Despite how some may describe it, Opera is a Classical art form. It combines theater with music but on a classical level as opposed to modern musicals, which tend to be more Pop music based.
There are, however, some gray areas where you could argue the operatic production and the musical overlap. Porgy and Bess is a good example, and West Side Story is more of a musical, even though it contains all the operatic elements.
Those examples are a tiny fraction of operatic works; therefore, we know the most famous opera singers of all time will be numerous. But, before we get into them, a little history first.
Opera originated in Italy towards the end of the 16th Century. Florence, at the time, was the center of the universe for all things artistic, so it is no surprise that the origins can be traced there.
It wasn’t an individual but rather a group of people that created the idea. Writers, artists, musicians, and even statesmen were involved. They thought they could take Greek drama and the ideas of its tragedies and recreate all the drama through stories and music. They were known at the time as the “Florentine Camerata.”
The First Opera
It is almost certain that the very first opera was written by Jacopo Peri. It was a work called Dafne that he wrote in 1597.
The first known performance of Dafne was in Florence in 1598. The idea of this new musical entertainment format spread very quickly in Europe. It wasn’t long before the great composers of the time were creating their works.
From France, Jean-Baptiste Lully, and in Germany, Heinrich Schütz. In England, Henry Purcell, and of course, in Italy, Claudio Monteverdi.
Then And Back Again
From that time, the opera grew in popularity and importance. It still holds an elevated position in musical terms today, albeit in a different way than a couple of hundred years ago. Most of the great composers included opera in their repertoire.
Such illustrious names as Monteverdi, who we have already mentioned, Puccini, Mozart, Rossini, Richard Strauss, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and Verdi. Beethoven wrote only one opera, Fidelio.
More Than Just The Composition
You can have great music, and there was plenty of that, but you need something else. Opera is a drama, and usually a heavy tragedy. So, the people that sing and perform in it are a cut above the norm. It takes more than a great piece of music.
In today’s world of Pop and other modern styles, there are some awful singers. Furthermore, to call them singers at all is an insult to the word. But, they are popular and sell because they have latched on to something that some people like.
They also employ media and marketing people to make sure they sell and convince the public they are special. Of course, they are mainly very un-special. Apart from the size of their egos, that is. I think we all know some names without me mentioning them here.
However, Those That Sing Opera
…are special. This is a classical form of art, a combination of theater and music. You might think it is a genre from an age gone by, but you would be wrong. Just about every major city in the world has Opera Houses. And, usually, that is all they are for opera.
Over the last 100 to 150 years, we have seen some great opera singers. Usually, tenors for the men, and sopranos for the women. Although, there have been some bases and baritones for male parts and some mezzo-sopranos for the women.
The techniques required for singing opera at the highest level are mind-boggling, as is the dedication to achieving them. So, let’s take a look at some of the most famous opera singers of all time. People who have brought audiences all over the world to their feet with their performances.
Top 17 Most Famous Opera Singers Of All Time
Maria Callas was often known as the “bad girl” of opera. She was known as much for her love affairs and antics away from the stage as she was for her voice. But what a voice it was.
She was born in New York to Greek parents in 1923. She was raised by her mother, who made no secret of the fact she wanted a son. They took her back to Greece for her education, and it was there she gained her musical and singing training from age 13.
She went to Italy to further her career. But there, she had to deal with not only her own extreme nearsightedness but also the poverty of post-world war Europe.
Her character was very visible in the roles she played and her dramatic interpretations of those roles. Add to that acting ability a stunning voice, and you were always treated to a “Callas Performance.” Her performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio at the age of just 21 is still revered today.
Her voice had great range allowing her to work in all the major pieces of the time. From the early serious classical operas to the post-1850 style of evenness of tone and singing that created the beauty of the “bel canto” composers like Rossini. You can hear it from her recordings of these arias.
But her abilities didn’t end there…
She excelled in the works of Puccini and Verdi. And, in the musical dramas of Wagner. She was undoubtedly one of the most respected opera singers of the 20th century.
