Madama Butterfly. The Barber Of Seville. Evita. If you’re an opera fan, then chances are, you know all of these names. But you might be thinking: “Wait. Evita’s not an opera.” There has long been some debate about what’s an opera and what’s a musical, so, we’d like to put forth this definition by Classical Music of BBC Music Magazine. An opera is a piece of theater where the story is primarily conveyed through singing instead of spoken dialogue. We decided to take this approach when we were compiling these 31 best operas of all time:
1. Der Ring des Nibelungen
We should probably get this out of the way right away. On a list of the best operas of all time, you’re going to see the name Richard Wagner a lot, and here’s the first mention. He was a deeply dramatic composer who brought to life one of the most famous stories of Germanic legend, the Nibelungenlied.
Written over the course of 26 years, Der Ring Des Nibelungen or Ring Cycle features four parts: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung. When the whole story is told, it takes place over the course of four nights and spans fifteen hours. It’s an epic tale, worthy of the gods and legends that inspired it. It definitely deserves the first spot on this list of the world’s best operas.
Based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée, the opera Carmen, tells the story of Don Jose, a man who gets caught up in the throes of infatuation when he is seduced by the gypsy, Carmen. Inspired to leave both his childhood love and his military obligations because of this infatuation, he eventually sees his life unravel as a result of his connection to her.
Written by French composer Georges Bizet, it was initially met with criticism, and given a lukewarm reaction from the French public at the time of its release, the average 19th-century opera-goer would be forgiven for thinking that Carmen wouldn’t amount to anything. Bizet, who died suddenly early on in the production, wouldn’t live to see his work become what it is today: one of the most popular and best operas of all time.
3. Madama Butterfly
This tragic love story, written by Giacomo Puccini, tells the tale of Butterfly, a 15-year-old Japanese girl who married a navy man, B.F. Pinkerton. Sadly, their love isn’t mutual. Butterfly loves Pinkerton very much, but he only married her out of convenience. It is his intention to leave her once the time was right, and eventually, go home and find himself an American wife.
Madama Butterfly ends as poorly as you would expect a story like this to end: Butterfly ends her life when she discovers that the man she loves left her and married another. Its tragic ending and stunningly beautiful aria “Un Bel Dí Vedremo” are among the elements that make this one of the best operas in the world.
4. Tristan und Isolde
As it has been with many of the tales on this list of the best operas of all time, the 1865 opera, Tristan Und Isolde, retells a story that was written by another author first. In this case, the story of Gottfried Von Strassburg’s Tristan And Iseult got the operatic treatment by Richard Wagner.
However, despite being known today as an opera in opera circles, Wagner himself didn’t consider this to be an opera. Rather, he referred to his famous work as a plot or drama. Whatever he called it, the opera turned out to be significant in the history of romantic music. Much of Western music—film scores, in particular—owe a great deal to this musical work of art. Due to its popularity and influence, it lands squarely on our list of the best operas of all time.
5. The Magic Flute
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute, is an example of Singspiel, a theatrical form of opera which included both spoken and sung words. You might say that it is the opera version of the musical.
As far as the story goes, The Magic Fluye certainly boasts a fantastical origin. The idea for the opera arose from Mozart’s interest in Freemasonry and fairy tales and followed his work on another fantastical piece, The Philosopher’s Stone, which had the same cast. It premiered at the Freihaus-Theater Auf Der Wieden and went on to achieve amazing success in the years that followed its release.
6. Show Boat
The 1927 release of Oscar Hammerstein II’s musical Show Boat introduced Broadway audiences to Mississippi riverboat life and the culture therein. Based on the novel by Edna Ferber, the story spans 40 years and reveals the realities of both heartbreaking love and racial inequality and prejudice.
This work was revolutionary in its time. It combined the best elements of serious theater with musical comedy and light operettas. It has been produced numerous times since its 1927 release and has, over the years, received broad critical acclaim. Most notably, it earned some significant awards in the years after its release, including a Laurence Olivier Award and a Tony Award.
7. Peter Grimes
English composer Benjamin Britten drew inspiration for his opera Peter Grimes from the poem The Borough by George Crabbe. The opera tells the tale of Peter Grimes, a fisherman who, through a series of misfortunes, loses two apprentices to death. He is accused of murder and ultimately flees town by boat and is assumed drowned. It was universally embraced by critics, who called it a “thrilling work” and a brilliant allegory. It’s just the kind of tale that opera fans love, including us!
As it turns out, the musical Rent by Jonathan Larson drew inspiration from another one of the best operas of all time La Bohème, which also makes our list, by Giacomo Puccini. Set in New York City’s East Village, Rent concerns itself with a group of artists who are trying to make their own life, despite numerous challenges, including homelessness, HIV/AIDS, and poverty. Larson intended it to be a rock opera that would appeal to the likes of the MTV crowd.
