15 Of The Greatest Opera Composers You Should Know

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

The world of opera is an extensive one, with different genres and types to suit all tastes. Some of the most popular operas to this day were written back in the 17th and 18th centuries where composers like Monteverdi, Handel, and Mozart began their careers writing for this genre.

Since then, opera has continued to evolve with many amazing musicians and performers keeping it alive. So in this post, we will explore 15 of the greatest opera composers you should know about and some of their work. Let’s get started!

1. Claudio Monteverdi

Claudio Monteverdi

Born in 1567, Claudio Monteverdi may be one of the most revolutionary opera composers of all time because much of his work marked the transition from the Renaissance style of opera to the Baroque period. 

Monteverdi’s talent for composition and music was apparent even as a child—not only did he get his first publication at the age of 15, but by 20, several of his works had already made it to print.

Throughout the early 1600s, Monteverdi struggled to find commissions due to political outbreaks and the plague, but he returned to the stage in 1637.

While he also composed madrigals and church music, Monteverdi is most well-known for some of his operas, including L’Orfeo, the oldest opera to still get regularly performed on the stage.

2. George Frideric Handel

George Frideric Handel

With a list of works that includes oratorios, such as the famous “Messiah,” instrumentals, and operas, George Frideric Handel remains one of the most well-known opera composers to this day.

As a child, Handel’s father was so unsupportive of his musical aspirations that he had to sneak around to learn his craft. Still, he managed to find a mentor to teach him and even compose his own chamber music. 

Handel didn’t make his debut as an opera composer until 1705, when he penned Almira, which was such a success that it would continue to get performed for another 20 years. 

In 1710, Handel decided to freelance as an opera composer in London, and this is where he had his breakthrough by composing Rinaldo.

This opera earned him widespread recognition across Europe, and not only did he get to perform for English royalty, but Handel was able to secure a position at the Royal Academy of Music. Unfortunately, operas eventually fell out of fashion in London, and Handel switched his focus to composing oratorios.

3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

With a legacy that includes symphonies, sonatas, concertos, and operas, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is considered one of the most prolific and talented musical composers of all time. 

Born in 1756, Mozart had an early introduction to music and began tutoring with his father as a toddler. He was a child prodigy, creating his first early compositions and performing in courts by the time he was six.

By 1779, Mozart had already composed a variety of different church works, and in 1781, he began writing the opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio). The opera became an instant classic and only created more of a reputation for Mozart across Europe. 

While Mozart focused much of his musical career on concertos and symphonies, he would collaborate on two more operas that were successful: The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni.

4. Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner

Born in 1813, Richard Wagner isn’t just one of the most famous or influential opera composers, but he was also considered one of the most controversial.

Unlike a lot of composers, Wagner’s musical talent didn’t show up immediately, but he was an ambitious child. He wrote his first drama at the age of 11 but started creating musical compositions by 16.

He composed one of his first operas Die Feen (The Fairies), in 1834, but it never made it to the stage. One of his next operas, Riezi, showed promise, but Wagner and his wife fled the city from creditors before he could completely finish it. 

Eventually, Wagner was able to finish the opera and sent it off to be performed in Germany, then went on to create The Flying Dutchman.

He never stopped working, and soon, he created one of his most popular pieces, Tristan and Isolde, which was inspired by a secret love affair. Eventually, he produced another great opera: the 4-part Ring Cycle.

5. Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss

Not only was he born into a family of musicians in 1864, but Richard Strauss began composing his first musical pieces by the age of six. By the time he’d turned 18, Strauss had composed 140 different works, and Festive March for Large Orchestra was released in 1881.

Shortly after, Richard Strauss took his first job as a court musical director before moving on to orchestra conduction in 1889. However, Strauss began experimenting with opera compositions, and in 1905, he came out with Salome, which redefined modern opera music. 

However, audiences had polarized reactions to Salome, leading to Strauss creating his first opera work, Elektra, which was an instant success. With more works, like Woman Without a Shadow and The Shopkeeper’s Mirror, Strauss became the Vienna State Opera Musical Director in 1919.