Real accolades, not the plastic ones of today, were poured upon her. Leonard Bernstein called her “The Bible of Opera.” Within operatic circles, she was known as “The Divine One.”
Her career ended prematurely…
Possibly due to a sudden weight loss which affected her voice. And the results of a rather chaotic private life with affairs with people like Aristotle Onassis didn’t help. These situations often overcome her genius and overshadow Callas, the artist.
She died tragically at a young age in 1977. But, thirty years after her death, if you want a real diva, forget the imposters of today, Maria Callas is the definition of the word.
Now to a different type of character but still a well-known opera singer with a great voice. Joan Sutherland was born to Scottish parents in Sydney, Australia, in 1926.
Her mother was a trained mezzo-soprano but had never considered a career in music. Joan joined in when her mother continued to practice her singing exercises. She also never considered a career in music until she was 18, when she began to study voice.
Her singing studies must have been successful, building on her natural ability. In 1947, after just three years of study, she made her operatic debut as Dido in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.
She began to make her presence felt in the operatic world, but she knew she would have to go to Europe. To continue her studies, she went to the Royal College of Music in London and its Opera School.
From her work there…
She was given a utility soprano role by the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London. She made her debut in 1952, playing the First Lady in Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
Following that, she appeared in Norma, an opera by Bellini that featured Maria Callas in the lead role of Norma. She also appeared in the same opera in her homeland of Australia.
Her ever-increasing fame gave her the role of The Countess in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, as well as other important parts such as Desdemona in Verdi‘s Otello and Gilda in another Verdi opera, Rigoletto. One of her most notable performances was in Lucia Di Lammermoor.
She gave over 200 performances all around the world…
Including La Scala in Milan. Her final performance came in Die Fledermaus on New Years’ Eve 1990. Joan was one of the best operatic singers of the 20th century, unique in many ways.
She had great vocal agility using trills which is what she was best known for. She had a long and impressive career and sang with many of the people on this list in a wide range of operas.
Joan was made a CBE in 1961 and a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 1978.
Even though Beniamino Gigli was considered one of the finest opera singers of his time, he is a name that is not often mentioned. Possibly because he did not record much material, and there is little left of his performances.
He was born in Recanati, Italy, in 1890. His father, who was a shoemaker, loved opera and was delighted as his son’s voice began to develop. But, it was not considered a secure occupation for the future. Nevertheless, young Beniamino persevered with his dream.
After his debut in 1915…
He was in great demand and, for the next few years, performed at well-known opera houses. La Scala, Naples, Palermo, and Rome were just a few. He also sang with the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
It was there that he got bad press for refusing to take a pay cut with the “low profitability” of the opera house given as the reason. The general manager managed to award himself a healthy annual increase, though.
Beniamino made a counteroffer to sing half a dozen concerts for free if they kept his salary the same. This was beneficial to the Met, but his offer was hidden from the press. He walked out and went home to Italy. Who could blame him?
He later turned his hand to films…
Appearing in more than twenty after the second world war. And, speaking of that time, it was rumored that he was a favorite singer of Benito Mussolini.
Whether that is true or not is not known. But, Gigli did record the “Giovinezza” in 1937. That became an anthem, but only for Fascist Italy.
Jussi Bjorling had an established place as a popular opera singer just before the Second World War. Born in Siaro, Sweden, in 1911 to a musical family, his father sang, as did both of his brothers, who also became professionals.
As a young man, he worked as a lamplighter, but he gained admittance to the Opera School at the Swedish Academy of Music in 1928. His first appearance came in Mozart’s Don Giovanni in 1930, and he went on to perform many operas in Sweden. His first role outside of his home country came in Copenhagen.
Jussi made his debut at The Royal Opera House in London in 1939…
But, the commencement of the Second World war curtailed his activities there. He went to America and worked at the Opera houses in San Francisco, Chicago, and the Metropolitan. He spent his time commuting between Europe and America and appeared at La Scala in 1946 and 1951. The Very Best of Jussi Björling will give you a taste of his prowess.