Rent went into workshop in 1993 and continued until 1996 when it went to premiere in an Off-Broadway production. Much of the story and the characters are updated versions of Puccini’s work. However, some modernizations occur, most notably with the addition of HIV/AIDS to the story, which replaces tuberculosis as the disease du jour in the original story. They also moved the story’s locales to New York City instead of Paris. Jesse L. Martin of Law & Order fame originated the role of Tom Collins, in the 1996 release.
9. West Side Story
Here’s another one that is traditionally considered a musical but really should be considered a modern opera. Aside from the fact that West Side Story features some of the most amazing music ever written for the stage, it’s also based on a pretty important story from literary history: the Bard’s Romeo And Juliet. With music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the original had numerous critical nods to its credit, including six Tony Awards.
Filmmaker extraordinaire, Steven Spielberg, updated the story in 2021. That version of West Side Story went on to be nominated for six academy awards, including for Best Picture. In the original version of the story, Larry Kert played Tony to Carol Lawrence’s Maria. In the updated film version, Ansel Englort of The Fault In Our Stars fame updates the role of Tony to Rachel Zegler’s Maria.
10. Les Misérables
The novel, Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, is the kind of book that has the power to elicit body-wracking sobs. Word to the wise: Don’t read it on your lunch break at work. Les Mis, as it’s affectionately known by fans, is set in the months and years before the Paris Uprising of 1832 and centers around the story of Jean Valjean, a prisoner-turned-mayor. He spends his life on the run from Javert, a prison guard. It’s a story of redemption, the human spirit, and hope. It’s also the kind of sweeping epic that so defines the best operas in the world.
Technically, the musical adaptation of this famous novel, done brilliantly by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, and Jean-Marc Natel, is known in theater circles as a musical. However, given that the story is conveyed a hundred percent through song, it makes the cut on our list of the best operas of all time. On a side note, this is a personal favorite of ours, one that we never get tired of.
Giuseppe Verdi is another name you’ll see a lot of on this list of the best operas of all time and rightfully so. He counts among the most prominent opera composers of the early 20th century, and Otello, which he based on Shakespeare’s play of the same name, proved to be a pivotal piece in his career.
By the time Verdi decided to write the opera, he had already been officially retired for 10 years. It was during a dinner with three friends that he was convinced to come out of retirement and write Otello. This went on to be a smashing success, with Verdi getting 20 curtain calls at the end of the opera’s premier.
Who’d have thought that an R&B, hip-hop retelling of Alexander Hamilton’s life would have revitalized the Great White Way so much? But revitalize and revolutionize it, it did. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical rendition of the Founding Father’s life was in development for about seven years before premiering at the Public Theater in Lower Manhattan on February 17, 2015. Hamilton went on to receive 16 Tony nominations and has won numerous awards, including Best Musical.
Yes, technically, theater-goers consider Hamilton a musical, but since its story is conveyed primarily through music, it lands on our list as one of the best operas of all time. And given that it already defies the traditional musical format by introducing rap and R&B, as well as a host of other revolutionary ideas, we say that it might as well defy the conventions of opera, too!
Although there have been many iterations of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita, our favorite features the movie version with Madonna in the title role. Equally memorable in this incarnation of the story of Eva Duarte Peron were Antonio Banderas and Jonathan Price as Che and Juan Peron, respectively. In order to prepare herself for the role, Madonna underwent some serious vocal coaching with Joan Lader before she was ready to bring Eva Peron to life on screen.
While she may seem like a natural for the part now, Madonna wasn’t the first person to be considered for the role; Michelle Pfeiffer, Meryl Streep, and Glenn Close were all in the running. Although touted as a musical, the story of Evita is conveyed entirely through music and the roles in the piece all have an operatic quality about them. For us, these factors put this work in the running for one of the best operas of all time.
14. Porgy and Bess
Here’s another one of the best operas of all time that’s embroiled in the opera versus musical debate. However, George Gershwin, the composer of Porgy And Bess, squarely settles the argument as far as we’re concerned. He himself called this a folk opera—that is, it features original folk songs in operatic form. It’s based on the book Porgy by DuBose Heyward. When it was first staged in 1935, it was considered daring because it featured classically trained black singers.
The story concerns itself with the residents of Catfish Row, a tenement in Charleston, South Carolina. It includes elements of violence and intrigue, including thugs and drug dealers, and has seen its share of famous actors in the title roles, including Dorothy Dandridge as Bess and Sidney Poitier as Porgy.
15. Einstein on the Beach
As one of the more experimental operas on our list of the best operas of all time, Philip Glass’s opera Einstein On The Beach celebrates one of history’s most important thinkers. In fact, it was one of three operas that he wrote about how people’s thinking, and not military might, changed the thinking of their time; the other two operas in the series highlighted Akhnaten and Satyagraha, also known as Mahatma Gandhi. It’s also of interest because the opera has no plot. It first premiered in Avignon, France, and later, was on tour in the cities of Rotterdam, Hamburg, Brussels, Venice, and Belgrade.
