passage representing a character or situation in a musical drama. Wagner used this tool often in his operas: the fire motive in Die Walküre, and the glance motive in Tristan und Isolde, for example.
Libretto - "little book"; The text of an opera.
Lied - "song"; A German song; [leet], plural Lieder [leader]. In Korngold's Die Tote Stadt, the aria sung by the baritone is called "Pierrot's Lied."
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Maestro - "master"; An Italian term for the conductor of the orchestra.
Marking - A practice used by singers to conserve their voices in rehearsals. Either singing an octave up or down in order not to sing extremely high or low, or in a light quality to avoid singing strenuously for hours at a time can preserve a singer's voice preventing strain.
Mezza voce - "medium voice"; Singing 'mezza voce' means intentionally singing with less volume, usually to heighten the emotion. Also a term to mean singing softly.
Mezzo soprano - "medium soprano"; A female voice between soprano and contralto; mezzo sopranos can be lyrical such as Dorabella in Mozart's Così fan tutte, or rich and dramatic such as the title role in Bizet's Carmen.
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Opera buffa - "funny opera"; a style of comic opera popular in the Baroque period and in Italy in the 19th c. Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore is an example.
Operetta - "Little opera"; Light, effervescent, theatrical, these compositions are based on simple plots that contain spoken dialogue, dancing, practical jokes, mistaken identities. Popular in late 19th c. Vienna and France, and in the USA in the early 20th c., Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus, Offenbach's La Périchole and Noel Coward's Bitter Sweet are all operettas.
Oratorio - A musical composition for chorus, orchestra and soloists whose text is usually religious, serious or philosophical. Generally not staged, oratorio was Handel's domain in England when opera fell out of favor. Examples of oratorios are Haydn's The Creation and Handel's Messiah.
Orchestra - The group of musicians that accompany a staged presentation. In the Baroque period, an orchestra consisted of strings and pairs of woodwinds, and continuo; from 1760 forward, orchestras grew in size. Romantic period orchestras may include up to 100 players as in the operas of Berlioz, Puccini, Verdi, Puccini, Wagner and Richard Strauss.
Orchestra Pit - The area below the stage, usually, where the orchestra is situated. The conductor is on a podium in the orchestra pit, visible to the singers on stage, the orchestra in the pit and occasionally to the audience.
Ornamentation - The decorative notes, trills, appogiaturas, cadenzas that enhance a melodic line, often when it is repeated.
Overture - The instrumental introduction to a musical drama or oratorio; often the overture presents themes or 'leitmotifs' which will be heard later as the work unfolds. The overture sets the tone for what's to come.
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Pants Role - A male role portrayed by a female singer. Cherubino in Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro is a young boy portrayed by a mezzo soprano.
Parlando - "speaking"; The term directs the singer to imitate speech in singing. An example of this syle is the 'patter songs' of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, such as the Lord High Chancellor's aria: "When you're lying awake" from Iolanthe.
Pitch - The location of a sound on a scale; intonation.
Portamento - "carrying"; The smooth movement in singing or playing a stringed instrument from one note to the next; often interchanged with "glissando" (gliding) which means sliding from one pitch to the next.
Prelude - An instrumental introduction to an act within a musical drama.
Prima Donna - "first lady"; The female lead in an opera cast. In Verdi's time, roles were differentiated in order of dramatic and vocal importance: prima, seconda, terza, e.g. Recently, however, the term has come to describe the personality of the singer.
Prompter - A member of the musical staff who sits in a small box under the apron of the stage and cues the chorus and singers just before their entrances. Prompters are particularly welcome in European opera houses, where jet-lagged singers, who have not had the benefit of long rehearsal periods, rely on their help.
Props - Articles used by the performers to enhance the plot, i.e., handkerchiefs (Othello), bottles of wine (L'elisir d'amore), swords (La Forza del Destino), letters (Eugene Onegin).
Proscenium - The part of the stage between the curtain and the orchestra pit.
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Raked stage - A stage that is sloped upward toward the rear of the stage allowing audience patrons seated at the back of the theater to see performers at the rear of the stage.
Range - The zone in which a voice sings, i.e., soprano range, mezzo soprano range, tenor range, etc.
Recitativo - "recitative"; A musical form that imitates rapid speech, accompanied either by continuo (recitativo secco (dry)) or by the full orchestra (recitativo accompagnato (accompanied)). Recitatives advance the plot and are usually linked to arias, duets, choruses.
Ritornello - "little return"; An instrumental prelude or interlude that separates the verses.
Romantic - the period of music between ca. 1830 and 1920 during which time composers such as Beethoven, Verdi, and Wagner found inspiration in painting and nature.
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Set - A construction on stage built to suggest place and time in which the singers enact the story of the opera plot.
Singspiel - "sung play"; A form of German musical drama that used spoken dialogue in addition to musical numbers. Examples of "singspiel" are Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio, Von Weber's Der Freischütz, and Beethoven's Fidelio.
Soprano - The highest range of the female voice; lyric soprano is warm, graceful; dramatic soprano is fuller and heaver, e.g. A lyric soprano role would be Mimí in Puccini's La Bohème, a dramatic soprano would be Abigaille in Verdi's Nabucco.
Sotto voce - "under voice"; A musical term that asks the performer to sing or play with less intensity, sometimes a declamatory whisper.
Soubrette - A lightweight soprano voice or soprano role found in comic operas and operettas. The soubrette usually is flirtatious, savvy and often must dance and deliver dialogue. Adele in Die Fledermaus is a typical soubrette role.
Spinto - "pushed"; a voice is 'pushed' toward another, i.e., a lyrico spinto is a lyric soprano that can lean toward a heavier, dramatic quality.
Staccato - "clipped"; short, clipped, rapid articulation of pitches, the opposite of legato.
Stage right/left - The sides of the stage from the performer's point of view, i.e., when a singer moves down right, s/he moves right toward the edge of the stage - which is the audience's left.
Supernumerary - A performer who appears in a non-singing role, "supers" may have a solo entrance to deliver a letter, or take part in a processional. "Spear carrier."
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Tempo - The rate of speed of a musical composition or section, i.e., andante (going along), largo (quite slow), prestissimo (very fast).
Tenor - The highest natural male voice.
Tessitura - The average range of a particular role, i.e., the tessitura of the Queen of the Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute lies quite high, whereas the tessitura of Santuzza in Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana lies low both are soprano roles, but Santuzza could be sung by a mezzo soprano.
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Upstage/Downstage - Positions on stage; upstage is toward the rear of the stage and farthest from the audience while downstage is toward the lip of the stage, closest to the audience. On a raked stage, performers at the rear of the stage were actually higher in position (up) while performers at the front of the stage were lower in position (down).
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Verismo - "truth"; A theatrical style in the late 1800s that depicted ordinary, everyday characters in melodramatic situations. Puccini's Il Trittico, a tryptch, includes the 'verismo' melodramas Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica.
Vibrato The slightly fluctuating quality in a singer's voice while sustaining a pitch. When too slow, it is negatively referred to as a wobble. When too fast, it is negatively referred to as a bleat.
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Zarzuela - A Spanish popular musical theatrical presentation blending dialogue and music in skits and dramas ranging from one to three acts that satirize aspects of daily life. Early zarzuelas were performed in the Palacio de la Zarzuela in Madrid - so named because it was surrounded by a field of brambles ('zarza' is Spanish for bramble).
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