23 Greatest And Most Famous Opera Singers Of All Time

Last updated

Opera is a classical music art form that combines singing with theater. Most major cities throughout the world have opera houses that showcase the talents of incredibly gifted and trained singers.

Most of the popular opera singers of the last 100 years have been men who sing tenor roles and women who sing soprano. But there have been some famous mezzo-sopranos and a few baritones and bases that have wowed the world over with their voices and technique.

Below is our list of the 23 greatest and most famous opera singers of all time.

1. Luciano Pavarotti

As the most famous opera singer in history, Luciano Pavarotti combined a lifelong career in major opera houses throughout the world with a rock star’s ability to perform popular music.

He was known as the “King of the High C’s” for his ability to reach the high note with precision and confidence.

Pavarotti was one of the famous “Three Tenors” (along with Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras) who performed at the 1990 World Cup final and then in concerts in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

He is widely known for his work in Italian operas, such as La Boheme, Madama Butterfly, Turnadot, and Tosca. “Nessun Dorma” (The Lion Sleeps) is his most famous aria.

2. Maria Callas

Known as much for her off-stage antics and illicit love affairs as for her dramatic and tender voice, Maria Callas is one of the greatest opera singers of all time.

She was born in New York City, raised in Greece, and began singing Italian opera in her late teens.

Callas gained fame for Beethoven’s Fidelio at the age of 21. Within a year, she was offered major roles at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and several opera theaters in Italy.

She was one of the few sopranos who could pull off both heavy German opera roles and lighter Italian bel canto opera.

3. Enrico Caruso

Enrico Caruso is one of the most renowned opera singers of all time because he was the first to be widely recorded not long after the phonograph was invented. He made nearly 250 recordings in the early 1900s.

Caruso was born in Naples, Italy, and made his professional opera debut in his hometown at 22. Famous leading roles include the Duke in Rigoletto and Canio in Pagliacci.

He spent the last years of his career and life in New York City, singing many roles at the Metropolitan Opera and recording for the Victor Talking Machine Company.

Caruso also happened to be in San Francisco for a series of singing engagements when the famous 1906 earthquake occurred.

4. Renee Fleming

Lyric soprano Renee Fleming is one of the only contemporary opera singers on our list.

Born in Pennsylvania, Fleming has won four Grammy Awards for her singing career, as well as the National Medal of Arts.

She won the coveted Metropolitan Opera Audition in 1988 at age 29. Since then, Fleming has sung in nearly every major opera house in the world. She is known for playing the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro and Mimi in La Boheme.

Fleming has not limited herself to only opera singing. Her voice was featured on The Lord of the Rings movie soundtrack.

She sang the American national anthem at the Super Bowl, and a special performance at the World Trade Center after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

5. Placido Domingo

One of the most recognized opera talents in the world, both as a singer and as a conductor, Placido Domingo is another of the famous Three Tenors (with Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras).

Domingo began performing internationally in 1957 and has sung more than 150 operatic roles in the past 50-plus years.

Since 1996, he has served as general director of both the Washington National Opera and Los Angeles Opera. Domingo also hosts an annual international singing competition called Operalia for young opera performers.

Much of his fame has come from portraying lead roles in operatic movies. He has won a total of 14 Grammy and Latin Grammy awards.

6. Joan Sutherland

Born in Australia, Joan Sutherland was one of the dramatic sopranos of the mid-20th century known for punctuating Italian opera roles with trills and vocal agility.

She is well regarded for her performances of Lucia de Lammermoor, especially the “Mad Scene,” which she sang for more than 30 years and 200 performances in Sydney, Paris, New York, and at the famous La Scala in Milan, Italy.

Sutherland added new roles throughout her career, ultimately singing Die Fledermaus on December 31, 1990, for her final live performance.

She made numerous recordings and operatic movies during her career and was a frequent collaborator with many other singers on our list.

7. Jose Carreras

The third of the Three Tenors (with Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo), Jose Carreras began his opera career at age 11 in his hometown of Barcelona, Spain.

In the years since, he has performed more than 60 tenor roles all over the world and is known for interpretations of Italian works by Puccini, Verdi, and Donizetti.

Carreras overcame a serious bout with leukemia in the late 1980s and returned to the stage to perform for the World Cup Finals in 1990.

He also served as music director for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Carreras established an international charity in the mid-1990s to raise money for leukemia awareness, treatment, and cure. To date, it has raised more than 70 million euros.