6. Giuseppe Verdi

Giuseppe Verdi

Born in 1813, Giuseppe Verdi created several successful operas throughout his career, but he’s often known for the way he could create melodies and how he used theatrical effects in his operas.

Like many composers, Verdi’s musical talents showed up as a child, and he went on to study musical composition under other famous composers. It wasn’t until 1833 that Verdi got his official start in the musical industry, and three years later, he was able to complete his first opera, Oberto

The opera was well-received by audiences, but his follow-up opera, Un giorno di regno, didn’t do so well, discouraging him from working.

However, Verdi eventually began composing new operas, including the successful I Lombardi. This is also where Verdi’s unique style and flair for theatrical effect began, and because he rejected the traditional style of Italian operas, he was even more well-liked by audiences.

In his later years, Verdi continued to experience more success with his opera Otello, which was based on Shakespeare’s play, and other works that have earned him recognition as one of the greatest opera composers ever.

7. Giacomo Puccini

Giacomo Puccini

With a focus on realism, or verismo, Giacomo Puccini composed operas that are among some of the most regularly performed pieces, even today.

As a child, Puccini seemed disinterested in music, despite his family’s rich background in the music industry. However, after being tutored, Puccini became his church’s organist at the age of 14 and began writing his own musical compositions shortly after. Then after seeing the opera Aida, Puccini started to show interest in composing operas.

Initially, many of Puccini’s early compositions were rejected or snubbed by audiences, but his breakthrough came with Manon Lescaut. He began focusing on interesting subjects, accessible melodies, and scenes that still felt realistic. As a result, he had three major back-to-back successes: La Boheme, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly.

After the success of those three operas, Puccini took time off composing and spent the next several years traveling to his own productions while also battling personal tragedies. By the time of his death in 1924, Puccini had become the most financially successful opera composer of all time.

8. Gioachino Rossini

Gioachino Rossini

By the age of 14, Gioachino Rossini, born in 1792, had already started composing his own pieces, including his first opera seria: Demetrio e Polibio.

At 18 years old, he would actually produce an actual opera, La cambiale di matrimonio, and within a couple of years, he was already gaining international fame for his works. 

While he tried writing operas for Venice and Milan, Rossini didn’t produce anything that captured the audience’s attention, and he eventually moved to Bologna. Here, Rossini was able to compose his greatest work: The Barber of Seville.

While none of his other operas matched the success of that one, he did produce 20 more operas and modified some of his older pieces for the pope.

After being diagnosed with cancer in 1868, Rossini eventually passed away but left behind a legacy as one of history’s greatest opera composers.

9. Gaetano Donizetti

Gaetano Donizetti

Not only was he able to compose over 60 operas within his lifetime, but even today, Gaetano Donizetti’s works are still complex and technical enough to challenge modern-day opera singers.

And as one of the most well-known opera composers from the 19th century, Donizetti has been an important figure in bel canto opera. Throughout the early 1800s, he worked with different opera composers and began developing a versatile style that resembled a happy balance between Rossini and Verdi.

It wasn’t until 1830 that Donizetti started to achieve international fame with the opera Anna Bolena, and one of his next operas, Lucia, was recognized across the world.

While many of his later operas were well-liked, they couldn’t match the success that Anna Bolena or Lucia had throughout Europe and the world.

10. Christoph Willibald Gluck

Christoph Willibald Gluck

Next up, ChristophWillibald Gluck is known as one of the best composers of Italian and French operas.

Growing up in Germany, Gluck had a passion for music from an early age, especially singing and playing both the violin and cello. He went on to become a guiding figure in opera and was one of the pioneers of a new opera reform style.

His main idea being opera should be a mirror to reality—with dramatic truth and honest emotions.

Due to new demands, he took opera back to its roots by introducing simplicity in dramatic action and more naturalistic singing. He sought to strengthen emotional expression without the ornamentation of virtuosity.

He wrote a number of operas, with some of his notable works being Paride ed Elena, Iphigenie en Aulide, and Armide. Not only did he revolutionize opera, but it’s thought his work significantly influenced later composers such as Weber, Wagner, and Mozart.

