25 best opera singers of all time

12 October 2023, 20:16 | Updated: 12 October 2023, 20:51

The greatest opera singers of all time
The greatest opera singers of all time. Picture: Alamy / Getty
Classic FM

By Classic FM

The best sopranos and magical mezzos, heroic tenors and a mighty bass or two. From star divas of history to the finest voices of today, here’s our list of the greatest opera singers in history.

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We explore 25 of the greatest opera stars of all time – from the 18th century to today.

Read more: The 20 greatest operas ever written

  1. Luciano Pavarotti

    No list of the world’s greatest opera singers would be complete without Luciano Pavarotti. A name now synonymous with opera, Pavarotti had a voice that radiated pure sunshine, with an instantly recognisable, beautiful tone and unmatched ‘ping!’ when up in the lofty heights of his signature aria, ‘Nessun dorma’. He did so much for popularising opera through Fifa World Cup, where the sheer strength of his instrument reached not only those on the grounds but also the millions sat at home, often enjoying the sound of opera for the first time.

    Pavarotti sings 'Nessun Dorma', with English translation

  2. Renée Fleming

    The American soprano is one of the most admired opera stars of the last 30 years. With an unrivaled voice and stage presence, Fleming has made roles of Richard Strauss and Verdi her own, with show-stopping performances in all the great opera houses of the world. The singer also has a strong love of jazz and Broadway, and her varied recording projects have shaped what a great diva can be in the 21st century.

    Renée Fleming: “O mio babbino caro”

  3. Jessye Norman

    Some described Jessye Norman as a ‘Falcon soprano’ – closer to a mezzo soprano in tone, but a dramatic soprano in range. She was known for her operatic roles in Bizet’s Carmen and Verdi’s Aida, and her interpretations of Strauss songs. One of the too-few Black opera singers to achieve worldwide stardom, Norman was a true great, performing in all the world’s most famous opera houses and with the greatest orchestras and conductors. Aged 52, she became the youngest person ever to be awarded the Kennedy Center Honor. A voice like hers will forever be missed.

    Jessye Norman - "Amazing Grace" (Sidney Poitier Tribute) | 1995 Kennedy Center Honors

  4. Dmitri Hvorostovsky

    He truly had one of the great voices in all music, with a resonant tone and high notes that roared with passion. The Russian baritone stormed the prestigious Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 1989, and with his flowing grey hair and beaming smile, an international star was born. Hvorostovsky excelled in many virtuosic bel canto and Verdi roles, but will always be remembered as one of the great Onegins, from Tchaikovsky’s finest opera. The singer was taken from us too soon, dying of cancer in 2017 at the age of just 55.

    Read more: Six incredible high G notes sung by mighty baritones

    Faust - ‘Avant de quitter ces lieux’ (Dmitri Hvorostovsky, The Royal Opera)

  5. Maria Callas

    Nicknamed ‘La Divina’, American-born Greek soprano Maria Callas had already appeared in Tosca, Fidelio, La Gioconda, Die Walkure and Turandot by the time she was 23. Callas would become opera’s most illustrious ‘diva’, celebrated predominantly for her bel canto singing, notably in her signature role Norma in Bellini’s great opera and its famous soprano aria ‘Casta Diva’, and her Verdi and Puccini interpretations – as well as her magnetic stage presence and high-profile love life.

    Global fascination around the great soprano continues to this day, with a new biopic Maria starring Angelina Jolie and directed by Pablo Larraín coming in 2024.

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

  6. Bryn Terfel

    The celebrated Welsh bass-baritone is one of the great voices of our time. His career started out with Mozart, Handel and song, before his voice matured into heavier roles – becoming one of the great Wagner singers in the world today. An electric stage presence makes Bryn Terfel a favourite of the opera houses of the world, and there’s no one else you’d prefer to belt out the rousing Welsh national anthem ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’.

    Bryn Terfel and Andrea Bocelli perform the Pearl Fishers duet

  7. Cecilia Bartoli

    Known for her rich and colourful mezzo voice and magnetic stage presence, Cecilia Bartoli is one of opera’s most popular performers and an utter legend of the recording world, having sold more than 10 million albums and DVDs.

    She is one of the world’s leading singers of Rossini and Mozart, a leading exponent of Baroque opera, and a pioneering woman in music – in 2017 she became the first woman to record with the world-famous Sistine Chapel Choir, and in 2023 she became the director of the Opéra de Monte Carlo, the first woman in the company’s history to hold this position.

    Cecilia Bartoli - "Non più mesta" - Rossini (The Cenerentola)

  8. Juan Diego Flórez

    Bel canto, a style of opera perfected by the likes of Italian composers Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini, was full of long beautiful lines and vocal fireworks, often high up in the singer’s register. There has been no greater exponent of bel canto over the last 25 years than Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez. His voice has an astonishing agility with effortless high notes, including these nine high-Cs in his trademark role, Tonio from Donizetti’s La fille du régiment.