8. Jessye Norman

A five-time Grammy Award winner, Jessye Norman was born in Augusta, Georgia, and grew up listening to Saturday radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera.

In 1983, after 15 years of performing in operas and recitals abroad, Norman made her Met debut during the opera company’s 100th anniversary season.

Not only did Norman sing operatic roles, but she also performed oratorios, orchestral works, and art songs.

In 1989, Norman sang the French national anthem on the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. Seven years later, she helped open the Atlanta Olympics with her beautiful singing.

She opened the Jessye Norman School of Arts for low-income students in 2003.

9. Robert Merrill

For approximately 25 years, Robert Merrill was one of the Metropolitan Opera’s resident baritones and provided the vocal work on dozens of roles. These includes parts in La Traviata, La boheme, and Pagliacci. He retired from singing at the Met in 1976.

But he was far from finished singing. Merrill became widely known for singing the national anthem at hundreds of New York Yankees games over the years.

A fixture at Yankee Stadium, he sang it for Opening Day, Old Timer’s Day, and at least once each time the Yankees made the World Series. He also made numerous television appearances.

10. Marilyn Horne

Another opera singer born in Pennsylvania, Marilyn Horne is well regarded as one of the best mezzo-sopranos of the 20th Century.

Horne got her start singing in the Los Angeles area, performing background in television sitcoms. She eventually had on-camera roles in the TV version of The Odd Couple and sang on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Horne collaborated many times with Joan Sutherland, performing duets in concert and costarring in operas together. She is well known for playing the lead roles of Carmen, Rinaldo, and Mignon.

Until recently, Horne directed a vocal program in Santa Barbara, California.

11. Bryn Terfel

One of the few bass-baritones on our list, Bryn Terfel was born in Wales. His first operatic performance was in Cosi fan Tutte at the Welsh National Opera in 1990.

He has since won acclaim for his rendition of the Speaker in The Magic Flute, Figaro in The Marriage of Figaro, and Ford in Falstaff.

And like any famous bass-baritone, Terfel has sung the title role in Don Giovanni at numerous venues since 1999.

He also sang the title role in Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeny Todd for a Lincoln Center audience in 2014, one year after releasing an album with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

12. Cecilia Bartoli

Another mezzo-soprano, Cecilia Bartoli was born in Rome and performed in her first opera at age 9 (she played a shepherd boy). Her professional opera debut occurred in 1987 at age 21.

Bartoli is known for her interpretations of Rossini operas, such as The Barber of Seville, Otello, and La Cenerentola.

She has also performed numerous Mozart works, including roles in The Marriage of Figaro and Cosi Fan Tutte. In 2005, she starred as Cleopatra in Haydn’s Giulio Cesare.

Bartoli currently serves as the artistic director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival. She has won five Grammy Awards for Best Classical Vocal Performance.

13. Rene Pape

It’s fitting that a bass born in Dresden, Germany, would grow to become one of the world’s most famous singers of Wagnerian Opera.

Since his 1995 debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Rene Pape performed at least one role in each season at the Met for 16 consecutive years.

These performances include roles in Die Walkure, Die Meistersinger, Carmen, and Don Giovanni.

According to critics, Pape’s best works came in the roles of King Marke in Tristan and Isolde and as the title role in Boris Godunov.

Pape has earned two Grammy Awards for his singing.

14. Monsterrat Caballe

A powerful soprano voice, Monsterrat Caballe hailed from Barcelona and received much acclaim for her duet with Freddie Mercury (of the rock band Queen) for the official theme song of the 1992 Olympic Games.

Caballe was a legendary opera singer whose first international claim to fame came for substituting in during a Carnegie Hall performance of Lucrezia Borgia in 1965.

It was no different than her first foray into the opera world. She was a late substitute at the Basel (Switzerland) Opera production of La Boheme in 1956.

Caballe was one of the few Spanish singers to find success in German opera, such as Der Rosenkavalier.

15. Jussi Bjorling

Born into a signing family in Sweden, Jussi Bjorling was one of the most popular opera singers during the years leading up to World War II.

Before his 20th birthday, Bjorling had his debut at the Royal Swedish Opera. He sang more than 50 roles in eight years with his national opera company.

Bjorling sang for the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, and Chicago Opera numerous times between 1938 and 1941. He returned to American opera houses after the war. He was also named a Royal Court Singer by King Gustaf V of Sweden.

Favorite operas include Un Ballo in Maschera.

16. Kiri Te Kanawa

Originally from New Zealand, Kiri Te Kanawa might be best known for singing at the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, which was broadcast internationally to millions of people. But she was an opera star long before that.