Most of his work was either in Sweden or America, and his involvement in other countries was reduced to a minimum for convenience.
Another renowned opera singer, he was born in Naples, Italy, in 1873. And, in many ways, he became the first international opera star. He had one of the greatest tenor voices, but he was the first opera singer to make recordings.
The phonograph had only recently been invented in the early 1900s, and he took full use of the opportunity. But, of course, it was his live performances where he really made his name.
He sang in over 70 operas in all the great opera houses of the world. Likewise, he was well-known for his performances in Rigoletto.
His life away from the stage was not dull…
He was in San Francisco on the night of the earthquake in 1906. And he was the subject of threats from “Black Hand” extortionists who took money from him.
A man with a big reputation which was justified, who, in some ways, brought a new audience to opera via his recordings.
As always, space is at a premium when you have so many talented people to include. But the list would not be complete without these names. So, let’s make some brief mentions on this list of the most famous opera singers of all time.
Here is a name I remember from my youth. My mother bought his record Because Your Mine and played it to death.
Alfredo Arnold Cocozza, to give him his real name, started professional singing at 16. He didn’t sing in as many operas as maybe he could have done. He tended to be a little more commercially orientated and sold millions of records.
However, he was chosen to play Caruso in the film about the great man’s life. A great tenor voice, his lack of self-control with food and alcohol contributed to his early death at just 38.
Leading the way for African-American women in opera was this lady. She was the first to see real success internationally. She sang at La Scala, the greatest opera house in the world, and was noted for her performances in Porgy and Bess and Aida.
But, more than her excellent singing, she was also a great actress. That set her apart in some of the major roles she undertook.
Kiri Te Kanawa
Down to New Zealand now. Kiri Te Kanawa was born in New Zealand but began her opera career in London in 1968 in The Magic Flute. Within a few years, she had brilliantly fulfilled several major roles, as heard in The Very Best of Kiri Te Kanawa.
One of her most famous roles was as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro. She was asked to sing at the wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer.
I think the only true bass-baritone on our list. Bryn Terfel was born in Caernarfon in Wales and, in 1990, joined the Welsh National Opera.
He has performed all over the world and is noted for his performances in The Magic Flute as The Speaker, and The Marriage of Figaro. Being a bass baritone, he also sang the lead role in Don Giovanni.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, she made a name for herself in many operas. After 15 years, she finally made her debut at the Metropolitan. She was another that sang more than just operas.
Jessye is well-known to have sung “La Marseillaise” at the 200th anniversary of the French revolution. She was involved in the opening of the Atlanta Olympics. She also created the Jessye Norman School of arts for students from low-income families.
A powerful and legendary singer, she was one of the first Spanish opera singers to find acceptance in German opera.
With a stunning soprano voice, she is more likely to be remembered for her duet with Freddie Mercury for the official song for the 1992 Olympic Games.
Cecilia Bartoli is a popular and respected opera singer born in Rome. She performed a minor role in her first opera at the age of 9. Her professional debut came some years later, when she was 21 in 1987.
She has performed in various works by Mozart, and her interpretations of Rossini operas received critical acclaim. She is considered a coloratura mezzo-soprano. The term means that she has a warm depth but a powerful and agile higher register.
She is known for being able to sing high-register pieces that require a fast pace of delivery across the notation. That takes a special level of skill. She is currently responsible for the Salzburg Whitsun Festival, where she is the artistic director.
If you wanted to become one of the foremost singers of opera by Wagner, is there something that might help? There wouldn’t be a much better place to be born than Dresden, Germany. His bass voice is, at times, stunning, and it has been called luxurious, supple, and expressive.
Rene is an artist who is known to have a charisma that thrills his audiences. He debuted at the Metropolitan in 1995 and has performed in at least one season every year for 16 years. He is particularly known for his performances in Carmen and Don Giovanni.
At times a controversial figure, he was one of the finest bass operatic singers of his or any other generation. And so, on to the last of the most famous opera singers of all time.
