Why the soprano? Most of us would agree that she occupies a very powerful place in classical music. From an imperious onstage presence to an often similar personality offstage, the great diva has an air of daunting mystery about her.
And while it may be less so these days, the best soprano can occupy the same pedestal as many Hollywood actors. We worship and adore them for who they are and what they do, but we’re ultimately petrified of them.
So who are – or were – the most magnificent sopranos of all time? A tricky one, to be sure. When we asked 22 major opera critics for their top ten sopranos our final list contained over 90 different singers.
Many names, of course, were instantly recognisable, a large number no longer alive and several were what you might call ‘forgotten gems’. Now, you’ll find out which have meant the most to them, excited them and moved them. So sit back and let the show begin as we list the greatest sopranos of all time
The best sopranos ever
20. Elly Ameling (b1933)
In 20th position is Elly Ameling. Born in Rotterdam in 1933, the legendary Dutch soprano charmed audiences worldwide with her Lieder recitals for over four decades, before retiring to teach.
Though I never heard her live, Elly Ameling was the patron saint of my musical youth. I can’t remember the recording I heard first – her light-as-air performance of Schubert’s Seligkeit, her deeply-felt St Matthew Passion, her creamy Mozart Concert Arias, or her hilarious rendition of Cole Porter’s ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing’ – but my love of her voice has never faded.
In Schubert, Mozart, Haydn, French Song, and particularly in Bach, she was the standard-bearer for light sopranos: a singer with a natural smile in her voice, and one that could change from a beam of girlish glee to consolation.
In decades progressively intoxicated by larger voices, the candour, delicacy and charm of her singing was uniquely touching. And how can you not love a soprano who preferred the intimacy of Lieder recitals to the rough glamour of opera? Anna Picard
In her own words: ‘I felt moved at the beginning of the concert, when I got a warm reception. This happened when I did my first recital at Alice Tully Hall in 1970 and I didn’t understand what was happening. I thought they liked my dress.’
19. Rosa Ponselle (1897-1981)
19th place on the greatest sopranos ever list goes to Rosa Ponselle. For many of those who experienced both singers live, Rosa Ponselle was even greater, both as a voice and as an artist, than Maria Callas.
After a teenage career as a vaudeville singer, Rosa Ponselle, at the age of 20 and with no previous operatic experience, made her debut at the New York Met in 1918 in the leading role of Leonora in Verdi’s La forza del destino, partnering Enrico Caruso. Apart from three seasons at Covent Garden (1929-31) and one at the Maggio Musicale in Florence (1933), her operatic appearances were all with that company.
She created unforgettable impressions in such operas as Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine, Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, Montemezzi’s L’amore di tre re, Verdi’s La traviata and Bellini’s Norma. Her recordings reveal the liquid gold of her voice, heady in emotional power, with a matchless sense of line and legato.
Bass Ezio Pinza recalled performances when, ‘instead of thinking of my own role, I would be lost in the dark splendour of her voice’. For Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, she was ‘ultimate perfection’, while for Callas she was ‘the greatest singer of us all’. George Hall
In her own words: ‘Believe me, I worked hard, so hard that I never really had a life of my own in all the years I was singing. You also have to be somebody who is willing to suffer, to feel the pain that goes with all of it.’
18. Renata Tebaldi (1922-2004)
Renata Tebaldi is next in 18th place. Renata Tebaldi was the leading Italian soprano of the 1950s and 1960s in the Verdi and Puccini repertoire. She had a creamy voice, in which the listener could bask.
Tebaldi began her career in Italy as World War II was ending, and came to international stardom singing under Toscanini at the re-opening of La Scala in 1946. She used her voice skilfully, and became the leading Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello (101 performances) and Mimì in Puccini’s La bohème (111 performances), and she mainly confined herself to the late 19th and early 20th-century Italian repertoire.