Te Kanawa started her opera career in London in 1968 with The Royal Opera productions of The Magic Flute. Within only a few years, she had mastered many roles, including the Flower Maiden in Parsifal, the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro, and the title role in Tosca. Soon, she was singing at opera houses worldwide.

One of her most famous collaborations was in the role of Maria in a recorded version of West Side Story, alongside Jose Carreras.

17. Beniamino Gigli

Here is one operatic tenor almost lost to history, because he did not record nearly as much as his compatriot and predecessor Enrico Caruso.

But, between 1914 and 1920, Gigli made his debut at opera houses throughout Italy, including Las Scala, Palermo, Naples, and Rome. Internationally, he performed in Buenos Aires and New York City.

He was rumored to be Benito Mussolini’s favorite and recorded Giovinezza, an anthem of fascism in 1937. After World War II, Gigli returned to the stage for concerts and operas to great fanfare. He also made appearances in more than 20 movies after the war years.

18. Beverly Sills

Beverly Sills did not have to go far to the Metropolitan Opera – it just took her a long time to get there.

She was born in Brooklyn, New York, and was a child prodigy, singing on the radio by the age of 4. At 10, Sills won a nationwide singing contest for amateurs.

At 16, her professional stage debut occurred singing Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. A year later, Sills’ first opera was sung in Philadelphia.

Although she sang in several European opera houses, Sills mostly stayed stateside because her two children had severe physical and mental limitations. Her Met debut came in 1975, some 30 years after turning pro.

19. Sherril Milnes

Originally from just outside Chicago, Sherrill Milnes is regarded as one of the finest baritones ever on the opera stage.

He was a principal baritone at the Metropolitan Opera for more than 30 years and created numerous roles during that time.

He has sung more than 50 roles in total, including six in Puccini operas and a whopping 17 by Verdi. In addition to his prodigious operatic work, Milnes performed for the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty in New York.

In 2001, Milnes and his wife opened a non-profit organization to train young singers. It has offices in Tampa Bay, Florida, and New York City.

20. Kathleen Battle

Diva may be an apt description of powerful soprano Kathleen Battle, who was fired from the Metropolitan Opera in 1994 after a series of professional dustups.

Before that, Battle was a leading soprano with opera companies and major symphonies throughout the world. She was known for her coloratura vocal quality and range.

Her opera debut came in 1980 when the Zurich Opera Company cast her as Adina in L’elisir d’amore. Over the years, Battle sang in San Francisco, London, Geneva, Vienna, and Berlin.

She has won three Grammy Awards and performed several times at Carnegie Hall.

21. Mario Lanza

Alfredo Arnold Cocozza adopted the stage name Mario Lanza for the film industry. Before that, he had been a professional singer since the age of 16.

After signing a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, however, Lanza only sang in two more operas. One of them was as Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly.

He did sing opera in the movies, though. One of his film roles was Enrico Caruso in The Great Caruso. Several songs Lanza sang in the movies became hits on radio and sold millions of copies.

Sadly, Lanza had an addictive personality. He overate frequently and used alcohol often. These led to serious health problems, and Lanza died at age 38.

22. Renata Tebaldi

Like many opera singers on our list, Renata Tebaldi was born and raised in Italy. She grew up listening to opera as a child, then began singing it in her teens and early 20s.

Tebaldi was particularly successful in the years after World War II, both in Italy and internationally.

Her American debut came at the San Francisco Opera as the title role of Aida in 1950, and her Met debut was five years later when she played Desdemona in Otello.

Tebaldi performed almost exclusively at the Met for the next 20 years and 270 performances.

23. Leontyne Price

In our list of opera singers, three have been African American women but leading the way was Leontyne Price who was the first to become internationally successful.

She was a leading performer at all the world’s major opera theaters, including La Scala and the Met. Price’s most notable roles were Aida and Bess (Porgy & Bess).

Price was also known to be one of the best actors on an opera stage. Some said her acting overshadowed her singing, and her singing was impeccable. Light, Italian opera was a favorite of hers, including Il Trovatore and Tosca.

She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and has won 19 Grammy Awards.

Summing Up Our list Of Great Opera Singers

Our list of the most renowned opera singers includes men and women from all over the world – America, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Greece, New Zealand, and Wales. 

If you enjoy opera, you will certainly like listening to or watching any of these great performers enthrall you with their renditions of classical music.

Photo of author
Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping 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. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.