Opera is a performance art that was created at the end of the 1500s in Italy. The musical genre has inspired millions of singers in the past several centuries. For opera fans, there are names that stand out from the crowd as the top opera singers. These talented performers run the gamut from powerful baritones to unforgettable sopranos. Here are the 25 best opera singers of all time:
1. Luciano Pavarotti
One doesn’t need to love opera to know the name, Luciano Pavarotti. Not only was he able to draw fans from outside the opera world due to his rockstar-like stage presence, but his talent was undeniable. He was called the “King of the High Cs” because of his striking ability to hit a high C without any difficulty.
He often performed with fellow tenors Plácido Domingo and José Carreras, and the three were billed as The Three Tenors in concert. He was known for his exciting performances in Italian operas like “La Bohème,” “Madama Butterfly,” “Tosca,” and “Turandot.”
2. Maria Callas
Maria Callas studied music from a very early age after moving to Greece with her mother. Born in 1923 in New York City, she first appeared on the stage in 1941, singing in the operetta “Boccaccio.” She would become a staple on the Greek opera stage until she moved back to the United States in 1945.
Although she died in 1977 at the young age of 53, her name still resonates with opera fans across the world. Some of her most memorable performances were in “La Gioconda” and “I Vespri Siciliani.” As an opera vocalist, she’s remembered for her particularly dramatic portrayals that combined her massive singing talent with her mastery of theatrical performance.
3. Renée Fleming
American Renée Fleming was born in Pennsylvania and has distinguished herself in modern opera with four Grammy Awards and was also awarded the National Medal of Arts. One of her notable performances wasn’t even in an opera. It was for being a featured performer on the “Lord Of The Rings” soundtrack.
Renée is a soprano, and some of her famous performances include Mimi in “La Bohème” and the Countess in “The Marriage Of Figaro.” She also gave notable performances when she sang the National Anthem at the Super Bowl and performed at the World Trade Center in the aftermath of the events on September 11, 2001.
4. Plácido Domingo
Plácido Domingo built his reputation as a conductor and singer, but he was launched into superstardom as one of the most famous opera singers when he joined The Three Tenors. He started performing in the late 1950s and has played a role in at least 150 different operas during his career. He’s added a staggering number of Grammys and Latin Grammy Awards to his collection over the years, having won at least 14.
He’s been linked to the Los Angeles Opera and the Washington National Opera for many years. He’s also taken part in an international singing competition held each year called Operalia, which helps young singers get their start in opera.
5. Enrico Caruso
Enrico Caruso is famous because he was one of the first singers whose voice was recorded and available on early phonograph records. During the first years of the 20th century, he made hundreds of recordings and made several more for the Victor Talking Machine Company. Interestingly, Enrico was in San Francisco for a series of recordings just as the huge 1906 earthquake devastated the city.
Born in Naples, Italy, he was just 22 when he made his opera debut. Some of his famous roles include Canio in “Pagliacci” and the Duke in “Rigoletto.” He lived in New York in the later years of his life and was a frequent performer at the Metropolitan Opera.
6. Cecilia Bartoli
Cecilia Bartoli’s fame extends beyond the opera world, and she’s won several Grammy Awards in the category of Best Classical Vocal Performance. She is a mezzo-soprano singer who was born in Rome and gave her first performance at the tender age of nine. She played a shepherd boy in the performance. Her professional debut came years later, in 1987, when she was 21, and she would eventually become one of the best opera singers of all time.
Some of her famous performances come from roles in “The Marriage Of Figaro” and “Così Fan Tutte.” She’s also well-known for performing in the operas of Rossini. After building her reputation as a performer, her work eventually brought her to a position as the artistic director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival.
7. Marian Anderson
Marian Anderson was the first black woman to perform in the White House, and she was also the first black woman to perform at the Metropolitan Opera. With her immense talent, she was able to pave the way for future singers of color.
She started singing with her church choir, then, unfortunately, her first attempt at college was denied because she was black. She continued with life, and eventually, got her big break when she won a singing competition held by the New York Philharmonic. She had a prolific career and performed all around North America and Europe. She retired from professional singing in 1965.
8. Joan Sutherland
Joan Sutherland was a soprano who gained fame in the middle of the 20th century. She was a particularly prolific performer and was known for her ability to perform what sounded like vocal acrobatics during her performances.
She was well-known for playing Lucia de Lammermoor and performed the role more than 200 times in concerts across the world. As she developed her talents and her fame as one of the world’s best opera vocalists grew, she explored new roles and was never satisfied with her current repertoire. Her final performance came in 1990 when she sang “Die Fledermaus.”