    La fille du régiment - 'Ah! mes amis' (Donizetti; Juan Diego Flórez, The Royal Opera)

  9. Enrico Caruso

    Singers don’t get any more legendary than Caruso. Born in 1873 in Naples, tenor Enrico Caruso was a star of Italian and American opera houses and one of the first great singers to make commercial recordings. From 1902 until his death in 1921, he made 247 recordings, many of which became international bestsellers. To this day they provide an invaluable link back to the Italian artistry of Verdi’s time.

    Enrico Caruso singing in New York
    Enrico Caruso singing in New York. Picture: Getty
  10. Lise Davidsen

    The Norwegian soprano is only in her 30s, but is already deserving of her place as one of the true greats. Her voice is huge but also full of beauty. She made her debut at Glyndebourne in 2017 which left gobsmacked critics reaching for superlatives. She is often compared to her legendary Scandinavian counterpart Kirsten Flagstad, and like Flagstad is right at home in the big, dramatic roles of Verdi, Richard Strauss and Wagner.

    Lise Davidsen sings Sibelius Var det en dröm

  11. Joan Sutherland

    Australian soprano Joan Sutherland was one of the most admired and beloved singers of the 20th century. With unrivalled coloratura, she made roles of Donizetti, Puccini and Verdi her own. Sutherland was often paired with the great soloists of the golden age of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, appearing with the likes of Luciano Pavarotti on stage and in best-selling recordings.

    Dame Joan Sutherland - 'Eccola!' (The Mad Scene) Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor

  12. Franco Corelli

    Dubbed the ‘prince of tenors’ Corelli occupies a very special place in Italian opera. He was a dramatic tenor of power and vibrancy matched with movie-star good looks. His operatic career spanned from 1951 to 1976, and over those 25 years he became a legend of La Scala in Milan as well as New York’s Metropolitan Opera. His artistry remains hugely influential, with today’s star tenor Freddie De Tommaso counting him as his singular hero.

    Read more: The 10 best versions of ‘Nessun dorma’ – ranked!

    Franco Corelli sings Tosca (vaimusic.com)

  13. Ezio Pinza

    A great Italian voice of the first half of the 20th century, Ezio Pinza was born in 1892 and had a bass voice of incredible smoothness and sonority. He spent 22 seasons at the Met Opera, appearing in more than 750 performances of 50 operas. In 1942 he was arrested by the FBI and detained for nearly three months, on the suspicion of him being a supporter of fascism in the Second World War. However, it was later revealed that a rival bass had made a false accusation, and it was something from which Pinza never fully recovered.

    Debbie Reynolds rehearses with Ezio Pinza in 1951
    Debbie Reynolds rehearses with Ezio Pinza in 1951. Picture: Getty
  14. Angela Gheorghiu

    Almost 30 years ago a young Romanian soprano created a sensation when she debuted as Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata at London’s Royal Opera House. With a thrilling voice and diva looks to match, a star was born. Over the following decades, Angela Gheorghiu has remained one of the world’s most sought-after singers, noted in particular for her Puccini and Verdi roles, and long regarded as one of the finest Toscas out there, as the video below proves...

    Tosca - Vissi d'arte (Angela Gheorghiu, The Royal Opera)

  15. Marian Anderson

    In 1939 Marian Anderson was barred from a concert in the DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. In what would become an enduring image in the struggle for racial justice, Anderson instead sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Over 75,000 audience members came to hear her sing, and millions more tuned into a live radio broadcast, many hearing that deep, mellow contralto voice for the first time.

    More than 15 years later, Anderson became the first Black singer to perform at the Met, and was later awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour in the US.

    Read more: 10 poignant and iconic photographs from classical music history

    Marian Anderson sings on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial
    Marian Anderson sings on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Picture: Getty
  16. Jussi Björling

    Swedish tenor Jussi Björling was one of the leading tenor singers of the 20th century. Born Johan Jonatan Björling, he received the nickname ‘Jussi’ from his Finnish grandmother. From his first public appearance at just five years old, Björling was loved for the great beauty and clarity of his voice. He went on to storm the world’s biggest stages in many of the great tenor roles, before an untimely death in 1960, aged just 49.

    Jussi Bjoerling -- Nessun Dorma (Live at Carnegie Hall)

  17. Marilyn Horne

    With five Grammy Awards to her name, acclaimed mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne began her career appearing in TV sitcoms before being discovered by none other than Igor Stravinsky. Once on the opera stage, Horne thrived, on one occasion receiving a seven-minute applause mid-act at La Scala, and also sang at the 1993 presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton.