She learned how to be an adequate actress, but mainly acted with the voice, and in certain roles she became a thrilling dramatic presence. Famous for her warm heart, perhaps also for her ‘steel dimples’ (Rudolph Bing), she was adored on two continents and had a long and fulfilling career. Michael Tanner
In her own words: ‘I know that my voice has entered into the hearts of many people and has caused beautiful reactions. Therefore, how can I not be thankful for this great gift?’
17. Christine Brewer (b1960)
First heard as a Mozartian, Christine Brewer has retained the flexibility of her lyric voice while adding to its power.
A peerless Isolde in Wagner’s Tristan, she is now in her prime. At the height of the hoo-hah over Deborah Voigt’s dismissal over weight issues from Christof Loy’s production of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, it was odd that no one asked Christine Brewer what she thought about the Little Black Dress that caused all the trouble.
But the quietly-spoken Mid-Westerner has little interest in building a media profile, and would be the last to criticise a soprano for putting on weight or losing it. If her own physique has held her back on stage, she has triumphed in the concert hall. Brewer’s magnificent, lustrous, easy sound is startling enough in Wagner, Mahler, Berg and Britten.
Married to perfect diction, meticulous shading and exquisite phrasing, it is a miracle in Schubert and Strauss. Less secure personalities would have lost the plot with a voice like this, yet Brewer never takes her glorious sound for granted and prioritises text and melody. She is a conscientious and generous musician. Anna Picard
In her own words: ‘The common threads in singing roles like Isolde, Elizabeth I [Gloriana], Leonora [Fidelio] etc is that I find the vulnerability in these women – I try and find what makes them take risks, and then I take those risks.’
16. Elisabeth Schumann (1888-1952)
These days, Schumann is seen as a connoisseur’s singer, but her name was once inseparably linked with such Mozart roles as Susanna, Blonde and Despina, and Strauss’s Sophie.
My introduction to historic recordings came through Elisabeth Schumann, and there could not have been a better one. My mother, who had never forgotten a Johannesburg recital Schumann gave shortly before her untimely death in 1952, cherished her records; and though as a young boy I first found the non-stereo sound a little off-putting, the soprano’s special tone quality shone through.
She brought tangible human spirit to everything she sang. No less a discerning lover of the soprano voice than Richard Strauss adored her, persuading her to join the Vienna State Opera in 1919. He also accompanied her in his songs on a 1921 tour of the US, the country in which she was to settle when she decided to leave Nazi-occupied Vienna.
Though the sadness of exile combined with some inevitable loss of bloom may have affected her 1938 recordings of Brahms Lieder, these remain among her most haunting monuments on disc. John Allison
In her own words: ‘The masterworks of song embody within themselves some secret powers.’
15. Karita Mattila (b1960)
Known as the ‘Finnish Venus’, Mattila is a stage animal whose performances carry conviction unsurpassed in the opera house today.
The Cardiff Singer of the World competition may have had its hits and misses, but it could hardly have got off to a better or more prophetic start than by making Mattila its first-ever winner in 1983.
Though Mattila is now instantly recognisable from her striking stage presence and Nordic-tinged voice, she took her career slowly and wisely, shying away from parts that might have damaged her voice, and it was as a Mozartian that she became famous. The turning point was Chrysothemis in Elektra, Strauss’s drama of obsessive family vengeance, at Salzburg just over a decade ago.
Having discovered her penchant for roles into which she can throw herself – Wagner, Strauss, Verdi, Puccini and Janáček all feature in her repertoire – Mattila combines physical and vocal glamour in equal measure to make her the diva of our day. John Allison
In her own words: ‘You know what they say about artists: if we weren’t artists, we’d be psychopaths!’
14. Gundula Janowitz (b1937)
Janowitz is known for having the most beautiful voice of all time, and using it to express the voluptuous purity of German music.
If ever there was a voice to stop die-hard criminals in their tracks, it was Gundula Janowitz’s limpid, otherworldly soprano – a good choice in the film The Shawshank Redemption for the stunning moment when Mozart’s Canzonetta sull’aria (sung by Gundula and Edith Mathis) echoes round the prison yard.
