Tag Archives: Composers

Beginner’s Guide to Opera

You’ve just started lessons and want to learn more about music history, opera singers and classical song. Good for you! This is the great historical tradition behind all western singing.

You might start with the vocabulary list at Vocal Terminology, and then read through “Singing” on Wikipedia. Lots of good information there. Need to know more? Opera for Dummies is a really good introduction – fun, informative and easy to understand. And remember: You need to read up on the story before hearing or seeing an opera, unlike music theater, which is usually easy to follow. And don’t be surprised if the stories sound familiar. There are operas based on Shakespeare (Othello, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Falstaff), fairy tales (Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella), Bible stories (Salome,  Susannah) and historical figures (Richard Nixon, Ann Boleyn, Julius Caesar, Harvey Milk, Ghandi, Lucrezia Borgia). Some are funny, like the one with aliens subdued by a music teacher (Help, Help the Globolinks!), or the one where a man can’t get his girlfriend off the phone (The Telephone). Gianni Schicchi is all about a family arguing over a will. The part of the dead man is sometimes “played” by a non-singing personality, like a local politician. Opera is not scary!

Note: You may not want to use a name before you’ve learned how to properly say it. If you let people know you’re new to opera, they’ll help you out. But pretending you’re well educated in this field could backfire. That being said, here are some names to get you going. I hope you will look them up for more background and listen to the singers on YouTube.

Classical Singers You Should Know

Beauty of tone is frequently more important than acting, in opera. I think as you continue your voice studies you will begin to appreciate the operatic voice.

I may have missed your favorite singer, but, hey – it’s my list.

Opera Singers

Names are linked to YouTube, where you can hear these greats. In most of the clips you can go to the end if you’re anxious to get to the high notes.

  • Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) – Often called the greatest tenor of all time. Hard to tell, since the recordings are from the earliest years of phonographs.
  • Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007) – No one ever accused him of being an actor, but Man! could he sing. I think he’s better than Caruso. Listen through to the end of this one for one of his thrilling high notes.
  • Maria Callas (1923-1977) – A revelation in that she proved one can sing opera and act at the same time. Sometimes that took her over the edge vocally, though.
  • Beverly Sills (1929-2007) – Probably my favorite coloratura soprano. Beautiful singing and always full of personality on stage. She really showed her fun side when singing with Carol Burnett.
  • Joan Sutherland (1926-2010) – Australian coloratura.
  • Lily Pons (1898-1976) – Very famous French/American coloratura from the 30’s,40’s and 50’s. She sang in Hollywood movies and was quite popular. In this clip she is wearing a very daring outfit that most sopranos could not pull off!
  • Placido Domingo (1941-    ) One of “The Three Tenors.”
  • Jenny Lind (1820-1887) – “The Swedish Nightingale” A 19th century soprano that P.T.Barnum brought to the U.S..
  • Feodor Chaliapin (1873-1938) – Perhaps the first Russian opera singer to be a familiar name in the west. I don’t know if any other bass ever became a household name.
  • Marian Anderson (1897-1993) – Broke the color barrier at the Metropolitan Opera when she appeared there in 1955.
  • Anna Netrebko (1971-    ) – A Russian soprano with a dark sound and movie-star looks.
  • Fritz Wunderlich (1930-1966) – Who knows what he could have done if he hadn’t died so young? A beautiful tenor voice.
  • Leontyne Price (1927-    ) – Had a very successful career when black opera singers were still uncommon.
  • Bryn Terfel (1965-    ) – Since he’s still in the middle of his career I’m not sure if history will rank him with the others, but I think he’s got a wonderful voice.
  • Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925-2012) – Yes, he sang opera, but may be better known for his Lieder (German song) singing.
  • Natalie Dessay (1965-    ) – A fine french soprano who could sing the spots off of the hardest coloratura roles while delivering very fine acting. Things get very interesting in this clip at 4:55. Unfortunately, she has retired from the operatic stage. No one can sing those coloratura notes forever.
Not Exactly Classical
  • Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944) – Famous, not good. Recordings of her singing are available from the 30’s and 40’s, and you will probably howl with laughter. The sad part is that she believed her audiences were filled with people who came to adore her, not to laugh.
  • Anna Russell (1911-2006) – A wonderful comedienne who sang her way through Wagner’s famous Ring Cycle singing every part and cracking jokes all the way. What Victor Borge did for piano she did for opera.
  • Mary Schneider, Australia’s Queen of Yodeling (1932-    ) Not a classical singer, but the CD is all classical orchestral music. I don’t know if I like yodeling, but this is jaw-dropping.
Classical Singers Best Known for Films
  • Paul Robeson (1898-1976) – Famous for singing “Ol’ Man River in the 1936 film Showboat, but he was also known for “straight” (spoken) shows and political activism.
  • Jeanette MacDonald (1903-1965) – Sang many film operettas with Nelson Eddy in the 30’s and 40’s.
  • Mario Lanza (1921-1959) – Perhaps best known for The Great Caruso.

Famous Operas

Opera is usually sung in the original language. Experts will tell you that it is never the same if the words are not what the composer had in mind, but it may not matter much, in the end. Opera singers must be able to sing in at least Italian, German and French.

Some operas are equally well-known by their English title.

  • La Boheme, 1897
  • Tosca, 1900
  • Aida, 1871
  • La Traviata, 1853
  • Die Fledermaus, 1874
  • Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), 1786
  • Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute), 1791
  • Candide, 1956
  • Porgy and Bess, 1935
  • Tristan und Isolde, 1865
  • Carmen, 1875
  • Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), 1818
  • I Pagliacci, 1892
  • Madama Butterfly, 1904
  • Eugene Onegin, 1879

Famous Arias

I’m guessing you’ve heard these, even if you’re new to opera. Don’t believe me? Look them up on YouTube.

  • “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi
  • “La donna e mobile” from Rigoletto
  • “The Toreador Song” from Carmen
  • “Habanera” from Carmen
  • “Largo al factotum” from The Barber of Seville
  • “Der holle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” from The Magic Flute
  • “Letzte Rose” from Martha

Famous Oratorios

Oratorios are similar to operas, but usually on a sacred story and not staged. Cantatas and classical settings of the Mass are usually categorized here.



Carmina Burana – Not very sacred!

Some Famous Composers of Vocal Music

  • Verdi
  • Puccini
  • J.S. Bach
  • Handel
  • Schubert
  • Schumann
  • Wagner
  • Mozart
  • R. Strauss
  • Debussy
  • H. Purcell
  • Rossini