12 Of The Best Operas Of All Time

Written by Dan Farrant

What is it about opera that captures the hearts and minds of audiences around the world? Perhaps it’s the grandeur of the music, the spectacle of the staging, or the dramatic storytelling that transports us to another world.

Whatever the reason may be, there’s no denying that opera has been a beloved art form for centuries. From the romantic melodies of Puccini to the tragic tales of Verdi, operas continue to captivate and enthrall audiences to this day. 

So whether you’re a seasoned opera-goer or a curious newcomer, read on to learn some of the most remarkable operas ever composed. From timeless classics to modern masterpieces, these 12 of the best operas of all time are sure to leave you spellbound and in awe of its power.

1. “The Marriage of Figaro” By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

“The Marriage of Figaro,” also known as “Le nozze di Figaro” in Italian, is an opera buffa, or comic opera, composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte. It was first performed in Vienna in 1786.

The story is set in 18th-century Spain and revolves around the character of Figaro, who is valet to Count Almaviva. Figaro is engaged to Susanna, the Countess’s maid, but the Count has other plans and tries to seduce Susanna. The plot is peppered with mistaken identities, secret rendezvous, and plenty of comedic moments.

“The Marriage of Figaro” was considered controversial at the time of its premiere because of its criticism of the aristocracy and social hierarchy. However, it quickly became popular and is now considered one of Mozart’s greatest operas and one of the most important works in the opera buffa genre.

It contains some of Mozart’s most beautiful music, including the famous arias “Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio” and “Voi che sapete che cosa è amor.” It’s still frequently performed in opera houses around the world and is a beloved favorite with audiences and critics alike.

2. “La Traviata” By Giuseppe Verdi

From Guiseppe Verdi, we have next “La Traviata,” an opera in three acts with a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. It premiered in Venice in 1853 and is based on the novel “La Dame aux Camélias” by Alexandre Dumas fils.

The story of “La Traviata” revolves around the courtesan Violetta Valéry, who falls in love with Alfredo Germont, a young nobleman. Despite their love for each other, they encounter many obstacles, including the disapproval of Alfredo’s father, who worries about the impact of their relationship on his family’s reputation.

Violetta eventually sacrifices her own happiness for the sake of Alfredo’s family and their future, leading to a tragic ending.

“La Traviata” is famous for its emotional intensity and Verdi’s powerful score, which includes some of the most famous arias in all of opera, such as “Sempre libera” and “Addio del passato.”

The opera also explores themes of love, sacrifice and social class, making it a timeless masterpiece that continues to captivate audiences today.

“La Traviata” has been performed countless times around the world and has been adapted into films and ballets. It remains one of the most popular and frequently performed operas of all time and is considered a cornerstone of the Italian operatic repertoire.

3. “Carmen” By Georges Bizet

Next, we have “Carmen,” a French opera composed by Georges Bizet, with a libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. It premiered at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on March 3, 1875, and is now considered one of the most popular operas of all time.

The story of “Carmen” revolves around the passionate and seductive gypsy Carmen and her love affair with Don José, a naive and passionate soldier who falls under her spell. Set in Seville, Spain, in the 1820s, the opera explores themes of love, jealousy and the clash between duty and desire.

The character of Carmen has become one of the most iconic figures in opera history, known for her independence, sensuality, and rebellion against traditional gender roles. Her most famous aria, “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” (Love Is a Rebellious Bird), is one of the most famous and beloved pieces of classical music.

Although “Carmen” was initially met with mixed reviews, it quickly became a sensation and has remained a popular and enduring masterpiece ever since. Its lush and passionate score, which also incorporates elements of Spanish folk music, has inspired countless adaptations and interpretations in music, film and literature.

4. “Don Giovanni” By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Up next is another composition by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. “Don Giovanni,” which is based on the legend of Don Juan, a fictional libertine and seducer, premiered in Prague in 1787 and has a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte.

The opera tells the story of Don Giovanni, a wealthy and promiscuous nobleman who feels no remorse for his philandering. He seduces and abandons women, including Donna Anna, whose father he kills in a duel.

The Don’s misdeeds catch up with him when he is confronted by various characters seeking revenge, including the ghost of the man he killed.

Mozart’s music brilliantly captures the characters’ dramatic tension and emotional turmoil throughout the opera. The score includes some of Mozart’s most memorable arias, such as “Là ci darem la mano” and “Fin ch’han dal vino.”

“Don Giovanni” is often considered one of Mozart’s greatest works and is considered a masterpiece of the operatic genre. To this day, it is performed in opera houses around the world, and its enduring popularity is a testament to Mozart’s genius as a composer.

5. “Madama Butterfly” By Giacomo Puccini

One of the most popular and frequently performed operas in the repertoire is “Madama Butterfly,” an opera by Giacomo Puccini, with a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. It was premiered in 1904 at La Scala in Milan.

Set in Nagasaki, Japan, in the early 20th century, “Madama Butterfly” deals with the tragic love affair between a young Japanese geisha named Cio-Cio-San (also known as Butterfly) and a US naval officer named Pinkerton.