Her voice was as close as can be imagined to a stream of pure beauty. She was at her luminous best in Mozart, Schubert (her ‘Du bist die Ruh’ will make your hair stand on end), Weber and Richard Strauss.
If you want to hear what an angel sounds like, listen to her Gabriel on Haydn’s Creation conducted by Herbert von Karajan. She retired from the stage in 1990 but still sings the odd Lied. Robert Thicknesse
In her own words: ‘I will put my handbag on the piano. If you make more than two mistakes, I will hit you with it.’
13. Galina Vishnevskaya (1926-2012)
Fiery Vishnevskaya, diva of the Bolshoi during Soviet times, was the muse of both Britten and Shostakovich, and a formidable interpreter of Russian repertoire.
Temperament incarnate, the great Russian soprano burned with a passionate intensity that could sometimes seem excessive. Yet she had a host of colours in her formidable vocal armoury, equally adept at the tenderness of Tchaikovsky songs as at the steel and satire of Musorgsky.
It was after hearing a monumental Aldeburgh recital featuring Musorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death that Britten composed the declamatory soprano role in the War Requiem for her. Shostakovich immortalised her full dramatic range in his Blok song cycle and the 14th Symphony.
Never the most beautiful of voices, the strain began to tell in later recordings, and she should have avoided taking the role of the teenage Natasha in Prokofiev’s War and Peace for a second time at the age of 50.
Still, hearing her earlier recorded Natasha, along with a compelling Tatyana in Eugene Onegin, remains a moving experience. Her delivery of Russian songs, sensitively accompanied by husband Rostropovich, is always idiomatic. An autobiography, Galina, makes compelling reading. David Nice
In her own words: ‘When I joined the Bolshoi I was already a creature of the stage, ready to sing the opera parts and to act the roles – to create stage images in the full sense of the words.’
Greatest recording: Musorgsky songs etc EMI 365 0082 (3 discs)
12. Régine Crespin (1927-2007)
Régine Crespin made a mark on operatic history. She was an outstanding lyric-dramatic French soprano with a ‘cleaner’, more classical voice than her contemporaries.
I only heard the last great French dramatic soprano when she had already graduated to character mezzo parts: as the old, dying Prioress, Mme de Croissy in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites at Covent Garden in the 1980s.
Crespin had been the composer’s chosen singer for the role of the new Prioress, Mme Lidoine, in the Paris premiere of his opera in 1958, and the recording made at the time sets the standard for that role and the entire opera.
Acclaimed in her native French repertoire – incomparable as Gluck’s Iphigénie and Berlioz’s Didon, she later sang the title-role in Bizet’s Carmen, Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther and Offenbach heroines – she was also a famous Tosca and sang most of Verdi’s dramatic repertoire.
Apart from her benchmark recordings of Ravel’s Shéhérazade and Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été, she is remembered for two German roles on disc: a passionate Sieglinde in Wagner’s Ring and a Marschallin of rare pathos in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, both conducted by Georg Solti. She may have been a flawed singer with an unreliable top register, but she took risks and her identification with the music she sang was complete. Hugh Canning
In her own words: ‘When I have a success it is a double one. I always have to fight against the Italian and German sopranos.’
11. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (1915-2006)
Perfect voice, perfect technique, consummate artistry: a radiant blonde beauty who transcended the controversy about her Nazi years.
To hear anything sung by Schwarzkopf – but especially Strauss, Mozart and Hugo Wolf – was, and is, to receive a masterclass in the art of singing at its subtlest. The way she conjured myriad tonal colours to convey the mood, context and significance not just of individual phrases but of single notes within those phrases; the sheer intelligence of her approach to words and music; her flawless intonation, diction and control: all these made her the singer’s singer, the Olympian ideal.
True, she commanded every vocal art except that of concealing how artful she was. Her self-esteem was too pronounced for that. She was, after all, the castaway who chose eight records of herself for ‘Desert Island Discs’. But if I had her voice, I would do the same. She was the ultimate professional: immaculately prepared; tirelessly perfectionist. Richard Morrison
In her own words: ‘Many composers today don’t know what the human throat is.’