Here is a name that many might be unfamiliar with. I have included him not only because of his exceptional voice, but because he is a man who had no faith in his abilities but who became great. You could call it an inclusion to encourage others who may feel as he did.
Potts worked as a shop manager at Carphone Warehouse, selling mobile phones in Bristol. He was persuaded to enter Britain’s Got Talent in 2007. He won it with his rendition of “Nessun Dorma,” the aria from Turandot by Puccini.
The judges sat there in awe…
…including “everyone’s favorite.” The whole audience stood to applaud. Needless to say, his career took off, and he sang with many of the operatic stars of the day. He released his first album, One Chance.
He has since performed at many of the most renowned opera houses in the world. The highlight was a tour that included 97 concerts in 85 cities across 23 countries.
One of the famous Three Tenors, Placido Domingo, is renowned as both conductor and singer. Born in 1941 in Madrid, Spain, he has recorded over one hundred operas in various languages singing in Italian, French, German, Spanish, and English.
He was surrounded by music from a young age, as both his parents were singers. The family left Spain in 1949 and traveled to Mexico, and he enrolled in the National Conservatory of Music in Mexico City to study piano.
His opera career started in 1961 in Monterrey…
And, in the ensuing sixty-plus years, he has performed in more than 150 operatic roles. It was in that year that he sang “Mario Cavaradossi” in Puccini’s Tosca for the first time. He played the part more than any other all around the world. His performances in Verdi’s Otello have also drawn much praise.
He averted his efforts somewhat later in his career to playing the lead roles in a series of Operatic films. He is keen to help to develop young talent and established Operalia, an annual competition for young opera singers.
Our second singer from the Three Tenors is Jose Carreras. Born in Barcelona, Spain, he began singing at the age of 11. In an illustrious career, he has sung over sixty tenor roles in every major opera house in the world. He is best known for his roles in operas by Donizetti, Puccini, and Verdi.
His career was put on hold in 1980 as he was diagnosed with leukemia. He was quite ill for a while but overcame it to sing as part of the Three Tenors at the World Cup Finals in 1990 in Italy.
Another sporting assignment saw him as musical director for the Olympics in his hometown of Barcelona in 1992. After recovering from his sickness, Carreras formed an international charity to raise money for leukemia research and development. As of today, it has raised over 80 million Euros.
I suppose if you are going to ask the man in the street to name an opera singer, it would probably be Luciano Pavarotti. Born in 1935 in Modena, Italy, he, in many ways, became the face of opera to many people. He was the third of the Three tenors.
He was known to be able to fulfill any operatic role required of him. However, he was best known, and some would say at his best, in “bel canto” operas. These were the later Verdi and Puccini works.
These operas became his trademark performances, and he raised the profile of the works. Such operas as La Boheme, Tosca, Madame Butterfly, and Turandot from where the aria “Nessun Dorma” is taken.
He had a lifelong career in the major opera houses of the world…
Later in life, he moved more into commercial and popular music. He attained “Rock Star” status, if there is such a thing in the world of opera.
His voice was one of the greatest, and he was known as the “King of the High C’s.” This is because of his ability to be able to reach high notes with absolute precision. Away from the stage, he was also known for his charitable works with the Red Cross and for helping refugees.
Searching for More Incredible Singers?
Well, have a look at our detailed articles on the Most Famous British Singers, the Most Famous Black Country Singers, the Most Famous Gospel Singers Of All Time, the Most Famous Alto Singers Of All Time, and the Most Famous American Singers Of All Time for lots of great vocal performances.
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Most Famous Opera Singers Of All Time – Final Thoughts
When you compile a list of the most famous opera singers, you are creating a list of the greatest voices. And, on my list, there are some of the greatest voices we have ever heard. Not enough room to include them all, but a good selection and probably the best of the best.
Singing opera can be likened to becoming a professional athlete. You just don’t pick up a mic and sing. It takes years of training, even if the primary requirement, the voice, is already there. So, I am not only recognizing the voice and the performances, but also the dedication to reach the standards that are demanded.
Until next time, and when the fat lady sings, let the music play.