Pinkerton arranges to marry Butterfly, but he views it as a temporary arrangement and plans to eventually return to America and marry an American woman. Butterfly, on the other hand, believes that their marriage will last, and she falls deeply in love with Pinkerton.

After Pinkerton leaves for America, Butterfly gives birth to a son together and faithfully waits for Pinkerton’s return, despite the objections of her family and friends.

Three years later, Pinkerton returns, but with his American wife in tow, and Butterfly is devastated. She finally decides to take her own life and leave her son in Pinkerton’s care.

“Madama Butterfly” is known for its beautiful and evocative music, including such well-known arias as “Un bel di vedremo” and “Humming Chorus.” The play also explores themes of love, betrayal and the clash of cultures of East and West.

6. “The Magic Flute” By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

First performed in Vienna in 1791, “The Magic Flute” is an opera in two acts and is the last complete composition by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart before his death.

The opera is a mix of comedy, fantasy, and drama, and it tells the story of Prince Tamino, who has the task of rescuing Princess Pamina from the evil sorcerer Sarastro. Along the way, Tamino is assisted by the bird-catcher Papageno and given a magic flute and silver bells to aid him on his journey.

“The Magic Flute” features a number of famous arias, duets, and ensemble pieces, including the Queen of the Night‘s famous aria “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” (The Vengeance of Hell Boils in My Heart),which is one of the most difficult soprano arias in the operatic repertoire.

The opera has been subject to various interpretations, with some viewing it as a straightforward story of good versus evil, while others find deeper meanings in its themes of enlightenment, brotherhood, and the struggle for wisdom over ignorance. Some even see it as an allegory for Freemasonry, a secret society to which both Mozart and the librettist of the opera belonged.

7. “Aida” By Giuseppe Verdi

Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aida” is one of the most popular operas of all time. It is a magnificent masterpiece that demonstrates the composer’s remarkable talent for creating soaring melodies, intricate orchestration and powerful drama.

First performed in 1871 at the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo, Egypt, “Aida” has since become a staple of the operatic repertoire and has been performed countless times in theaters around the world.

Set in ancient Egypt, “Aida” centers on the love triangle between the Ethiopian princess Aida, the Egyptian military commander Radamès, and the Egyptian princess Amneris. As tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia escalate, Radamès is chosen to lead the Egyptian army in battle against the Ethiopians.

Aida, who is secretly in love with Radamès, must choose between her loyalty to her country and her love for Radamès, while Amneris, who is also in love with Radamès, tries to win his heart and secure her place in the Egyptian royal court.

What sets “Aida” apart from other operas of its time is Verdi’s innovative use of music to convey the characters’ emotions and the drama of the story. From the sweeping opening chorus of the famous “Triumphal March” to the hauntingly beautiful aria “O patria mia” sung by Aida, Verdi’s music captures the grandeur and passion of the opera’s themes.

The opera also features elaborate staging and costumes, including the iconic scene of the Triumphal March with the procession of elephants and chariots, which has become one of the most famous and beloved moments in all of opera.

8. “Tosca” By Giacomo Puccini

Italian opera “Tosca,” by Giacomo Puccini, has three acts with a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. It was premiered in Rome in 1900 and has since become one of the most frequently performed operas in the repertoire.

The story takes place in Rome in 1800, during the Napoleonic wars. It tells the story of Floria Tosca, a famous singer who is in love with the painter Mario Cavaradossi.

When Cavaradossi helps a political prisoner escape, he attracts the attention of the cruel chief of police, Baron Scarpia. Scarpia is also attracted to Tosca and uses her love for Cavaradossi as leverage to force her to reveal the prisoner’s whereabouts.

The opera is famous for its dramatic storyline, intense emotions, and memorable music. Among the most famous arias are “Recondita armonia,” “Vissi d’arte,” and “E lucevan le stelle.”

Overall, “Tosca” is a powerful and emotional opera that explores themes of love, jealousy, betrayal, and political oppression. It is still a popular opera today and is frequently performed in opera houses around the world.

9. “Rigoletto” By Giuseppe Verdi

First performed at the La Fenice Opera House in Venice on March 11, 1851, “Rigoletto” is another famous opera by Giuseppe Verdi, consisting of three acts.

The plot is based on Victor Hugo’s “Le roi s’amuse” (The King Amuses Himself), which was banned in France because of its controversial nature, prompting Verdi to change the plot to avoid censorship.

The opera tells the story of Rigoletto, a hunchbacked court jester in the service of the Duke of Mantua, who is both hated and feared by courtiers because of his disfigurement and razor-sharp wit.

Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda is hidden from the Duke and the court by her father, but the Duke discovers and seduces her, which eventually leads to tragic events. Rigoletto devises a plan to avenge his daughter’s dishonor, but it backfires and leads to Gilda’s death.