16. La Bohème
Here’s another Giacomo Puccini entry on our list of the best operas of all time. La Bohème gives opera lovers a glimpse at bohemian life in Paris just before the turn of the 20th century. Based on the novel Scènes De La Vie De bohème by Henri Murger, Puccini’s opera premiered at the Teatro Regio in the early part of 1896.
Its debut marked the long love affair that the international opera scene has had with the composer’s work. In the immediate years following its release, it was produced more than 100 times, and since then, it certainly has been produced hundreds more.
17. A Little Night Music
Here is the power of musical theater. One song—“Send In The Clowns” from A Little Night Music—is so rich and so poignant that even those outside the world of staged musical stories know the song. It’s also technically a musical, which was written by the legendary Stephen Sondheim. Its difficulty forces all but one character, Desiree, to have well-trained musical voices with broad ranges.
Opera companies that perform the musical get around the categorization by cleverly touting it as an operetta. That is, it’s both light opera and theater. A Little Night Music hit Broadway in 1973 and went to London’s West End in 1975. Eventually, it went the way of all good pieces of musical theater go: It became a film and then an opera, and then a musical once again.
18. Hansel and Gretel
Composed by Engelbert Humperdinck, the 1893 opera retells the Grimms’ fairy tale in a grand musical style. Written as a Christmas story, it is an opera that is traditionally produced during the Season of Light.
Although it was originally written in German, many English translations exist, such as the Met Opera’s. Famous translations of the opera include one by Norman Kelley, David Pountney, and the long-time standard by Constance Bache. Because of the popularity of the fairy tale and its Christmas slant, it has been shown all over the world from Germany to Wales.
19. Nixon in China
Like Les Misérables, Nixon In China by John Adams features a big cast and big themes. Drawing inspiration from former President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, the opera saw its premiere at the Houston Grand Opera in the fall of 1987. And like Hamilton, it embraces a variety of musical influences, from the works of Wagner, as well as jazz and big band. Although reviews were mixed when it first debuted, it has since been recognized as an important contribution to opera in America.
20. Roméo et Juliette
The Bard is responsible for some of the most incredible stories the world has ever known, including this operatic version of Romeo And Juliet by the French composer, Charles Gounod. This work is well-known for its series of duets between the two title characters.
Commissioned by the then-famous soprano, Marie Caroline Miolan-Carvalho, who was familiar with Gounod’s success because of another one of his operas, Faust—this is also an amazing opera that had hundreds of performances between 1859 and 1868. Since its inception in the 19th century, this incarnation of Romeo And Juliet has been shown at some of the world’s most well-known opera houses.
21. Don Giovanni
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni is pretty much universally proclaimed as one of the best operas of all time and not just by us. Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, George Bernard Shaw, Gustave Flaubert, and composer Charles Gounod not only counted this as a classic but called it an opera “without blemish.”
It recounts the tale of Don Giovanni, a nobleman known for his philandering and misuse of power, who ultimately gets punished by a person he victimized. Its thematic overtones of sexual violence and gender politics have some saying that it’s an opera that is just as relevant today in the era of #MeToo as it was when it was first produced centuries ago.
22. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Benjamin Britten’s work makes our list again with a retelling of another one of the Bard’s tales, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This wild Shakespearean romp of mirth is as good as an opera as it is as a play. The best renditions of it feature delicious costumes and elaborate sets—just what’s needed to create the dreamworld thought up by the Bard himself. The opera is also unusual in that the male lead, the character Oberon, is written for a countertenor. This makes it one of the most interesting and delightful operas on our list.
23. Moses und Aron
Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses Und Aron proves that an opera doesn’t have to be finished to be great. The work covers the story of Moses and Aron in the Bible, and God’s command to the former to become his prophet. While it’s a traditional Bible story, it’s also a story that allowed Schoenberg to work through some of his personal trauma around his Jewish heritage.
The composer never saw Moses Und Aron being performed during his lifetime; it was first performed in 1951 in Darmstadt. In 1965, the Royal Opera House in London showed a performance of it, and another one went up in 1966 in Boston. Eventually, even the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Staatsoper Berlin also gave performances of it, allowing Schoenberg’s vision to finally come to life in the years after his passing.
24. The Threepenny Opera
Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht collaborated on this so-called “play with music,” which served as a vehicle for the latter’s social commentary on capitalist society. It went up for the first time in 1928 at the Theater Am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin. The Threepenny Opera was based upon the play The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay. Although the piece received a lukewarm reception at best, it eventually picked up steam and popularity. Over the span of two years, the piece was played 400 times.
