#15: Dame Nellie Melba
Australian bonny belter Nellie Melba was born Helen Porter Mitchell in 1861 at the height of Queen Victoria's power, when opera was the "thing" in Europe. Fame came to her during the 1880's, when she first took her place as leading lyric soprano at Covent Garden, and it continued to grow as invitations to the Metropolitan Opera and the Paris Opera started travelling her way, until she became one of the most celebrated singers of any kind in the world. Even after a teensy scandal with the Duke of Orleans, the only people who were prepared to throw stones or sew a red "A" into her gowns were critics who said her concert tour programmes were hammer-to-head predictable. One of the few sopranos ever said to have been blessed with perfect pitch, her name became ever greater with a number of recordings that studios in America and England made in an effort to immortalize her pure and warm sound, a sound which BBC Masterpiece chose Dame Kiri Te Kanawa to represent in the worldwide phenomenon, "Downton Abbey." Funnily enough, it wasn't her voice that earned her the "Dame" style that she carried until she died in 1931, but her charity work. She never really retired from opera, though she repeatedly threatened to in Australia, performing a series of "farewell" concerts for a few years; hence the Australian expression, "More farewells than Dame Nellie Melba."
#14: Beniamino Gigli
Almost every tenor of the 1920s-90s wanted to be Beniamino Gigli. Heck, there are singers now who wish he was around to teach his vocal technique. He was known as "Gigli Primo," the first of his kind, which is to say that the only similarity critics have said his voice shared with other operatic tenors of his generation was the simple fact that he was one. No tenor of his time is reported to have possessed quite the combination he had of vocal richness, emotional performance style, and incredible vocal control. He performed more benefit concerts than any operatic tenor ever, and is hailed by opera crazies new and seasoned as one of the greatest operatic tenors in all of recorded musical history, with many audio recordings around to prove it. Even Pavarotti envied Gigli's ability with the role of Edgardo in Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor." If that doesn't say something...
#13: Feodor Chaliapin
The bass voice doesn't get as much attention as it used to, but that might be the fault of genetics. Certainly, in opera, it hasn't been so well represented in the Twenty-First Century as it was once upon the 1920s, when some of the best Feodor Chaliapin recordings were produced. Chaliapin was a Russian with deep feelings for Russian and French operatic music and Russian art song. His incredibly even voice enabled him to popularize Russian operas that weren't regularly sung in his day, but it wasn't all that made him a legend even while he lived. He also gained fame for acting onstage in a manner that was more natural, more like the way actors did their thing in plays, than what was normal for opera singers, who often were minimal or grand in their movement so as to avoid vocal mistakes (Hey, singing opera is friggin' hard!). Chaliapin presented new possibilities and paved the way for the great singing actors and actresses we now know and love. He was also known for his love of travelling. In Japan, a steak dish was named after him when a chef had to devise a way to make his meat more tender than the rest that the chef was to serve because the great singer had a toothache. You can find a recipe for Chaliapin Steak anywhere on the Web.
#12: Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
Nobody was as famous in Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's day in the operatic field of German "art song," or "lieder" than Dame Schwarzkopf, herself, and she brought a lot of lieder to the world's attention that wasn't performed very often in her day. Moreover, fans of operetta, Strauss's "Der Rosenkavalier," and Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" can often be heard shouting her name during modern performances of those ever-enduring masterpieces. Her career had a shadowed start in 1940, when getting a contract with a major opera company in Germany meant joining the Nazi Party. Fortunately, it's not proven that she did anything more to support Hitler than take a few roles in films of Reich Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, and sing in theatres supported by devotees of the German Chancellery. By the time she retired she had become the most acclaimed interpreter of Hugo Wolf's songs and had been established as one of the most notable sopranos of the postwar Era. She was an International voice teacher when she passed away in 2006.
#11: Samuel Ramey
Samuel Ramey still rocks the operatic concert stage and an opera house or two in his seventies. He is mentioned in some classical music news articles and essays as "the most recorded operatic bass in history." He's sung a little bit of everything in live performance, and has recorded even more, from Broadway show tunes, American folk songs, and his very, very famous interpretations of Bluebeard in Bartok's "Duke Bluebeard's Castle" and Mephistopheles in Gounod's "Faust." In his prime, he sported vocal bite and menace, but he has enough control over his instrument to maintain his place at the top of the pyramid of today's great basses in the digital world. Many new possibilities have opened up to basses over the years because of his work in multiple genres, and for that the world of music is thankful.