11. Vincenzo Bellini

Italian composer Vincenzo Bellini was known for his long-flowing melodic lines, for which he was named the Swan of Catania. Born into a musical family in 1801, his early life was steeped in music, which set the perfect foundation for his innate talent.

A master of the bel canto style, his first compositions were created while he was still a student at the Naples Conservatory. After composing Bianca e Fernando for the Naples opera, he went on to write Il pirata in 1827, which achieved international success.

In the first half of the next decade, Bellini would compose some of his most notable works, including I Capuleti e i Montecchi, in 1830, which is based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet); La sonnambula, in 1831; and Norma, also 1831.

Sadly, Bellini’s journey came to an untimely end when he passed away in the fall of 1835. His last opera, I puritani, had been completed earlier that year.

12. Benjamin Britten

Born in the small coastal town of Lowestoft, England, in 1913, Benjamin Britten showed prodigious talent at an early age. His mother, a keen amateur musician, nurtured his musical inclinations, and by the age of 14, he had already completed a set of six sonatas for piano.

Britten’s formal education at the Royal College of Music further honed his skills. However, it was his association with poet W. H. Auden and tenor Peter Pears, his lifelong partner and muse, which truly shaped his musical ethos.

Distinguished from his contemporaries by his unique style, Britten combined traditional and modern elements to create music that was both innovative and accessible. His compositions were often reflections of the human condition, exploring themes of innocence, experience, and the often complex interplay between the two.

Among Britten’s most famous works are his operas, particularly Peter Grimes and The Turn of the Screw. The former, a tragic tale of a misunderstood fisherman, is often hailed as the cornerstone of 20th-century British opera.

13. Hector Berlioz

Regarded as one of the pioneering composers of the Romantic era, we have next Hector Berlioz. Born into a family of physicians in 1803, Berlioz was initially expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. However, his passion for music led him to enroll at the Paris Conservatoire.

Berlioz’s unique compositional style set him apart from his contemporaries. He was renowned for his grand and imaginative symphonies, which often employed large orchestras.

Among his most famous works is the Symphonie Fantastique, a programmatic and innovative piece that tells a self-autobiographical tale of unrequited love. This work is notable for its vivid depiction of a series of opium-induced hallucinations, including the chilling final movement, “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath.”

Another significant contribution to the opera genre was Les Troyens, based on Virgil’s epic The Aeneid. Despite its initial incomplete performance, it has since been recognized as one of the greatest operas of the 19th century, appreciated for its grand scale and richly detailed score.

14. Jules Massenet

French opera composer Jules Massenet was born in 1842 and is one of the most celebrated composers of French opera during the Romantic era.

Massenet’s musical journey began at an early age when his mother, a talented singer, introduced him to the world of music. After showing promising talent, he was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied under the renowned composer Ambroise Thomas.

Massenet’s compositional style is often described as elegant and refined, marked by its lush orchestration and dramatic melodies. He was a prolific composer, and over his career, he wrote more than 30 operas.

Among his most famous works is Manon, an opera in five acts. Its beautiful arias and dramatic ensembles have made it one of the most frequently performed French operas. Another significant work is Werther, based on Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther.

15. Carl Maria von Weber

A pioneer of the German romantic opera, Carl Maria von Weber is hailed for his contributions to the genre that paved the way for other notable composers like Richard Wagner and provided a much-needed Germanic response to the dominance of Italian opera.

As a child, Weber was guided by his father, a versatile musician and theater manager, and had a robust musical education. He studied under illustrious teachers like Michael Haydn and Johann Peter Salomon.

His most celebrated work is undoubtedly Der Freischütz. It premiered in 1821 in Berlin and was so successful that performances all over Europe followed. This piece greatly influenced future developments in German opera.

Euryanthe and Oberon are two other significant operas by Weber after he composed Der Freischütz. Sadly, the composer succumbed to tuberculosis in 1826; he was only 39 years old.

Summing Up Our List Of Famous Opera Composers

These 15 composers we’ve talked about are only the beginning, as there are many more famous opera composers that you should explore if you want to hear some of the best music ever written.

There are lots of operas available on YouTube, so we hope this list has inspired you to explore some more operas!

Which composers have we missed? Let us know, and we’ll update this post with some more.

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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.