10 of the Greatest Opera Composers you Should Know

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, it has continued to evolve with many amazing musicians and performers keeping it alive.

In this post, we will explore 10 of the greatest opera composers you should know about and some of the work and lives.

1. Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)

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 fifteen, but by twenty, 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 (1685-1759)

George Frideric Handel

With a list of work 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 wouldn’t even let him own a musical instrument, so Handel had to sneak around to learn his craft.

He still 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 twenty 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 (1756-1791)

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.

By the age of five, he’d already started creating his first early composition and at the age of six, Mozart was already performing as a child prodigy in different European courts. 

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 being concertos and symphonies, he would collaborate on two more operas that were successful  – The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni.

4. Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Richard Wagner

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

Throughout his career, Wagner composed many operas, but his most famous ones include the 18-part “Ring Cycle” and the epic “Tristan and Isolde.” 

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 eleven but started creating musical compositions by sixteen. 

Wagner began with writing symphonies inspired by Beethoven. 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, and went on to create The Flying Dutchman.

He took on a position in the Dresden opera and began working on another opera, Lohengrin, but he had to flee the country due to his anti-semitic political beliefs. 

He never stopped working, and after a decade, Wagner returned home with Tristan and Isolde, a piece inspired by a secret love affair.

Eventually, he produced The Ring Cycle, an opera he’d been working on while he was in exile.

5. Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

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.

And, by the time he’d turned eighteen, Richard 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,” and led Strauss to create 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 (1813-1901)

Giuseppe Verdi

Born in 1813, Guiseppe 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, but 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 and happened to premiere around the same time as his wife’s death. 

While he was discouraged to continue working, 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  – 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, that was based off of the Shakespeare play, and other works that have earned him recognition as one of the greatest opera composers ever. 

7. Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

Giacomo Puccini

With a focus on realism, 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 fourteen and began writing his own musical compositions shortly after.

And, 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. Puccini began focusing on interesting subjects, accessible melodies, and scenes that still felt realistic  – and 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 (1792-1868)

Gioachino Rossini

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

At eighteen 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 twenty more operas and modify 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 (1797-1848)

Gaetano Donizetti

Not only was he able to compose over sixty 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 nineteenth century, Donizetti has been an important figure in bel canto opera. 

Throughout the early 1800s, Donizetti 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 (1714-1787)

Christoph Willibald Gluck

And lastly, Christoph Willibald 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 became 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 andArmide.

Not only did he revolutionize opera, but it’s though his work significantly influenced later composers such as Weber, Wagner, and Mozart.

Summing up our List of Famous Opera Composers

These ten 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 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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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.