#10: Dawn Upshaw
You know you're good when composers write music with your name in every note. Dawn Upshaw has premiered more than twenty-five new works, being a muse to many a music maker in the modern century, her voice of a quality that suits almost all styles of classical vocal music. She has crossed quite a few boundaries and succeeded at her craft in ways nobody wholeheartedly expected. I'm referring to the legendary "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs," (my favorite symphony by coincidence) written by the great minimalist, Henryk Gorecki. Upshaw was instrumental in bringing the work, written in the 1970s, to International attention in the 1990s, since when it has sold over a million audio recording copies worldwide, a record for a late Twentieth Century work. This and many more of the works that Upshaw has sung are near the top of the list of classical creations that should come with a "Do Not Listen While Operating Heavy Machinery or Sitting with the Boy's Club" warning. They WILL make you cry if you dare to let them play on your speakers.
#9: Joyce DiDonato
The beauty of Joyce DiDonato's mezzo soprano voice, which extends into the soprano range, isn't the only thing that makes her one of the most important singers of the now. Rossini would thank her if he were around for the work she's done on his long neglected or rarely performed operas. Like Dawn Upshaw, she has been gifted by several notable composers of today with pages and pages of music written just for her. Her most notable world premieres include last year's "Great Scott" by Jake Heggie, with Terrence McNally (Masterclass) as librettist, and "Dead Man Walking," also by Heggie and McNally. She seems to sing effortlessly, as Nellie Melba said all the great opera singers should, and she teaches dozens of amateur singers how to do the same in her famous master classes around the world. An incredibly busy belle, she has also developed a program to bring opera to a younger audience called "Opera Rocks." She ranks with Placido Domingo among the most influential opera singers in the world at present.
#8: Renata Tebaldi
Known everywhere in the opera world as "Voce d'Angelo," (Voice of an Angel) Renata Tebaldi is often called "one of the world's most beloved sopranos." The reason is simple: her very lovably ravishing vocals. She had a very large voice that served her well in her legendary interpretations of the title characters in Verdi's "Aida" and Puccini's "Tosca," with high notes so big that she was asked to turn away from her microphone whenever she prepared to let them fly in the studio. In her best years, she sang with such force and beauty that she sold every seat at the Metropolitan Opera every time she appeared there. Decca's top classical star in the fifties, she wound up in a famous rivalry with EMI's, Maria Callas, one which primarily involved casual listeners and critics. Even now groups of opera fans are often divided over their opinions concerning which one was the greater artist. On its own, however, Renata Tebaldi's name still stands as one of the most notable in all of opera.
#7: Jessye Norman
Jessye Norman makes the list partly because of her very rare voice type ("Falcon Soprano") that enables her to cover roles traditionally sung by contraltos, mezzo sopranos, and dramatic sopranos. The ease with which she has navigated her smooth, dark, and round tone, guided by the music of Wagner, Richard Strauss, and her African American ancestors, has made her one of the great living legends in the performing arts. Moreover, her experience with overcoming prejudice and forging an international career during socially difficult times, not to mention the aid she has given to the cause of creating a prominent place in Europe for the spiritual and folk music of the American South, has made her an American icon. Countless awards have come her way, awards she continues to earn in her seventies for her concert work and her efforts to advance the progress of her school, the Jessye Norman School of the Arts.
#6: Montserrat Caballe
Caballe remains the queen of soft notes (pianissimi), particularly because of how long she can hold them, or could before her retirement from singing. Nowadays, if you want a singer to teach you all about breath control, she's definitely the one you should talk to. She famously held a high note at the end of Verdi's "Don Carlo" for about eighteen seconds, longer than any soprano of the last century. She redefined the definition of "power" in operatic performance, using her relatively gentle stylings to add color and emotional significance to roles that most singers merely howl out at full volume (Tosca and Elisabetta from "Roberto Devereux," for instance). Many of Gaetano Donizetti's (Lucia di Lammermoor) operas were revived because of how much the world loved her breakthrough performance of "Lucrezia Borgia" in 1965, which earned her the title, "Queen of Bel Canto." In addition to opera, she has performed zarzuela and pop music (i.e. "Barcelona" with Freddie Mercury), selling well over a million recordings worldwide.