9. José Carreras
José Carreras is the third member of the famous The Three Tenors. He began singing opera at the very young age of 11. Born in Barcelona, Spain, he has built an amazing repertoire of songs, including over 60 roles that he’s performed in countries around the world.
Although José is from Spain, some of his most famous roles come from Italian operas by composers like Donizetti, Puccini, and Verdi. He fought leukemia in the 1980s and recovered enough to perform during the World Cup in 1990. After his successful fight with the disease, he created a charity to raise money for treatment and research for a cure.
10. René Pape
Many of the world’s most well-known opera singers are tenors and sopranos. However, René Pape of Germany is a bass opera singer with a reputation for conquering German operas like those of Wagner. He first appeared on stage in 1995 when he was invited to perform at the Metropolitan Opera.
He was honored with a role at the Met in each of the next 16 years after his debut. Some of his notable performances include those in “Carmen,” “Die Walkure,” “Don Giovanni,” and “Die Meistersinger.” René has also earned respect from the commercial music world and won multiple Grammy Awards for his performances.
11. Leontyne Price
After her opera debut in 1961 at the New York Metropolitan Opera, Leontyne Price’s incredible talent allowed her to become the world’s first internationally famous black opera singer. Her debut featured a performance as Leonora in “Il Trovatore” by Verdi. Her performance was so stunning that it earned her a 42-minute ovation, which was one of the longest in the opera house’s history.
The beloved singer was also famous for her engrossing acting ability, which some suggested often overshadowed her vocal talents. She won an amazing 19 Grammy Awards during her career and was eventually awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
12. Montserrat Caballé
The most appropriate description of Montserrat Caballé’s soprano voice is that it is “powerful.” Perhaps that’s the reason for the success of her duet with Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of the band Queen, during the 1992 Olympics. Interestingly, her first major international performance came when she was a substitute for another performer at Carnegie Hall.
Her debut was in Switzerland in 1956, where, interestingly, she was also a substitute. The performance was for “La Bohème.” Despite being a native Spanish speaker, she had enormous success singing German operas, and one of her standout performances was in “Der Rosenkavalier.”
13. Nellie Melba
Nellie Melba was a soprano who performed during the Victorian era. Her success was significant because she was the first Australian to experience international fame on the operatic stage or in any classical music format. She began learning music at a young age and excelled at the piano and organ. She eventually moved to Paris and began learning from a German singer named Mathilde Marchesi.
She had famous roles in “Romeo and Juliet,” “Pagliacci,” and “Lucia Di Lammermoor,” and she was also the first international singer to have a starring role in a radio program. As a newly minted singer, she even scored a ten-year contract to sing in Paris before she ever became one of the most famous opera singers.
14. Jussi Björling
Jussi Björling found fame in the years leading up to World War II. He was a Swedish opera singer who began performing at the Royal Swedish Opera while he was still a teenager. He became proficient in more than 50 roles in just eight years while performing with the company. Jussi eventually came to the United States to sing in several opera houses across the country.
He was popular in San Francisco, New York, and Chicago in the 1930s but left for Sweden during World War II, when he was named a Royal Court Singer by then-monarch King Gustaf V. Jussi returned to the United States after WWII and enjoyed continued success.
15. Jessye Norman
Jessye Norman fell in love with opera at the age of nine and took singing lessons as a youth and throughout her teenage years. She attended college in America but moved to Europe to have a better chance at building her singing career. In 1969, she was given a contract with the Deutsche Oper Berlin, and her first role was in “Tannhäuser” as Elisabeth.
Although Jessye is known as a soprano, she’s stretched her talents by singing songs in the contralto and soprano range. She has also produced records and given recitals throughout her career and won a Gramophone Award for her “Four Last Songs” production.
16. Kiri Te Kanawa
Kiri Te Kanawa began her career in the late 1960s in London after moving from her home country of New Zealand. She built a healthy career over the next decade, but she would see her fame increase even more after she performed at the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Millions of people around the world would see her perform live at the wedding.
Over her career as an opera vocalist, she’s given many excellent performances in operas like “The Marriage Of Figaro,” “Tosca,” and “Parsifal.” She’s sung in opera houses around the world and even recorded a performance of “West Side Story” where she played Maria with fellow opera singer José Carreras.
17. Kathleen Battle
Kathleen Battle was aptly named because her fiery temper got her fired from the Metropolitan Opera. Before she was let go, she was one of the leading sopranos for opera companies around the world. After her dismissal, she focused on recording albums and giving concerts.
She was well-known for her incredible range. She first performed in 1980 with the Zurich Opera Company as Adina in the opera “L’Elisir d’Amore.” During her career, she performed in cities like Berlin, San Francisco, Vienna, London, and Geneva. She’s been a featured singer multiple times at Carnegie Hall, and she’s also won a handful of Grammy Awards.
