20 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Sopranos Of All Time

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

Many of the most well-known roles in opera belong to sopranos. These high-voiced sirens weave together singing skills and acting abilities to create a compelling performance.

While there are countless sopranos throughout opera’s long history, a few have captured the attention of the world and are more popular than others. Read on to learn about 20 of the most famous sopranos in opera.

1. Montserrat Caballé

Maria de Montserrat Bibiana Concepcion Caballé i Folch, better known as Montserrat Caballé, was a Spanish soprano known for her dedication and skill. The magic of this singer came from her musical prowess rather than any theatrical drama, especially in her performances of Verdi and Bellini.

After debuting in the musical world in the 1950s, she gained international fame after a performance of Lucrezia Borgia. Since then she remained active as an opera singer until 1985, after which she went on to explore other musical roles.

Due to her experience in several high-profile performances, Caballé enjoyed great success, especially with her duet, “Barcelona,” with Freddie Mercury, who admired her greatly.

2. Maria Callas 

Greek-American Maria Callas was a well-known soprano opera singer throughout the 20th century. She was born in New York before moving to her parent’s native Greece as a young child. At around the age of 24, in 1947, she had her opera debut in Verona.

Callas delighted in performing lesser-known musical works, such as Donizetti and Rossini. She was exulted for her expressive and distinct voice, as well as her reputation as a diva, which earned her the titles Bible of Opera and the Divine One.

Sadly, the world lost an amazing soprano in 1977 when Callas passed away due to a heart attack. She was only 53.

3. Birgit Nilsson

Our next opera singer, Birgit Nilsson, was known for her command of operas of German composers, such as Wagner and Strauss. She presented their works with a versatile voice—forceful and powerful but brilliant and clear.

Born in the early 20th century, Nilsson started her career in Sweden and worked her way up from her church choir through a scholarship at the Royal Swedish Academy of Music.

Following the academy, she went on to a long and illustrious career, peaking in the ’60s up to the early ’80s. Nilsson retired in 1984 and passed away in 2005 at the age of 87.

4. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf

One of the most well-known Sopranos of the 20th century, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, was exulted for her performance of Schubert, Wagner, and Mozart. She performed in school productions when she was young and went on to train under Maria Ivogun.

During World War II, she performed in Nazi-funded films and for Nazi troops. However, she claims she disagreed with their politics. Postwar, Schwarzkopf performed in the Vienna State Opera and the Royal Opera House in London before having an international debut in 1954.

Schwarzkopf played several important roles in some of the most successful operas throughout her long career. Some of her most notable roles are Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, Countess Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro, and Countess Madeleine in Capriccio.

5. Cecilia Bartoli

After debuting in 1987, Cecilia Bartoli is currently one of the most well-known opera singers in the modern world. She is an Italian mezzo-soprano who focuses on music from Vivaldi, Mozart, Rossini, and other baroque or classical composers.

Since her debut at the Arena di Verona, Italy, Bartoli has been active as an opera singer. Her voice is known for its vibrancy and power. She has a unique tone, with all registers of her voice well-developed.

In 1991, her performance as Isolier in Le comte Ory at La Scala cemented her reputation as a talented opera singer. After this, she continued to perform in opera houses the world over.

6. Diana Damrau

German singer Diana Damrau is a modern soprano from Germany who sings opera and other genres of music. Damrau often plays at concert venues and special events in addition to operas.

She had her debut in 1995 in The Marriage of Figaro as Barbarina in Wurzburg. Throughout the first part of her career, Damrau performed vital roles in performances at several theaters before becoming a freelancer in 2002. 

Damrau is known for her incredible ability to balance vocal strength with dramatic performance. Within each piece she sings, she takes the listener or watcher on a journey through the music.

7. Joyce DiDonato

The unstoppable Joyce DiDonato is a modern American mezzo-soprano. While she can beautifully perform classic works, she is also known for interpreting well-known opera pieces.

DiDonato is notable for her vocal ability as an agile and clear singer, making her well-suited to almost any piece she puts her voice on. With her baroque and classical background, she often performs works by Mozart, Handel, and Rossini.

Besides appearing in operas and concert venues, DiDonato has also been in several television performances. Throughout her career, DiDonato has received a number of awards, including three Grammys, and in 2012, she was added to Gramophone‘s Hall of Fame.