Brecht left Germany in 1933 after the Nazis rose to power and took this work with him. In the years following its premiere, it went up all over Europe and in the US. Individual songs from the piece, including “Mack The Knife,” have gained fame of their own.
25. Giulio Cesare
George Friedrich Handel brought the events of the Roman Civil War (49-45 BC) in his opera Giulio Cesare or Julius Caesar. Given that Handel is probably best known for composing Messiah, and the “Hallelujah Chorus” along with it, he did a pretty bang-up job writing operas, too, as it turned out. His retelling of the life of Julius Caesar met with immediate critical acclaim after its first performance in London at the King’s Theatre in 1724.
However, the acclaim and success of the opera didn’t stop him from reviving it and changing it three times—once in 1725, then in 1730, and again, in 1732. It just goes to show that even one of the best operas of all time can always stand a little improvement.
The Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi based his 1851 opera Rigoletto on Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi S’Amuse. His opera came at the behest of La Fenice, the opera house in Venice. Originally, the composer considered bringing the play Kean by Alexandre Dumas to the operatic stage but eventually came to the conclusion that he wanted to bring a more lively topic to life than what Dumas’s book offered.
Enter Hugo’s play, though the matter wasn’t done once Verdi chose the play. The play dealt with a scandalous king—a great character for the stage—but not so much for the Austrian censors, who controlled Northern Italy at the time. The play eventually passed muster with the censors and went on to premiere at a sold-out La Fenice. Rigoletto marked Verdi’s first major Italian success since 1847, and since that time, has been on many a list of the best operas of all time, including ours.
27. La Traviata
Giuseppe Verdi once again turned to the stage for inspiration when he wrote his opera La Traviata. He based it on Alexandre Dumas fils’s play La Dame Aux Camélias, which tells the story of Violetta Valéry, a courtesan, who sacrifices herself for Alfredo, her lover.
The opera first went up in 1853 at the La Fenice in Venice. Verdi wrote the opera while simultaneously working on Rigoletto. Like many of the operas on our list, La Traviata has only gotten more popular with time. As of this writing, it’s not only considered one of the best operas of all time, but it’s also one of the most-performed operas, too.
Parsifal recounts the legend of the Arthurian knight, Percival, and his search for the Holy Grail; this was Richard Wagner’s last work. It was an opera that was nearly three decades in the making. Wagner got the idea for it on Good Friday in 1857 but didn’t see his work come to the stage until some 25 years later. It premiered at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in the summer of 1882 and would continue to play at that theater for another 20 years.
The opera has some notoriety, which makes it one of the more interesting pieces on our list. It is a tradition that the audience does not applaud after the first act, a tradition that arose from a misunderstanding of Wagner’s wishes for a serious mood to dominate the premiere. However, he didn’t restrain himself and was heard crying “Bravo!” during the second act of the play.
Giacomo Puccini is another name, in addition to Richard Wagner, that you’ll see a lot of on this list of the best operas of all time. He is known for being one of the leading proponents of Italian opera and is particularly associated with both the Romantic and the verismo styles of opera. In fact, he is often compared to Wagner, who is said to be one of his influences.
In this entry, we’re introducing you to Tosca, an opera set in three acts. It was with this work that Puccini began depicting more realistic subject matter, including violence, in a style known as verismo. It concerns itself with Napoleon’s invasion of Italy. Although some critics dismissed it as a weak melodrama, it’s hard to resist the power of Puccini’s score and Tosca’s place in opera history.
30. The Barber of Seville
If you’ve ever watched Looney Tunes, then you know this opera. Or at least, you know the music to one of its most famous numbers, “Figaro’s Aria.” This Italian opera, composed by Gioachino Rossini, is a masterwork of operatic comedy. It centers around Rosina and the many lads who want to marry her.
While the story may be one that has been told in one variation or another throughout the centuries, it’s not the boy-meets-girl, boy-tricks-girl-into-marrying-him aspect that makes this opera so memorable. It may be the requirements for the role of Rosina. Written for a true contralto, the music for this role has often been slightly changed due to how difficult it is to find a woman with a voice in that range. It’s the vocal requirements for that role that make it one of the best operas of all time, in our opinion.
31. Marriage of Figaro
Of course, The Marriage Of Figaro is the brainchild of one of opera’s true greats: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It’s such a significant part of the musical canon that this great work was chosen to represent the power of art in the movie The Shawshank Redemption. In a BBC New Magazine poll, 172 opera singers overwhelmingly chose it as their no.1 choice, and composer Johannes Brahms called all of the pieces in the opera “a miracle.” The Marriage Of Figaro picks up where The Barber Of Seville left off. It premiered at Vienna’s Burgtheater in 1786.
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
Liam’s lifelong love for music makes his role at Music Grotto such a rewarding one. He loves researching, writing and editing music content for Music Grotto.