The opera is known not only for its compelling plot, but also for its emotional intensity and powerful melodies. “La donna è mobile,” sung by the Duke, and “Caro nome,” sung by Gilda, are two of the most iconic arias, while the quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore” is a stunning ensemble that showcases the interplay between the four main characters.

Considered a masterpiece of Italian opera, “Rigoletto” is among Verdi’s finest works and continues to be performed in opera houses around the world.

10. “La Bohème” By Giacomo Puccini

Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La Bohème” is a masterpiece that has captivated audiences since its premiere in 1896. The opera tells the story of a group of young bohemians living in Paris in the 1830s and deals with themes such as love, friendship, poverty, and the pursuit of artistic passion.

The story follows the lives of Rodolfo, an aspiring poet, and Mimi, a seamstress. The two fall in love at first sight, but their relationship is complicated by Mimi’s declining health and Rodolfo’s unwillingness to accept the severity of her condition.

Meanwhile, their friends Marcello, a painter, and Musetta, a singer, conduct their own turbulent relationship, which provides a counterpoint to Rodolfo and Mimi’s tragic romance.

One of the most remarkable aspects of “La Bohème” is the atmospheric score, which is both lush and poignant. Puccini’s music is perfectly matched to the emotional intensity of the opera, with soaring melodies and intricate harmonies that capture the characters’ complex emotions.

From the playful duet “O soave fanciulla” to the heartbreaking aria “Che gelida manina,” the music of “La Bohème” is a testament to Puccini’s skill as a composer.

The opera is also characterized by a strong sense of place, with Paris serving as a vivid backdrop for the action. The bohemian garret, with its worn furniture and cold winter wind, is palpable throughout the opera, as is the bustling energy of the city streets. This attention to detail adds depth and richness to the story.

“La Bohème” remains one of the most popular and frequently performed operas in the repertoire, and it’s easy to see why: The themes of love, loss, and artistic passion are timeless; the music is simply sublime. Whether you’re a seasoned opera-goer or a newcomer to the art form, “La Bohème” is an experience not to be missed.

11. “The Barber Of Seville” By Gioachino Rossini

A comic opera composed by Gioachino Rossini, “The Barber of Seville” was first performed in 1816. This masterpiece has captured the hearts of audiences around the world with its lively music and witty libretto.

Based on the play of the same name by Pierre Beaumarchais, the story follows the clever barber Figaro, who aids Count Almaviva in his pursuit of the beautiful Rosina, who is under the guardianship of the cunning Dr. Bartolo.

The Count disguises himself as a poor student named Lindoro to gain Rosina’s affections, while Figaro helps him navigate the complex social and romantic obstacles that stand in their way.

One of the hallmarks of “The Barber of Seville” is its memorable music. Rossini’s score is full of catchy melodies and lively rhythms that perfectly capture the opera’s playful and comedic tone.

From the famous overture, which features the unmistakable “Largo al factotum” aria sung by Figaro, to the beautiful duets between the Count and Rosina, the music of this opera is sure to leave you humming along.

But it’s not just the music that makes “The Barber of Seville” such a classic. It is also famous for its witty libretto, which is full of clever wordplay and comedic situations.

The characters are all distinct and memorable, from the quick-witted Figaro to the scheming Dr. Bartolo, and their interactions provide plenty of laughs along the way.

12. “Tristan Und Isolde” By Richard Wagner

One of the greatest works of German composer Richard Wagner is “Tristan und Isolde.” Premiered in Munich in 1865, it is based on the medieval legend of Tristan and Isolde, a tragic tale of love and betrayal.

The opera tells the story of Tristan, a knight from Cornwall who is sent to Ireland to bring Isolde, the Irish princess, to marry his uncle King Marke.

During the journey, Tristan and Isolde fall deeply in love, but cannot be together because of their respective obligations. The rest of the opera deals with the tragic consequences of their love affair and their attempts to reconcile their feelings with their duties.

One of the most remarkable aspects of “Tristan und Isolde” is the music, which is notable for its innovative harmonies and use of leitmotifs (short musical phrases associated with particular characters or themes).

The prelude to the opera, often performed as a stand-alone piece, is particularly famous for its intense and yearning musical language, which has been described as a musical representation of the opera’s central themes of desire, longing and transcendence.

“Tristan und Isolde” is also significant for its influence on later composers and artistic movements. The exploration of the psyche and the subconscious was influential in the development of modernism in music and art, and the use of chromatic harmony paved the way for the atonal music of the 20th century.

Summing Up Our List Of The Greatest Operas

That concludes our list of great operas—we hope you enjoyed reading about them! Whether you are a seasoned opera buff or a newcomer to the genre, there is always something new to discover and appreciate.

These masterpieces of music and drama have withstood the test of time and continue to inspire and move us to this day. So if you have yet to experience the magic of opera yet, you should definitely give it a try.

Attend a live performance, listen to a recording, or watch a filmed production—you will not be disappointed. The greatest operas of all time are waiting to transport you to another world, and we guarantee you’ll be swept away by their beauty, emotion and power.

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.