The 20 greatest opera arias of all time

24 July 2023, 19:31 | Updated: 25 July 2023, 15:48

Operatic greats Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Angela Gheorghiu
Operatic greats Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Angela Gheorghiu. Picture: Getty

By Kyle Macdonald

What are the best opera arias? Step this way, for the most popular show-stoppers for the big stage.

  1. Mozart – ‘The Queen of the Night’ (The Magic Flute)

    Known in German as ‘Der Hölle Rache’, this is an utterly stunning aria of vocal power and virtuosity from Mozart’s late opera The Magic Flute. It’s written for dramatic coloratura soprano and demands huge range and vocal might, as well as colour and agility. Listen out for vicious long runs and famous staccato notes up to a top F as the mother of the opera’s heroine, Pamina, vents her considerable rage.

    The Magic Flute – Queen of the Night aria (Mozart; Diana Damrau, The Royal Opera)

  2. Puccini – ‘Nessun dorma’ (Turandot)

    This really must be the most famous opera aria in the world – thanks in no small part to Italia 1990 World Cup, the phenomenal success of The Three Tenors, and the piece’s greatest champion Luciano Pavarotti.

    From the opera Turandot, it is sung by the hero Calaf who declares “none shall sleep” as he anticipates winning the love of Princess Turandot.

    As an aria, it’s an absolute cracker. From hushed opening to dramatic conclusion, Puccini takes you on an incredible journey. It’s true, there’s no sleeping through this one.

    Read more: What are the lyrics to Puccini’s ‘Nessun Dorma’?

    An epic 'Nessun dorma' from opera star Michael Spyres at Classic FM Live | Classic FM

  3. Puccini – ‘O mio babbino caro’ (Gianni Schicchi)

    As soon as you hear its serene accompaniment and beautiful, soaring melody, you immediately know why this aria is a much-loved classic.

    It’s originally found in Puccini’s one-act opera Gianni Schicchi. Daughter Lauretta is in the middle of a family feud, and makes a plea beginning with the words “Oh my beloved father...”

    O mio babbino caro’ owes a decent chunk of its popularity to the big screen, in particular the way it soundtracked young love and the romance of Italy in the 1985 film A Room with a View.

    O mio babbino caro performed by Susanna Hurrell

  4. Donizetti – ‘Pour mon âme’ (La fille du régiment)

    A show-stopping aria that’s always guaranteed to bring the house down – providing you check off the high Cs, that is.

    And that’s no simple task, because there is not just one of that note at the very top of a tenor’s register. Nor two... but nine.

    ‘Pour mon âme’ from La fille du régiment or ‘The Daughter of the Regiment’ is an 1840 comic opera by Italian bel canto composer Gaetano Donizetti. The nine top notes make it considered the ‘Mount Everest’ for tenors.

    Luciano Pavarotti’s stardom was secured with a legendary performance of this aria in the 1960s, but here’s another great tenor who famously scaled these incredible heights in more recent years, Juan Diego Flórez.

    La Fille du Régiment: "Pour mon âme, quel destin!" -- Juan Diego Flórez (Met Opera)

  5. Mozart – ‘Deh vieni, non tardar’ (The Marriage of Figaro)

    Mozart’s 1786 comic opera tells a story of how servants Figaro and Susanna succeed in getting married, foiling the efforts of their philandering employer Count Almaviva to seduce his young subordinate, and teaching him a lesson in fidelity.

    Known as ‘Susanna’s aria’ it’s sung by the opera’s wily heroine, caught in a moment of tenderness during all the farcical happenings. You can hear Mozart’s touch of genius as Susanna’s musings drift away in the music, as she’s caught in an unexpectedly deep reverie.

    As with all Mozart’s writing in this wonderful opera, it’s full of charm, human emotion and deep musical beauty.

    Aria Deh vieni, non tardar (Le nozze di Figaro) - Dutch National Opera

  6. Puccini – ‘Che gelida manina’ (La bohème)

    This aria comes from the first act of the opera La bohème, composed by that master of a heart-breaking aria, Giacomo Puccini.

    It’s winter in Paris, and two young bohemians Rodolfo and Mimì meet in the cold. “Your tiny hand is frozen,” Rodolfo remarks as they first touch.

    A beautiful aria will warm everyone up, especially when our now loved-up tenor reaches an impassioned high-C climax.

    La bohème – 'Che gelida manina' aria (Puccini; Michael Fabiano, Nicole Car; The Royal Opera)

  7. Tchaikovsky – ‘Letter Scene’ (Eugene Onegin)

    Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin tells the story of a selfish hero who lives to regret his blasé rejection of a young woman's love and his careless incitement of a fatal duel with his best friend.

    In this wonderful scene, the pure-hearted Tatiana pours all her feelings of love into a letter to Onegin. Even though the recipient was so undeserving, this expansive scene contains some of Tchaikovsky’s most beautiful and anguished music.

    Read more: Tchaikovsky, composer of the world’s most uplifting ballets, had crippling self-esteem issues

    Tchaikovsky: "Eugene Onegin", Tatiana's Aria - Asmik Grigorian - 2018

  8. Purcell – ‘Dido’s Lament’ (Dido and Aeneas)

    One of the great moments from English opera, this devastating aria comes at the end of the masterpiece of Baroque composer Henry Purcell. It’s heard as Dido’s life comes to an end after a separation from her beloved.

    Over a repeated ground bass, the music is full of emotion and anguish unbearable, in particular in the pleading ‘remember me’ as Dido departs.

