15 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Female Opera Singers Of All Time

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

Opera singing has been around in the western world for decades. You can also trace it back in Chinese history to almost 1,100 years ago. Throughout time, opera evolved beautifully to attract the ears, eyes, and emotions of many around the globe.

Opera is one of the most beautiful art forms that combine beautiful vocals, scenery, and costumes. Even though opera has been quite dominated by men historically, a number of women proved that they’re beyond qualified to reach national and international recognition.

In this list, we’re sharing and celebrating some of the most famous female opera singers of all time.

1. Maria Callas

Born in New York City in 1923 to Greek parents, one of the greatest opera singers of all time is Maria Callas.

She began singing at a very young age and then went on to study music in Greece, where she moved with her mother in 1937 after her parents split up.

Her first appearance as an opera singer was in 1941, debuting with a small role for the operetta “Boccaccio.” She went on to star in several operas in Greece but with only minor roles until she moved back to the United States in 1945.

Soon in 1947, she landed her first major role as Verona in the opera “La Gioconda.” This was the catalyst for her rise to fame. She mastered the art of theater and combined it with her incredible vocal skills to create her dramatic and capturing performances.

These performances include “I Vespri Siciliani,” “La Gioconda” at the Arena di Verona, and “La Gioconda” at the Arena di Verona, to name a few.

Almost 55 years after her death, the legendary soprano still is an icon in all the history of opera.

2. Marian Anderson

“Baby Contralto” Marian Anderson is an important African-American figure for all artists being a woman of color. Anderson overcame racism and became the first black American woman to perform with the Metropolitan Opera and in the White House.

With dreams of becoming a singer from a young age, Anderson started singing as a child in her church’s choir. She applied to the Philadelphia Music Academy after graduating high school, but she was refused admission because of her being black.

This did not hinder Anderson’s aspirations, and instead, she persevered and got her first break after winning a singing competition, which was sponsored by the prestigious New York Philharmonic.

She went on to perform and shine in many major performances all around North America, as well as in Europe. One of her memorable moments is her public performance during the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, where it had a strict “white performers only” policy — yet Anderson pushed through.

After a long career, the operati legend retired professionally in 1965.

3. Sarah Brightman

Classical crossover soprano Sarah Brightman is best known for her role as Christine Daaé in the opera adaptation of “The Phantom Of The Opera.”

The multi-talented singer, songwriter, and orchestral director began her theatrical career at the age of 13, debuting in the musical “I and Albert.” She went on to join several musical groups throughout her youth, and during her college years, she attended the Royal College of Music.

She had her first break in 1981 after being cast in the stage musical “Cats,” whose composer is Andrew Lloyd Webber. She went on to star in several of Webber’s other words, including “The Phantom Of The Opera” and “Requiem.”

Aside from her operatic repertoire, Brightman also had success as a solo artist. In fact, she’s currently the only artist to have simultaneously topped both Billboard charts for dance and classical music.

4. Leontyne Price

Mary Violet Leontyne Price, more known as simply Leontyne Price, is an African-American opera singer born in 1927 in Mississippi. In her youth, she studied at the prestigious performing arts conservatory Julliard, where she performed in many productions that shaped her early career.

She made her mark in the music industry in 1955, when she became the first African-American to star in a leading role in NBC Opera Theater, a televised opera.

She went on to perform at many major opera houses after that, including the La Scala, Royal Opera House, and Lyric Opera of Chicago. She also became known for being the first African-American woman to achieve international success as a leading vocalist for the Metropolitan Opera.

Throughout her four-decade professional career, Price won 19 Grammy awards and became among the first awardees of the Opera Honors.

She retired in 1997 but was called out of retirement in 2001 during the aftermath of the 9/11 Attack to perform at a memorial concert.

5. Anna Netrebko

The charismatic and dramatic Russian soprano, Anna Netrebko, was born in 1971.

Anna’s operatic experience and career progressed during her time in the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. Anna evolved from a janitor who attends rehearsals for free to an auditioner under the tutelage of Russian conductor Valery Gergiev.

Gergiev was the one, in fact, who discovered her talents and guided her to her debut role as Susanna in the opera “The Marriage Of Figaro.” The same year she debuted in 1994, she also landed another role in an opera, and her operatic career went on an uphill climb since then.