10. Emma Kirkby (b1949)
‘Queen of Early Music’ is only half the story – her voice is refreshing, incisive, clean and infinitely adaptable to solo or ensemble use.
Plenty of vocalists can be emotional and sob in tune, but it takes someone special to transform the practices within their field, to command a repertory covering a thousand years of music, to excel at ensemble as well as solo performance, and to have influenced a generation of singers.
Kirkby’s vibrato-less voice has shed new light on everything from Hildegard to Schubert, and on operatic roles in Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Hasse’s Cleofide. Recently she has turned to Amy Beach and Debussy, and in 2001 performed a revelatory Mahler Symphony No. 4 under Roger Norrington in New York.
Behind the sweetness there is world-class musicality and professionalism and enormous sensitivity towards the text. In terms of the history of music Emma has made us look back, but in relation to the history of performance style (a rather separate matter) she points forward, signalling the death of the old Romantic indulgences. Anthony Pryer
In her own words: ‘As a singer you are almost never alone completely; there’s always someone to sing with, to interact with… I want to be expressive, but I know one achieves that power as a team effort, realising the elements the composer has combined.’
9. Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962)
Glorious power, tonal beauty: the great Norwegian set a vocal standard in Wagner and Strauss that was never been surpassed.
‘Her intonation, phrasing, unhesitating attack of every declamatory utterance and sweeping dramatic style aroused constant admiration,’ a New York critic raved in 1935 when Flagstad, then already 40, made her Met debut. They still do. Flagstad’s critics paint her as the diva of decibels – and as a naïve woman who needlessly got herself tarred with the Nazi brush by returning to German-occupied Europe in 1941.
But just listen to the dark, burnished beauty of that voice, especially as captured on early career recordings. Consider the refined musicality that allowed her to scale it down for Gluck (or even Purcell!) or beef it up to thrilling dimensions for Brünnhilde’s battle-cry.
It was for this sublime instrument that Strauss wrote the greatest orchestra Lieder of the 20th century – the Four Last Songs (which Flagstad premiered). No wonder that grown men wept when she sang. Her view? ‘Men are all romantics at heart.’ Richard Morrison
In her own words: ‘I was never ambitious. I always wanted to be a private person.’
8. Margaret Price (1941-2011)
One of the most sheerly beautiful soprano voices to have emerged in the last half-century, equally at home in Mozart and Wagner.
About one of the Welsh-born soprano’s many Wigmore Hall appearances, I waxed lyrical in The Guardian that she was perhaps ‘the most complete soprano of our time’. I don’t regret it. Anyone who can encompass Mozart, Wagner, Strauss, Verdi and Lieder with equal command well deserves the accolade.
Price could easily manage the more florid aspects of Mozart’s Donna Anna in Don Giovanni and his most brilliant concert arias, and although she never sang Wagner’s Isolde on stage, her recording with Carlos Kleiber matches incandescent tone with text-conscious intelligence.
She could sometimes seem a shade detached, and came a cropper performing the notoriously difficult role of Bellini’s Norma at Covent Garden, but the beauty of tone remained in performances throughout the 1990s, including an unforgettable Tove in Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder in Paris.
Choosing one recording is a hard choice; her Schubert or Strauss Lieder, Amelia in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera or her two Mozart arias discs for RCA deserve equal honours alongside her Isolde. David Nice
In her own words: ‘I initially said no to Donna Anna in Don Giovanni because I thought it was too heavy – the tessitura is treacherously high – but in the end I accepted the part and it made my career.’
7. Lucia Popp (1939-1993)
Until her tragic death from cancer in 1993, Popp was one of the most sought-after sopranos.
Has there ever been a more enchanting soprano than Lucia Popp? Charming, vivacious and seductive on stage, she also had such an inner strength and seriousness that helped to make her a complete artist. With ancestry drawn from all corners of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, she was truly cosmopolitan, one reason perhaps for her versatility.
