10 of the world’s all-time great opera composers

13 January 2021, 13:07 | Updated: 13 January 2021, 13:15

Great opera composers: Monteverdi, Puccini, Donizetti
Great opera composers: Monteverdi, Puccini, Donizetti. Picture: Getty

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

From the 16th to the 20th century, we celebrate 10 of opera’s most influential voices.

Composers have enjoyed writing operas since the late Renaissance. We imagine they must be rather fun to compose – dramatic, exciting, often packed with the highest and lowest emotions, and the full spectrum of what the human voice can achieve.

The genre really came alive in the Baroque era and continues to be the medium of choice for some of today’s most celebrated composers.

It also makes up some of the world’s most famous classical music. Here are 10 of the greatest opera composers to have ever lived.

  1. Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)

    Monteverdi split opera apart at its seams and helped mark the dawn of the Baroque era.

    At the end of the Renaissance period in Italy, there were operas being written, but mostly all were attempts to revive the classical Greek drama and were small-scale in comparison to what we expect from opera today.

    Being a fantastically theatrical sort of guy, Monteverdi brought a spectrum of emotions, huge scenery and intriguing plotlines to his pioneering operas. L’Orfeo (1607) is the earliest opera still widely performed today, but we also remember him for L’incoronazione di Poppea (1643), which he wrote towards the end of his life.

    Georg Nigl - L'Orfeo - Monteverdi - Tu se' morta

  2. George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

    Handel, once described as a “dramatic genius of the first order”, was a prolific Baroque opera composer.

    He launched three commercial opera companies to supply English nobility with Italian opera, and through the 1720s composed Italian operatic masterpieces for London stages that were often based on classical stories, including Ottone and Serse (Xerxes).

    Handel: Ombra mai fu (Serse); Christopher Lowrey, countertenor, Voices of Music 4K UHD

  3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

    Mozart is where things start to get really ‘hummable’ in opera.

    In typical prodigy style, young Wolfgang composed his first opera, Apollo et Hyacinthus when he was only 11. But it’s the work of 20-something Mozart, as a young man enamoured with Rome, that we really cherish today.

    Mozart was the Austrian who revolutionised the Italian comic opera, somehow perfectly balancing wild, fanciful plots alongside sublime melodies and musical logic. His operas The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte are among the most beloved and accessible operas to new audiences.

    Julie Fuchs and Olga Peretyatko: Sull'aria

  4. Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)

    Rossini was an astonishingly fruitful composer of opera, writing 39 of them in his lifetime.

    He composed his first, Demetrio e Polibio, while still a student in Bologna, where his love of Mozart led to his being nicknamed, “the German”. Such was its success that it led to a series of operatic ventures, including The Barber of Seville – from which ‘Largo al factotum’ or ‘the Figaro aria’ is most famed.

    But having produced a whirlwind of operas, and still just in his 30s, Rossini laid down his opera pen forever. Perhaps he had had enough of dealing with high-maintenance artists, as he was once reported to have remarked: “How wonderful opera would be if there were no singers!”

    Il Barbiere di Siviglia: "Largo al factotum" (Peter Mattei)

  5. Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848)

    Donizetti, with a huge 65 of them under his belt, was the most significant figure in Italian opera after the death of Bellini in 1835. He paved the way for Verdi to take the baton, who burst onto the scene with the revolutionary Nabucco in 1842.

    Donizetti’s style is rooted in the bel canto genre, but his stage pieces have an incredible dynamic range. L’elisir d’amore, Lucia di Lammermoor, La fille du régiment and Don Pasquale are among the dozen of his works still faithfully reinterpreted for today’s audiences.

    Donizetti’s 'Ah! mes amis' | Javier Camarena | The Royal Opera House | Classic FM Sessions

  6. Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

    Verdi’s title as the “King” of all Italian opera composers is beyond dispute. Even Puccini couldn’t quite live up to his predecessor.

    His phenomenally expressive range and capacity to write an unforgettable melody can be witnessed in his incredible array of operas that remain popular today – La Traviata, Rigoletto, Aida, Nabucco, Otello... the list goes on.

    Verdi was also something of a symbol of hope for Italians in the late 19th century. His Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves was taken on as an anthem for the Italian unification movement; and when he died, 28,000 Italians flocked to the streets for his funeral.

    Verdi - Va, Pensiero (Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) from Nabucco

  7. Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

    Wagner redefined the scope and scale of opera. In place of the usual series of set-piece arias and choruses, he created enormous operatic structures from a series of recurring musical ‘Leitmotifs’ used to represent a character or theme (imagine those two ominous notes from Jaws, for a modern-day example).

    His most enduring works include The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, Tristan und Isolde and of course, his monumental Ring Cycle, a work of four operas that takes 15 hours to perform. Wagner didn’t really do things by halves…

    Metropolitan Opera Orchestra – Wagner: Ride of the Valkyries - Ring (Official Video)

  8. Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

    Puccini was the leading Italian opera composer of his generation, and an expert in telling tragedies. He was a major exponent of the verismo genre of opera, characterised for a story about real-life people, the music and drama often telling a tale of passion and romance.

    The exquisite melodies and unashamedly romantic storylines of La bohéme, Tosca, Madam Butterfly make them among the most popular operas to occupy today’s stages.

    His final opera Turandot, left unfinished at the time of his death, was a resounding success and contains the unforgettable tenor aria ‘Nessun dorma’, which achieved widespread thanks to the resonant pipes of Luciano Pavarotti.

    O mio babbino caro performed by Susanna Hurrell

  9. Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

    Richard Strauss was the most significant German opera composer of the first half of the 20th century, best known for his two intense, tragic masterpieces Salome and Elektra, as well as the later Der Rosenkavalier, which is loosely based on Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.

    Married to a soprano, Strauss had an impeccable understanding of the soprano voice, and wrote extensively for it. He also wrote with expert understanding for the full forces of a Romantic orchestra and is famed for his intricate operatic plotlines.

    Strauss: Arabella / Fleming · Hampson · Thielemann · Berliner Philharmoniker

  10. Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)

    Ethel Smyth, 20th-century composer and suffragette, wrote six operas, the most famous of which ­– The Wreckers – has been critically acclaimed the “most important English opera composed during the period between Purcell and Britten.”

    Smyth’s operas were a total hit among critics. Another described The Boatswain’s Mate as “one of the merriest, most tuneful, and most delightful comic operas ever put on the stage”, proclaiming that Smyth had a deep understanding of Mozart and Gilbert & Sullivan and “knows how to write conversations in music”.

    And for more than a century, her opera Der Wald was the only opera by a woman composer to ever grace the stage of New York’s prestigious Metropolitan Opera.

    2015 Sky Ingram - Excerpts from "The Wreckers" by Ethel Smyth