It was in 2002 that she rose to even greater fame. She became part of the performers at the Metropolitan Opera, breaking through international success for her role as Donna Anna in “Don Giovanni.”

Due to her fruitful and rich career, Anna was named “People’s Artist Of Russia.” 

6. Jessye Norman

American opera singer Jessye Norman is known for her wide and rich vocal range.

She was born to a musical family, which greatly influenced her later career as a singer and recitalist. Norman discovered her love for opera at the tender age of nine, and this prompted her to have singing lessons throughout her childhood up to her teenage years.

After graduating college, she moved to Europe in hopes of establishing her professional singing career. A year later in 1969, she succeeded by landing a contract with the Deutsche Oper Berlin, and she made her operatic debut as Elisabeth in the opera “Tannhäuser.”

Since then, Norman’s career blossomed. She is best known for singing dramatic and powerful soprano solos, but brave as she is, she explored her talents by singing songs of contralto and soprano ranges.

Aside from singing, Norman was also a prolific recitalist and a record producer. Among her most notable works is her interpretation of the “Four Last Songs,” which earned her a Gramophone Award.

7. Kathleen Battle

Operatic soprano Kathleen Battle was born to a musical family, mostly focusing on gospel music. Her sweet, distinct voice earned her the attention of music teacher Charles Varney, and soon, she earned a scholarship at the University of Cincinnati – College-Conservatory of Music.

She began as a music teacher after graduating college, but she was urged by her friend to audition for a local performance of “German Requiem.” She bagged the role and became the soprano soloist, prompting her operatic career.

Her career rose in the 1980s when she performed in over 150 operas within the first 10 years of her career. Some of her memorable performances are Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” and Zerbinetta in “Ariadne Auf Naxos.” 

In the 1990s, she explored other types of music including baroque and spiritual genres, yet she was still very much active in the opera scene. She’s also the recipient of five Grammy awards for different performances.

8. Diana Damrau

German soprano and lieder Diana Damrau has loved opera music since a young age. In her youth, she majored in operatic studies at the presitgious Hochschule für Musik Würzburg.

Her dreams of being a singer, however, were threatened when she was diagnosed with edema, a kind of inflammation that involves fluid retention, in her vocal cord. She opted for a non-surgical treatment that lasted for one and a half years, which did nothing to dampen her singing talents.

Despite all this, Damrau stepped into heavy operatic roles pretty early on in her career and she excelled at it. Her coloratura soprano voice range was much lauded by the industry, and she achieved international success in her concerts, especially in Hugo Wolf’s “Italianisches Liederbuc.”

Her most memorable roles are Queen of the Night (Die Zauberflöte), Gretel (Hansel and Gretel), and Adina (L’elisir d’amore). Three of these roles were her major debuts in her early career, especially in the Bavarian period.

9. Beverly Sills

Born Belle Miriam Silverman, Beverly Sills was an American operatic legend, and her diverse performances were widely praised.

She started her singing career pretty early at the age of three, performing on radio as Bubbles Silverman. She starred in a short film when she was seven years old, and at that time, she adopted her stage name, Beverly Sills.

She debuted her operatic career in 1945 as part of the Gilbert and Sullivan, a theatrical group that also performed opera pieces. Much of her early career was spent with them until two years later when she began her solo stage career with Bizet’s “Carmen.”

Since then, her popularity in the opera industry rose considerably, landing many roles. Her career peaked in the 1960s when she played Cleopatra in the opera “Giulio Cesare,” earning her international fame.

Some of her legendary recordings such as “The Three Queens” and “The Ballad of Baby Doe,” are still considered signature marks in the history of opera. She has also won a Grammy Award and 2 Emmy Awards, in addition to acquiring 4 honorary doctorates in music from 4 major universities. 

10. Cecilia Bartoli

Known for her unique low timbre, Cecilia Bartoli was a coloratura mezzo-soprano best known for her interpretations of some of the classical pieces of many composers.

Born to parents who are professional singers, Bartoli had an early start in music and studied at a music conservatory in Rome.

When she was only 19, she debuted her singing career when she joined “Fantastico,” a popular TV show in Italy. While she didn’t win, her performance led her to perform with the Paris Opera, prompting her operatic career.

In her early twenties, she succeeded so well in the opera scene, bagging one role after another. She rose to prominence for her work with mainly baroque and bel canto music.