    Read more: The 10 biggest tear-jerkers in classical music

    Henry Purcell: Dido's Lament (Dido and Aeneas); Anna Dennis, soprano, with Voices of Music 4K UHD

  9. Rossini – ‘Largo al factotum’ (The Barber of Seville)

    If there’s one aria that any baritone needs to master, it’s this fun, comic showpiece from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. It’s sung by Figaro (yes that one from Mozart weddings), boasting of his many talents and how in demand he is.

    The aria is incredibly difficult to pull off as it extends the voice to its limits and is brimming with tongue-twisting Italian superlatives. Expect lots of thunderous notes and words ending in -issimo in this brilliant and theatrical piece.

    Baritenor Michael Spyres sings a blistering Rossini ‘Largo al factotum’ | Classic FM Live

  10. Bellini – ‘Casta Diva’ (Norma)

    This aria from Bellini’s opera Norma was very much the signature tune of the most famous, most adored opera star of all time, Maria Callas.

    It’s probably the best example of a ‘bel canto’ aria – a particular type of singing which demonstrates the amazing range of a singer, the pure beauty of voice, and the ability to dazzle with virtuosic high notes.

    Maria Callas sings "Casta Diva" (Bellini: Norma, Act 1)

  11. Saint-Saëns – ‘Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix’ (Samson and Delilah)

    One of the great arias for mezzo-soprano comes in Camille Saint-Saëns’ biblical epic. ‘Softly awakes my heart’ is sung by Delilah in an attempt to seduce Samson and learn of the secret of his strength.

    It’s a ravishing aria that showcases the raw power and irresistible beauty of the mezzo voice.

    Samson et Dalila: “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix”

  12. Handel – ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ (Alcina)

    Where to start with Handel? The master of Baroque opera had the art of the aria perfected. Some of his most thrilling arias are rage arias, where the soloist would fire out huge lines of rapid, impassioned notes.

    But this is ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’, with just as much virtuosity and fire, but all coming from a moment of love and expectant joy in Handel’s 1735 opera Alcina.

  13. Handel – ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ (Rinaldo)

    From jubilant Handel, to weepy Handel. From another classic Baroque opera comes an aria in a different mood. An exquisite melody, sumptuous harmony, and as with all arias from this era, the opportunity for the singer to add in some show-stopping ornamentation.

    Young treble Malakai Bayoh’s astounding Handel solo debut | Classic FM Live

  14. Verdi – ‘Sempre libera’ (La Traviata)

    Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La Traviata tells of a courtesan, Violetta, admired by many of the well-heeled in Paris, and a tragic mingling of love, prejudice and society.

    In this aria, which comes early in the opera, she sings of her joyful independence and strong resolve against love – in thrilling coloratura.

    The appearance of her suitor Alfredo outside her window might make this technically a duet, but ‘Sempre libera’ remains all Violetta, and as one of the finest moments in all opera, it deserves to be on this aria list.

    "Sempre libera"

  15. Verdi – ‘Ella giammai m’amò’ (Don Carlo)

    Because we must have an aria for a mighty bass, from Verdi’s monumental work of Grand Opera.

    Our bass, King Philip II of Spain has a new bride, the beautiful, young Elisabetta. But affections are not returned and in this aria he bemoans his cruel, lonely fate. But what a voice...

    "Don Carlo" Moving Moment, featuring René Pape

  16. Wagner – ‘In fernem Land’ (Lohengrin)

    Wagner is not much associated with arias. His sprawling operas are more free-flowing conversations and long monologues. But when he does hit on an aria-esque moment, boy does he do it justice.

    Here, swan-gliding hero Lohengrin sings an executive summary of his life, and reveals his name, which conveniently is also the name of the opera. It’s mighty, perfectly written, and one of the great tenor arias.

    Lohengrin: “In fernem Land”

  17. Puccini – ‘Un bel dì’ (Madam Butterfly)

    One of the most devastating arias from one of Puccini’s most-loved operas. Butterfly, patiently at home, sings of her hope of seeing her husband, Pinkerton, who putting it lightly does not deserve such love or faith.

    “One fine day” he will return, she passionately sings, with one of the most devastating climaxes ever heard on the stage.

    Madama Butterfly – 'Un bel dí vedremo' (Puccini, Ermonela Jaho, The Royal Opera)

  18. John Adams – ‘I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung’ (Nixon in China)

    This blow-your-socks-off aria is by American minimalist composer John Adams and modern opera Nixon in China, which portrayed Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China and meeting with Chinese Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong.

    “I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung” is a declamatory soprano aria with astounding power and virtuosity, sung by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing.

    Nixon in China: "I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung" -- Kathleen Kim (Met Opera)

  19. Ethel Smyth – ‘Amour, tu es l’éclair’ (The Wreckers)

    The Wreckers is an incredible opera by composer and suffragette Ethel Smyth. Its moments of deeply inspired music and gritty writing make it a truly revelatory opera from one of our most important composers, and this aria is a stunning moment.

    Karis Tucker: 'Amour, tu es l’éclair' from The Wreckers (The Organ Room Sessions)

  20. Bizet – ‘Habanera’ (Carmen)

    Sultry and seductive, the ‘Habanera’ from Bizet’s Carmen is an irresistible opera classic. 'L'amour est un oiseau rebelle' is a dance, sung by the fiery title character, and one of the best mezzo arias to ever be written.

    Soprano Danielle De Niese performs Bizet’s sultry ‘Habanera’ | Classic FM Live