She began her career as a fiery Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute, and made her name in a range of Mozart roles. Incomparable in the Czech repertoire, she graduated from soubrette to lyrical parts as her voice matured, and will always be remembered for such Strauss ladies as the Marschallin (in Der Rosenkavalier ), the title role in Arabella and the Countess (in Capriccio).
From Lehár’s bittersweet ‘Vilja Song’ from The Merry Widow to Strauss’s title-role of Daphne, she left a large recorded legacy. Her second version of Strauss’s Four Last Songs became her valedictory disc. John Allison
In her own words: ‘Because I find it easy to communicate with people in real life, I am also able to do so on stage. I’m basically an extrovert. That helps.’
6. Montserrat Caballé (b1933-2018)
Caballé is best know for bringing Bellini back into fashion, and making the world remember the point of him, by showing that all you had to do was sing it right.
She sailed like a Spanish galleon, in the traditional operatic manner, and nobody went to see her for her thespian skills or indeed intelligibility of diction. ‘I am not now nor have I ever been a diva. I am only Montserrat!’ she says, suitably rock-like.
All that matters with Montserrat is the music, the line, the control, the shading: listen to her ‘Vissi d’arte’ from Puccini’s Tosca for superhuman amounts of all those qualities.
But for those of us who sometimes think there is no point in any opera other than bel canto, Montserrat is the goddess for whom many of the operas of Donizetti and Bellini – previously seen as pretty pointless – were revived and given meaning through the medium of pure sound.
Listen to her in Bellini’s Il pirata or I puritani: that – those hypnotic, time-stopping pirouettes through the musical ether – is the point of opera. Robert Thicknesse
In her own words: ‘When a singer truly feels and experiences what the music is all about, the words will automatically ring true.’
5. Birgit Nilsson (1918-2005)
Birgit Nilsson appeared on my horizon first of all as a person, then as a singer.
She was much discussed in the press in the early 1980s as she prepared to retire from her singing career following a thundering series of performances at the Met in New York where at the age of 60 her powers were, by all accounts, undiminished.
I was hooked by the story of a Swedish farm girl who graduated from milking cows to become a legend in her own lifetime on the operatic stage. I liked Nilsson’s wit. The anecdotes are legion: from her quip in response to the question ‘What does it take to be a great Isolde?’ (‘Comfortable shoes!’); to the ‘do not disturb’ sign that she wore on her breastplate as the sleeping Brünnhilde, much to the consternation of Siegfried as he came to the rescue.
Nilsson’s recordings reveal a true, vibrant and steely quality that pierces straight to the heart of the matter. Her phrasing is indefatigable, spinning out Isolde’s long vocal lines in a breathtaking arc, wherein the tone doesn’t waver. Her Salome and Turandot seethe with feminine power. Nilsson’s dramatic thrust in these roles still leaves me shattered, so that I regard these discs as rare treats rather than constant friends.
The recordings with Solti, made in Vienna in the late 1950s and early ’60s, are the most remarkable: a wonderful Ring cycle, blessed by Nilsson’s incandescent Brünnhilde; and above all an Elektra that grabs you by the throat and then squeezes, not so gently.
Nilsson is sometimes described as a ‘cool’ singer. The quality of her voice can be characterised by a glacial brilliance and purity. But frigid? Absolutely not: here is a singer who, even on record, connects totally with the roles that she is portraying and communicates them with a dazzling generosity and intensity that sets the music ablaze. Ashutosh Khandekar
In her own words: ‘I do nothing special. I don’t smoke. I drink a little wine and beer. I was born with the right set of parents.’
4. Leontyne Price (b1927)
Now in her 90s, Leontyne Price was the outstanding lyric-dramatic US soprano of her generation, with a uniquely recognisable timbre.
Arguably the possessor of the most sumptuously beautiful soprano voice of the recording era, Leontyne Price achieved international acclaim in a variety of lyric, lirico-spinto dramatic roles, although she is remembered for her Verdi and Puccini heroines, especially the title role of Aïda in which she made her debuts at Covent Garden and the Vienna State Opera in 1958, and the following year at La Scala, Milan.