18. Beniamino Gigli
Beniamino Gigli was a tenor who sang in the very early 1900s in Italy. He toured various opera houses in cities like Naples, Las Scala, Rome, and Palermo. He also performed internationally in New York City and Buenos Aires. He isn’t as well-known as other performers because he only made a few recordings when record players weren’t particularly common.
He had an unfortunate reputation as fascist dictator Benito Mussolini’s favorite opera singer, and he even recorded a song about fascism in the late 1930s. Despite his reputation, he returned to the stage after World War II and maintained his popularity for several years. He even appeared in several movies.
19. Diana Damrau
Diana Damrau is a German soprano who was very popular in her home country at the start of her career. She studied opera in school and attended the Hochschule Music school in Wurzburg. She had always wanted to sing professionally, but she was diagnosed with an inflammatory condition called edema, which threatened her vocal cords. She had to undergo surgery to fix the problem.
Despite this setback, Diana built a solid career as a coloratura soprano. With her skills, no wonder other singers and the music industry highly respected her. Some of her memorable roles included those in “Die Zauberflöte,” “Hansel And Gretel,” and “L’Elisir d’Amore.” She conquered these roles and more very early in her career.
20. Bryn Terfel
Many of the popular opera singers of the world sing as sopranos or tenors, but Bryn Terfel is a rare bass-baritone who came from Wales and was first seen at the Welsh National Opera in the early 1990s. One of his most popular roles was the title role in “Don Giovanni,” which is common for people who sing in his octave. He’s been performing this act since the 1990s.
Some of the other roles he’s played over the years were in operas like “Cosi Fan Tutte,” “The Marriage Of Figaro,” “Die Zauberflöte,” and “Ford In Falstaff.” He also had a memorable performance in the musical “Sweeny Todd” and also recorded an album with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
21. Beverly Sills
Beverly Sills is one of the most famous American opera singers to ever reach the stage and one of the best opera singers of all time. She began her career quite early and was only three years old when she started performing on the radio. She also starred in a short film when she was seven. She debuted at the opera in 1945 with the Gilbert And Sullivan theatrical group.
Her popularity soared and hit its peak in the 1960s when she solidified her solo career by performing “Carmen” by Bizet. Over the years, she won several accolades, like a pair of Emmy Awards, a Grammy Award, and several honorary degrees from various universities.
22. Renata Tebaldi
Renata Tebaldi grew up in Italy and started singing while in her teens. She became a successful singer shortly after the end of World War II with performances in Italy and abroad. She came to the United States in 1950 and performed the title role in “Aida” with the San Francisco Opera. She would make her Metropolitan Opera debut five years later by playing Desdemona in “Othello.”
After her first performance at the Met, Renata performed there for the next 20 years, giving 270 performances and rarely performing elsewhere. Her success is all the more rewarding because she was diagnosed with polio when she was only three but managed to survive the illness and grow up with an interest in music.
23. Robert Merrill
Robert Merrill was a baritone who performed with the Metropolitan Opera for more than two decades. He played dozens of roles over the years and had popular performances in operas like “La Boheme,” “La Traviata,” and “Pagliacci.” Although he retired from singing at the opera in the mid-1970s, he continued to garner fame and favor by singing the national anthem at countless New York Yankees games.
Robert was born in Brooklyn and was the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland. He was encouraged by his mother to pursue vocal training and decided to act on the advice after seeing a performance of “Il Trovatore” at the Metropolitan Opera. Not only was he a long-time fixture at the Metropolitan Opera, but he also sang on the radio and made some musical recordings.
24. Sherrill Milnes
Sherrill Milnes was a member of the Metropolitan Opera for more than three decades and was one of the most respected baritones ever to perform with the company. During his career, he sang more than 50 different roles, including six Puccini operas and more than a dozen operas by Verdi. In the early 2000s, Sherrill and his wife created a non-profit organization to help young singers get their start.
His debut at the Met was back in 1965, and he traveled the world performing various Verdi operas for quite some time. He was born in Downers Grove, Illinois, and is the son of two dairy farmers. He had a strong interest in music when he was a child, and he used to sing to his father’s cows for fun and practice.
25. Anna Netrebko
Anna Netrebko is a Russian opera singer whose career began as a janitor but eventually transformed into an opera career after she attended free rehearsals at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. A Russian conductor named Valery Gergiev saw that she was a talented singer and worked with her until she was ready for her debut as Susanna in “The Marriage Of Figaro.”
She joined the Metropolitan Opera in 2002 and performed as Donna Anna in “Don Giovanni.” She was awarded the title of “People’s Artist of Russia” due to her international fame. Unfortunately, she was involved in a controversy after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, which threw her career into some turmoil.
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