    Read more: A concertgoer fell asleep during Stravinsky’s The Firebird and woke up with a giant shriek

    Marilyn Horne sings Carmen (vaimusic.com)

  18. Farinelli

    Farinelli was the mononym of the greatest ever castrato singer, Carlo Broschi. Born into a family of good standing in 1705, it’s thought that Farinelli’s elder brother made the decision for the boy to be castrated after their father died, leaving the family in financial insecurity. Farinelli’s popularity spread quickly throughout Italy and wider Europe, earning him huge sums of money and regular engagements to perform for the continent’s most high-profile monarchs, including a 22-year appointment in the Spanish court.

    Carlo Broschi, better known as Farinelli, is considered by many as the greatest and most famous castrato singer.
    Carlo Broschi, better known as Farinelli, is considered by many as the greatest and most famous castrato singer. Picture: Getty
  19. Dame Nellie Melba

    Not only was Dame Nellie Melba one of the greatest operatic sopranos of all time – she’s also the face of the Australian $100 note and the namesake of several food items including ‘Peach Melba’ and ‘Melba toast’. Her career wasn’t an overnight success, but after her Parisian debut in 1889 Melba was in high demand on the European opera circuit. The title role of Saint-Saëns’ opera Hélène was written for her, and London’s Royal Opera House became her ‘artistic home’ as she continued to perform on both sides of the Atlantic.

    Read more: The 10 most romantic opera duets of all time

    Nellie Melba - "Clair de lune" Op 83 No. 1 (Szulc) 1926

  20. Kirsten Flagstad

    Hailing from a family of musicians, Norwegian opera singer Kirsten Flagstad was one of the opera titans of her era, with the general manager of New York’s Metropolitan Opera at the time saying he had “given America two great gifts – [Enrico] Caruso and Flagstad.” Best known for her Wagner performances, Flagstad’s debut in the Met’s production of Die Walküre has gone down as one of the most incredible debuts of all time – just the beginning of an epic career that resulted in her well-earned star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

    Kirsten Flagstad - Liebestod - 1936 Covent Garden

  21. Maria Malibran

    Maria Malibran was a Spanish opera singer in the early 19th century, known for her extraordinary vocal range as well as a reportedly fierce temper and flair for the dramatic. Her unprecedented talent struck Rossini in particular, who said “she outshone all other women I have known.” Her vocal range spanned more than three octaves, and her fans also included renowned composers Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn, and Bellini – who planned to rewrite I puritani just for her, but died before he could complete it.

    Maria Malibran was a 19th century Spanish opera singer, loved by many composers including Rossini.
    Maria Malibran was a 19th century Spanish opera singer, loved by many composers including Rossini. Picture: Getty
  22. Willard White

    Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1946, Willard White’s first exposure to music came from singing along to Nat King Cole on the radio. He later won a scholarship to study at the Juilliard School in New York, where he was personally selected by legendary soprano Maria Callas to participate in her masterclasses. White found great acclaim when he won a Grammy Award for his role as Porgy in the first ever stereo recording of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in 1977. White was awarded CBE in 1995, and made a Knight Bachelor in 2004.

    Read more: Operatic chorus sings Verdi’s thunderous ‘Anvil Chorus’, raising the Royal Albert Hall roof

    Gershwin: Porgy and Bess - Oh Lawd, I'm on my way (Willard White)

  23. Montserrat Caballé

    This Spanish operatic soprano one of the 20th century’s best. Montserrat Caballé had a supernatural control and intensely expressive voice which was perfectly suited to Verdi and Puccini. Alongside several celebrated performance at the New York Met and the world’s leading opera houses, Caballé famously bridged genres when she joined with Queen’s equally charismatic singer Freddie Mercury for a historic rock-opera duet ‘Barcelona’ which would later launch the Barcelona 1992 Olympics.

    Freddie Mercury & Montserrat Caballé - Barcelona (Original David Mallet Video 1987 Remastered)

  24. Kiri Te Kanawa

    New Zealand soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa had a full lyric soprano voice that earned New Zealand its first gold record. She gained legendary status almost overnight after her sensational 1971 debut in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at London’s Royal Opera House. 10 years later, she performed at the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana.

    Dame Kiri has always been utterly dedicated to her home country, and set up a foundation to help young New Zealand singers and musicians realise their dreams.

    Kiri Te Kanawa - O Mio Babbino Caro

  25. Leontyne Price

    Aged 96, legendary American soprano Leontyne Price is now retired from opera, but for over 20 years between the ‘60s and ‘80s was one of the New York Met’s leading divas – and the first and only African American performer to be under the spotlight there at the time.

    Price’s voice has an incredible command and resonance. She was the first African American to sing solo in the hallowed walls of Milan’s La Scala and is widely considered the first African American opera star to gain international acclaim.

    Read more: 11 black opera singers you should know about

    Leontyne price sings Ave Maria [Bach Gounod]