Some of her most memorable performances are her roles in “L’anima Del Filosofo,” “Ossia Orfeo Ed Euridice,” and several of her baroque music shows such as Handel’s “Giulio Cesare.”

Throughout her three-decade career, she won a Grammy for her performance in “Sacrificium” and also won Brit Award for Outstanding Contribution to Music. 

11. Angel Blue

Born in 1984, the African-American operatic soprano Angel Joy Blue was born.

Although she is still fairly new to the opera scene, Blue has made rounds because of her performance as Violetta in the opera “La Traviata” and has since been hailed as one of the best sopranos in modern times.

Known for her powerful soprano voice and “smoky” vocal register, the iconic opera singer Placido Domingo even went as far as describing Blue as the next Leontyne Price, who is also on this list.

Blue was also a part of the Young Artist Program at Los Angeles Opera, and she performed in many other operas around the world including Puccini’s “La Boheme,” Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas.”

Her international performances were praised widely, winning her a Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording.

12. Denyce Graves

Acclaimed to be one of today’s best opera singers, Denyce Graves is a mezzo-soprano who seemed to have prepared for her operatic career all her life.

She went to a music school during her high school years and studied music even further in two prestigious art conservatories, the New England Conservatory and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.

She debuted in 1995 at the Metropolitan Opera, and she landed many operatic roles since. Her emotionally moving performances captured the hearts of many with her powerful stage presence and distinct voice. Some of her most memorable roles were for the operas “Samson et Dalila” and “Carmen.”

Aside from her operatic repertoire, Graves also sings in TV shows for children, most notably “Between The Lions.” 

13. Sumi Jo

Moving to our Asian talents, the South Korean soprano Sumi Jo had rigorous music education from the age of four.

During her college years, she made it to her first professional concert where she played the role of Susanna in “The Marriage Of Figaro.” After moving to Italy, she had the chance to study with male operatic singer Carlo Bergonzi and Austro-British soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.

She made her professional operatic debut after graduating from the Conservatorio Santa Cecilia in 1986. Among her first few roles was starring alongside Placido Domingo in the opera “Un Ballo In Maschera.”

Her career was fruitful for the next decade, earning her international acclaim for her performances in several iconic operas, including “La Sonnambula,” “Dinorah,” and “L’enfant Et Les Sortilèges.”

14. Nellie Melba

The victorian-classical operatic soprano Nellie Melba achieved national and international recognition for being the first Australian to succeed in the classical music scene.

At an early age, Melba showed signs of musical brilliance, as she was already a skilled pianist and organist. She moved to Paris some years later in her youth, in hopes of improving her craft. There, she was under the tutelage of German mezzo-soprano Mathilde Marchesi.

Not long after her rigorous training with Marchesi, Melba performed a solo for French composer Ambroise Thomas’s “Hamlet,” which earned her the attention of Maurice Strakosch, a well-known impresario during that time. She was then offered a decade-long contract, a great feat for a neophyte opera singer.

This was well-earned, however, as Melba’s voice is said to cover the range of almost three octaves. That same voice got praised internationally for its beauty. Some of her most memorable performances throughout her long career are her roles in “Lucia di Lammermoor,” “Roméo et Juliette,” and “Pagliacci.”

Aside from her operatic accolades, Melba was also the first international artist to star on radio podcasts.

15. Renata Tebaldi

In 1922, Renata Tebaldi was born in Italy to a cellist father. She had an interest in music at an early age, singing in church at the tender age of three and taking voice and piano lessons in her tween years.

Hailed as having the “Voice Of An Angel,” Tebaldi was a lirico-spinto soprano, a unique kind of operatic singing style most popular during the period after the World War.

She made her operatic debut when she was 22, starring as Elena in the opera “Mefistofele.” She went on to perform in many other operas since then, including Verdi’s “Otello,” which bolstered her rise to fame.

Tebaldi had a rich career of 1,262 performances: 1,048 of which are complete operas and 214 concerts. Her expressive voice led her into several international roles, which she excelled at.

She also won a Grammy Award for Best Classical Vocal Solo in 1959 and Best Opera Recording in 1961.

Wrapping Up Our List Of Female Opera Singers

Female singers have been quite the influence on opera and women’s history.

We listed some of the finest famous female singers here, and these artists gave us unforgettable performances and some even marked historical changes.

To get a clearer vision of their success, we highly recommend you check their recordings or performances.

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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.