Her last appearance on stage was in the same role at the New York Met in 1985. Her recorded legacy comprises her core repertoire of Aïda, Tosca, Leonora in Verdi’s La forza del destino, all recorded twice, Leonora in Verdi’s Il trovatore, three times, and Amelia in Un ballo in maschera.
Herbert von Karajan prized her as Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Puccini’s title role of Tosca, the Trovatore Leonora, and chose her for his first recording of Bizet’s Carmen, a role she never sang on stage but to which her smokey, sultry tone brings a hot-house sensuality rarely achieved on disc.
Price famously declared that she adored the sound of her own voice. In any other singer, this would have smacked of arrogance, but Price’s self-assessment was endorsed by critics, conductors and audiences worldwide.
The glory of her voice was the gleaming upper register which sounds like the sun bursting out of the clouds as she ascended towards high C – the thrill of her rising phrases in Aïda’s ‘O patria mia’, Amelia’s scene and duet in Act II of Un ballo in maschera, or Leonora’s great expansive phrase, ‘Se tu dal ciel discendi’ in the nunnery scene of Il trovatore still have the power to send shivers down the spine when heard on disc.
Price’s repertoire extended far beyond the Verdi and Puccini roles for which she was famed: in her early career she shone as Gershwin’s Bess – has there ever been a more gorgeous account of ‘Summertime’ than Price’s? – but she also sang Mme Lidoine in the US premiere of Dialogues des Carmelites, and Strauss’s Ariadne.
Her close friendship with the composer Samuel Barber brought forth the Hermit Songs and the female title role of his opera, Anthony and Cleopatra that opened the new Metropolitan Opera in 1966. Above all their names are linked in the glorious recording of Barber’s soprano scena Knoxville: Summer of 1915. It was written for Eleanor Steber, but Price’s version is matchless. Hugh Canning
In her own words: ‘Once you get on stage, everything is right. I feel the most beautiful, complete, fulfilled.’
3. Victoria de los Angeles (1923-2005)
Victoria de los Angeles’s classic recordings capture the essence of great singing and remain among the most profoundly affecting in the repertoire.
De los Angeles’s career was forged during an era of tremendous prima donnas. But there were none of the tantrums or torrid affairs that rocked the careers of her counterparts such as Callas and Schwarzkopf. She had a gentle serenity and humanity about her that enchanted me when I first came across her in early EMI recordings with Sir Thomas Beecham.
Listening to de los Angeles singing gave me my first experience of how a great voice doesn’t just imitate emotion, but embodies it. Her Butterfly may not have the tragic nobility of, say, Renata Scotto, but it has a sense of blighted innocence, a childish pathos that goes to the character’s heart.
I love the sassy humour that de los Angeles brings to Bizet’s Carmen. The mellow mezzo range and seductive low register made her perfect for the role. Other memorable encounters on disc include Marguerite’s wide-eyed delight tinged with a sense of the absurd as she opens the jewel box in Gounod’s Faust, a flirtatious Manon in Massenet’s Manon Lescaut, and Rosina in Rossini’s Barber of Seville. Ashutosh Khandekar
In her own words: ‘I never wanted to be a singer… I like what it is to sing, or to be with others singing, to make music. But the fuss, and all the things that are the exterior part of a career, has never interested me. So I don’t think in reality I am a singer. I think I am a human being that has sung, always, all her life.’
2. Joan Sutherland (1926-2010)
Joan Sutherland proved just how agile a big soprano voice could be, reviving many bel canto works over a four-decade career.
Sutherland’s stage personality contained a warmth that reached out to audiences and made them love her. She was rewarded with one of the most loyal followings accorded an opera singer.
Born in Sydney in 1926, she studied and gained experience in Australia before heading to London and the Royal College of Music in 1951. There she made an impression and soon joined the Covent Garden Opera Company. Gradually her repertoire increased to take in such big assignments as Micaëla, Aïda and Eva in The Mastersingers.