#5: Anna Netrebko
Anna Netrebko has the distinction of being the most famous true operatic soprano alive today. Her talents were discovered while she was working as a janitor at Russia's Mariinsky Theatre. Since then, she has made her name by testing her abilities in musical material of all kinds, including the Bel Canto roles written by Bellini, Donizetti, and Glinka, the early Verdi heroines (and the villainess, Lady Macbeth), the lieder of Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky roles, and Russian art song. She champions modern production design and has been acclaimed as the soprano who "redefines what it means to be an opera star." Her looks and acting ability have earned her the nickname, "Audrey Hepburn with a Voice." She is the first opera singer to have ranked on the "Time 100" and made Playboy's list of "Sexiest Babes of Classical Music." N-E-T-R-E-B-K-O spells "superstar."
#4: Placido Domingo
Placido Domingo is the single best-known and most influential living tenor in the world of classical music at present. He has rebuilt or fortified the reputations of opera companies all over the United States, covering artistic ground as a singer, conductor, and art director over the years. I can rightly say "of course" before mentioning that he first came to International attention when he, Luciano Pavarotti, and Jose Carreras started their "Three Tenors" concert run in 1990, the first performance of which, in Italy, was recorded and became the bestselling classical album of all time. He is his generation's most acclaimed interpreter of Verdi's "Otello," and has recorded over a hundred roles, not all of them tenor, and has also recorded a few pop and crossover albums, making a name for himself as one of the most versatile classical vocalists on the planet. One of his most notable contributions to the opera world is the greatly prestigious singing competition for young opera singers, "Operalia," which he started in 1993 and has presided over every year since. Teenagers and college students who don't even like classical music know him by name. I know because my alien soul resides among them.
#3 Maria Callas
No true operatic soprano has influenced more singers of Italian opera or sold more complete opera recordings than "La Divina," ("The Divine One") Maria Callas. Her vocal sound was categorized under one of the rarest voice types known, soprano assoluta. She was naturally able to sing middle contralto and mezzo soprano music, but also trained her voice to reach some of the highest coloratura soprano notes. Her voice was naturally expressive, standing her in good stead as she revolutionized acting in opera, both vocally and physically. She made a lot of legendary recordings, something that is not said about very many opera singers, and she holds the distinction of singing the lead role in what is often said to be the single greatest recording of a complete opera ever made (still available everywhere, fortunately), the 1953 "Tosca" conducted by Victor de Sabata. This wasn't the performance that earned her the nickname mentioned above, though. La Teatro alla Scala, Milan, still one of the world's most prestigious opera houses, was to thank for that. Many operas were revived officially and/or made incredibly popular because of her acting and musical abilities, which were and are very frequently described as "electrifying." Her three most famous roles were Bellini's Norma, Cherubini's Medea, and Puccini's Tosca, all three of whom murder or threaten to murder one person or another with a knife.
#2: Rosa Ponselle
Rosa Ponselle was and is considered by opera singers and critics all over the world to have been the single greatest operatic soprano in 115 years. Maria Callas harbored a not so subtle envy of Ponselle's voice, with very, very few opera singers throughout history having been said to have possessed one like it. It was unusually large, so large that microphones had to be moved some meters away from her during recording sessions, but was as full in the highest notes as in the lowest. It was also extraordinarily rich, inspiring several of her listeners with a descriptive phrase anyone can love, "dark chocolate." She is partly famous for bringing Bellini's opera, "Norma," to wider attention, and for being the first American soprano to have forged a great International career. In the twenties and thirties, she was the most famous and one of the best paid sopranos on the planet, and her recordings tell a very interesting story about just why that was. She was discovered by the greatest opera singer of all time, the final artist on this list.
#1: Enrico Caruso
Meet the first platinum-selling vocalist in history, Enrico Caruso. His very large vocal cords enabled him to sing baritone (which he did in his very early days, and when one of his baritone colleagues lost his voice before his big aria during "La Boheme," with the baritone mouthing the words), lyric tenor, and dramatic tenor music. His ability to control his huge sound earned him fame as the most versatile and the most beautiful tenor of his day. A regular on lists of the greatest opera singers in history, he is very frequently described by critics and casual listeners as the single most talented opera singer in more than a hundred years, and the most important opera singer of all time. He recorded extensively between 1900 and 1920. All of his recordings are still available today and rack up millions of views on video sharing sites all over the web. Many of the most famous tenors in history made their own names imitating his all-purpose and pyrotechnical style, which was entirely new to the opera scene in his time, but some today say that they don't try very hard to sound like him, simply because nobody can.
I hope you've enjoyed this list, buds! Who do you think is the greatest opera singer ever? Leave your comments below or on my Facebook pages, Callaven Skaya and Everyone's Opera, and we'll chat all about it! Until next time, happy musical insanity!