8. Mirella Freni

Italian operatic soprano Mirella Freni was active from the mid-1950s to the early 2000s. While she performed pieces from several different operas, there were a few roles for which she was primarily known, like Mimi in La bohème and Zerlina in Don Giovanni.

Freni started studying music early in life and tried to be pragmatic about the roles she accepted. With a voice described as fresh and pure, she was able to use her vocal talent to her advantage in a range of different operas.

In 2005, Freni performed her last opera before retiring at the age of 70. Sadly, after battling years of ill health, she passed away in February of 2020.

9. Jessye Norman

Modern American operatic soprano Jessye Norman was known for her ability to perform many roles thanks to her talented voice command. In 1968, she had her professional debut as Elizabeth in Wagner’s Tannhauser, performing at Deutsche Oper Berlin.

Since then, she has had other notable roles, like Jocasta in Oedipus Rex, Dido in Dido and Aeneas, and Aida in Aida, earning fame not just in Europe but also internationally.

Besides opera, Norman also performed in concerts and other similar venues. For her works, she won five Grammy awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006, and several honorary degrees.

10. Dinara Alieva

Another modern opera singer, we have Dinara Alieva, an Azerbaijani soprano who frequently performs in Russia. Her multi-dimensional voice is known for its ability to become bright and clear or sultry when needed.

She has had several roles since her debut in 2002, of which Leonora in Il trovatore and Nedda in Pagliacci are some of her most notable. Alieva’s cross-cultural appeal also makes her operas very well-attended, filling opera halls across Europe.

In 2010, Alieva started working as a soloist at the State Academic Bolshoi Theatre. Her key roles include Violetta in La Traviata, Mimi in La Boheme, Rosalinda in Die Fledermaus, Marfa in The Tsar’s Bride, and Nedda in Pagliacci.

11. Darya Dadvar

Born in Iran, Darya Dadvar moved to France to study music at the age of 20. Like some modern opera singers, she often performs in concerts that contain her most famous works.

She offers a unique sound thanks to her fusion of traditional Iranian music with classical, baroque, and blues elements. Her ability to sing in several languages—Iranian, French, Italian, German, and English, among others—has also helped set her apart from other operatic singers.

Dadvor has training in the Baroque style but also prioritizes Iranian works. Tahmineh, an adaption of the story of Rostom and Sohrab, is one of her most beloved roles.

12. Elly Ameling

Dutch soprano Elly Ameling had a long operatic career before becoming a teacher. This singer used her unique and versatile voice to perform several lieder recitals and works by Bach.

Roles she’s well-known to perform as are Ilia in Idomeneo, Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte, Jacqueline in Fortunio, and many more. Unlike many other singers on this list, Ameling did not frequently perform in full operas. Most of the time, she sang music in concerts.

Ameling is also gifted in performing other genres like chamber music, oratorios, and orchestral music, all to great acclaim. Her works have earned her several awards—to name just a few: the Edison Award, the Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik, and the Grand Prix du Disque.

13. Rosa Ponselle

American soprano Rosa Ponselle was one of the most famous 20th-century singers, with a warm, even, versatile, and beautiful tone. In her early career, Ponselle joined her sister in a vaudeville act. During those performances, they sang operatic music, ballads, and more.

After making her opera debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, she performed in Norma, Aida, Don Carlos, La vestale, and Il trovatore, among many others. She also gave concerts across the United States and abroad.

After 21 years of performing, Ponselle retired. Later on, she began providing voice lessons at the Baltimore Civic Opera Company. In 1981, she passed away, leaving a legacy solidly imprinted in music history.

14. Renata Tebaldi

Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi had her debut in 1944 as Elena in Mefistofele. After that, she performed in a number of works, including Otello, Mose in Egitto, La Boheme, Madame Butterfly, and Aida.

After finding success in Italy, Tebaldi went traversing the globe in operas and concerts. Audiences across the world were able to hear the singer’s rich and measured singing.

Like the divas before her, Tebaldi was pitted against Maria Callas professionally, which is said to have caused animosity between the women. Nevertheless, Tebaldi was famous in her own right, with performances that often filled opera houses that she was called Miss Sold Out.

15. Faustina Bordoni

Faustina Bordoni, often known as Faustina, was an Italian mezzo-soprano during the 18th century. She debuted her singing talent in 1716 in Ariodante in Venice. During her career, fans often pitted her against another well-liked soprano, Francesca Cuzzoni.