After the badgering of the Australian pianist Richard Bonynge, whom she married in 1954, her potential in the coloratura repertory was recognised, and Covent Garden staged Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor for her. The first night on 17 February 1959 changed her life – and musical history. Its success meant she was thereafter in demand as an exponent of bel canto roles and 19th-century French rarities.
Following her debut at La Fenice in Handel’s Alcina in 1960, the Italians labelled her ‘La Stupenda’. Yet throughout the remainder of her career, she was as renowned for her down-to-earth attitudes and capacity for hard work as for the beauty of her voice and vocal technique that was ready for any challenge Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and all the rest could throw at her.
She was a consistent artist, able to revisit earlier triumphs in later years with success – as she proved with a great Lucia at Covent Garden in 1985. She also chose wisely when to retire, with a still glittering account of Marguerite de Valois in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots for the Australian Opera in 1990.
What carried her throughout, apart from a God-given voice and technique, was a personal strength combined with a sense of humour that kept her feet on the ground. George Hall
In her own words: ‘Technique is the basis of every pursuit. If you’re a sportsman, or you’re a singer… you have to develop a basic technique to know what you’re doing at any given time.’
1. Maria Callas (1923-1977)
The Greek soprano Maria Callas was by far the most famous and controversial operatic artist of her time, a singing actress with a unique intensity, often employed in neglected repertoire.
Maria Callas was born in New York of Greek parents, who separated; her mother returned to Greece with her, where she grew up during World War II. She made her international debut in Verona in 1947 and became an international star in 1951, her major stage career lasting hardly more than a decade.
Her last operatic performance was in London in 1965 and she made a comeback tour with tenor Giuseppe di Stefano in 1973-74 before her death in Paris in 1977. Her reputation, extremely high when she died, has become ever greater in the 30 years since her death.
As a personality she remains controversial, but as an artist hardly at all: her genius is recognised as supreme by virtually all opera lovers, indeed it is often from listening to her many recordings that people discover what an incredibly potent art form opera can be.
Callas was always insistent that opera is drama. She had no time for it as an exhibition of vocal or technical prowess, both of which she possessed to an extreme degree. Everything had to serve the purposes of the dramatic action, which she saw as an almost religious act of purgation, for the singer and the spectator-listener.
And what she demonstrated to almost everyone’s amazement was that the operas of such neglected Italian masters as Donizetti and Bellini could be brought back to vivid life, on stage and on record, if they were no longer treated as vehicles of display but taken with the same seriousness as Mozart or even Wagner.
That would have seemed absurd until Callas proved it, above all in Bellini’s Norma, her favourite role, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and Verdi’s La traviata, to which she brought an intensity which can be downright unnerving.
So she is as Tosca and Madam Butterfly, the first of which she professed to despise, but which she performed to lacerating effect (its hair-raising Act II is the only complete act in which she can be seen, from Covent Garden in 1964).
Her voice is not beautiful in any conventional way, but it is uncannily expressive, and not only in tragic operas, though it is there that she reigns unchallenged. With Callas no phrase is treated as secondary, there are no dead notes, the effect is of someone who is so alive to every impression that life itself is – the cliché is unavoidable – an agony and ecstasy.
As with all the greatest artists – and Callas ranks with creative artists, as only two or three performing musicians do – she takes you into a realm where it’s hard to know whether you even want to experience something at this level of intensity, where the demands of being alive seem simultaneously intolerable and exhilarating.
Even if she had not run into severe vocal problems (and into Aristotle Onassis) it seems that she must have burned herself out, and not given a damn if she did, so long as she conveyed, through her singing, what it is like to insist on embracing life in its depths and heights. Michael Tanner
In her own words: ‘An opera begins long before the curtain goes up and ends long after it has come down. It starts in my imagination, it becomes my life, and it stays part of my life long after I’ve left the opera house.’
Read the reaction:
• The Guardian: Are these the 20 greatest sopranos of all time?
• The Telegraph: Today’s sopranos fail to hit the highest notes
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