Famous Sopranos, Ah, the soprano. So magnificent, so captivating… so diva! Sopranos, opera’s shining stars, have always been held high by composers, critics, and audiences alike. Their voices dominate the orchestra and are the easiest to discern among all others. There have been many wonderful women to have graced the stages of opera houses around the world, but only a few make it to the top of the pyramid. These eight great soprano soloists exuberate power, control, mastery of skill and technique, personality, and presence.
Maria Callas was probably the greatest stage performer of all time. She performed a wide range of roles, more specifically, the works of of Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini, Verdi, and Puccini. She didn’t have the most beautiful voice (although many would disagree), but where she lacked in singing, she made up in stage presence many times over. Because Callas was 100% devoted to her career, early on she lost over 80 lbs. in a year’s time, stating that she felt it was inaccurate to play a beautiful young woman on stage when she could barely move with ease as she was a little of 200 lbs. This one single act launched her to super-stardom.
Dame Joan Sutherland
Alongside Maria Callas, Dame Joan Sutherland was the most famous opera star of the post-war period. Her spectacular voice seemed to have been made exclusively for the Bel canto style. Bel canto, or beautiful singing, is characterized by a perfected evenness of tone, extreme agility, superb quality, and a warm, pleasing timbre. After listening to many recordings, is easy to understand why Dame Joan Sutherland quickly earned her way to the top.
Montserrat is best known for her roles in Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti operas. Her superb voice, breath control, exquisite pianissimos, and infamous technique overshadow her acting and dramatic abilities. Although Montserrat’s personal favorite performance was her Norma on July 20, 1974, she is best known for her “Vissi d’Arte” from Puccini’s Tosca, which displays her remarkable breath control and technique. She set the bar and no one has yet to surpass it.
Known for her lighter, less dramatic voice, Renata Tebaldi excelled in the late works of Verdi. Although she lacked Callas’ and Sutherland’s range and versatility, Tebaldi knew her limitations and stuck to what she was able to do best. There are many rumors centered around the actuality of her relationship and/or rivalry with Maria Callas. Some believe it was just their record labels creating a buzz to gain higher record sales, while the two women played along. Callas was quoted saying comparing the two women was like comparing champagne to cognac. Tebaldi’s reply was that even champagne goes sour. Whatever the case, both reaped the benefits from the media’s attention.
Faced with adversity, Leontyne Price overcame the many challenges in her life and became the first African American on a televised opera production in 1955. Best known for her leading role in Verdi’s Aida, Price had a wonderfully rich, slightly heavy, brilliantly smooth voice. Her skill and mastery earned her many awards and honors including 19 Grammy Awards, the Kennedy Center Honors in 1980, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Grammy. One of her greatest moments (and would be for any other performer) was her 42 minute ovation after her debut performance as Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore at the Metropolitan Opera in 1961.
Renee Fleming has the unique ability to create real people in the sound she emits from her distinctive, dark, and above all, consistent tone. Many sopranos can sing high and loud, but her consistency of sensitivity brings a breathtaking shimmer to each and every note she sings. What’s more impressive is her ability to sustain such glorious sounds in a seemingly effortless manner. Her voice does not transport the listener into a whole new world like Callas, nor is her acting ability as stellar, but Fleming’s versatility does bring out an element of human truth from the music, which is always so palpable to her audiences.
Kathleen Battle could have been huge. Had she stuck to what she was best at doing like Tebaldi did, she would have had a career greater than any soprano on this list. Unfortunately, she strived to perform roles less appropriate for her extremely delicate voice proving harmful to her career. The best description of her voice I’ve ever heard was said by my college professor many years ago, “She spins diamonds in mid-air.” After you listen to her, you’ll know exactly what this means.
Renata Scotto became an overnight success when she performed the role of Amina in Bellini’s La Sonnambula at La Scala. She had only two days to learn the role after Maria Callas made it abundantly clear to the opera company that she had already made prior arrangements and would not perform in the extra performance. Scotto’s work quickly paid off. Since then, she has performed countless titles and roles. Ms. Scotto now teaches 14 talented operatic musicians every year at her Opera Academy in the Music Conservatory in Westchester.