After her rise to popularity, Bordoni often sang in works of great composer George Frideric Handel, like Admeto and Riccardo Primo. And after she married another composer, Johann Adolf Hasse, Bordoni went on to perform in her husband’s works.

Due to the time in which she lived, we can not listen to any of Bordoni’s singing, but descriptions give us an idea of her voice. Her vocal ability was reportedly quite clear, with exceptional range and breath control, even with her love of embellishments and complexity.

16. Anna Netrebko

Russian operatic soprano Anna Yuryevna Netrebko has been actively singing since 1993 after being discovered by renown opera director and conductor Valery Gergiev. With his guidance, she began performing first at the Mariinsky Theatre, before expanding internationally.

She’s notable for her coloratura and lyric soprano roles, like Adina in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore and Violetta in Virde’s La traviata, though she’s delved into more heavier roles as well as verismo.

Netrebko’s amazingly high vocals have gained her several accolades over the years, including—but certainly not limited to—three successive years (2016, 2017, and 2018) as Best Vocalist in Classical Music at the Russian National Music Awards.

17. Renée Fleming

Lyric soprano Renée Fleming was born in 1959 in Indiana, Pennsylvania. She studied at the Eastman School of Music and spent summers at the Aspen Music Festival and School, where she had her first opera-singing experiences.

After winning an audition at the Metropolitan Opera, Fleming had her big break. She debuted at the Houston Grand Opera in 1988 as the Countess in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, a role she would reprise several times in her career and become well known for.

Fleming then went on to perform in opera houses all over the United States and, in the 1990s, in Europe. Her performances have won Grammys, Classic Brit Awards, and more.

As a multi-linguist, Fleming sings not just in English but German, Italian, Czech, French, and Russian too. She has also delved into non-classical work, most notable of which are soundtracks for popular films like The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Rise of the Guardians.

18. Leontyne Price

Mary Violet Leontyne Price holds quite the acclaim. The now 96-year-old operatic singer is the first African American soprano to gain international acclaim. Her lirico spinto soprano voice has been lent to a number of operas since 1952, particularly Verdi’s and most especially for the title role of Aida.

Despite the prominent racial discrimination at the time, Price performed to great success at the Metropolitan Opera House during the 1960s. There, she performed Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, considered an operatic disaster, though at no fault of the singer.

This wasn’t a blemish on Price’s repertoire, though, as she went on to win 13 Grammy awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award, and several honors throughout her career.

In 1985, Price had her final performance at the Met, which ended in a 25-minute applause. Her performance for the third act’s aria, “O patria mia,” is considered the greatest moment of Live from the Met.

Price fully retired from performances in 1997 at the age of 70. Nevertheless, her voice, as well as acting, has been an inspiration and a great influence to many opera singers who followed.

19. Joan Sutherland

Australian dramatic coloratura soprano Joan Sutherland was born in 1926. Her mezzo-soprano mother influenced her as a child, but it was only when she was a teen that Sutherland considered singing as a career.

She began singing professionally in 1947, first in concert performances and then in opera houses in Australia and abroad. Many of her roles were heroines of bel canto, from La traviata’s Violetta to La fille du régiment’s Marie.

Called La Stupenda, Sutherland’s voice was widely acclaimed for being clear and agile with a strong upper register, helping her win two Grammy awards and several other accolades and honors. She had her last performance at the age of 63 in 1990 at the Sydney Opera House.

20. Kathleen Battle

American soprano Kathleen Battle was initially a Cincinnati teacher who majored in music education. She had her chance to change her career in 1972 at an audition held by the conductor Thomas Schippers, which gave her the opportunity to sing in Italy.

After this, Battle began singing in orchestral concerts all over the US, and in 1975, she had her operatic debut as Rosina in The Barber of Seville at the Michigan Opera Theatre.

She continued operatic singing until the 1990s, after which she turned her focus to recording, concerts, and other non-classical collaborations with music artists, like Stevie Wonder and George Gershwin.

Her work as an opera singer has been acknowledged with five Grammy award wins, among many accolades. To this day, she continues to gift the world with her voice.

Summing Up Our List Of Famous Soprano Opera Singers

Opera has a long and enduring history filled with dozens of unique operatic sopranos. Since the genre became popular, fans have enjoyed engaging with a soprano’s powerful music and following their personal lives.

Take a listen to some of the songs from each of these singers, and see how they are similar and different. Who knows? Maybe you’ll like some and add to them to your playlist.

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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.