Opera is a part of Western classical music, which originated in Italy during the 16th
century with the opera Dafne written by Jacopo Peri. Opera colorfully blends the various features of theater such as, acting, dancing, scenery, and costumes, with elaborate orchestral scores.
Italian composers such as Alessandro Scarlatti, Nicola Porpora, and Leonardo Vinci helped give further structure to opera, and contributed to the making of Opera seria
or serious opera. Gioachino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini, Giuseppe Verdi, Gaetano Donizetti, and Giacomo Puccini were some of the famous Italian opera composers, who made opera immortal.
Opera would have remained a desolate play, had it not been for the magnificent singers who breathe life into its characters. Since its inception, there have been hundreds of legendary singers who have played their part in molding the world of Opera. Every single performer has contributed significantly, not only with their voice, but also with their very being.
Among the many forgotten legends from Opera, there are a few who are etched in our memory. They outdid themselves and outshone others, in order to be remembered for eternity. This article mentions 21 famous Italian opera singers who gained spectacular international acclaim. These artists have been categorized according to their seniority.
1. Angelica Catalani (1780 - 12th June, 1849)
After retiring from opera, Angelica Catalani started a no-fee singing school for girls in Florence.
Angelica Catalani is considered as one of the greatest opera singer of all time. She was discovered while studying at Santa Lucia convent in Italy. She began her career at the tender age of 15, giving her first stage performance at Venice. She was one of the first opera singers to name her fee, and was a highly paid and sought after artist. In 1806, she was invited to perform at Her Majesty's Theater, in London. During her stay in England, she married Captain Valabrégue. She was given the responsibility of looking after the Paris Opera House, which proved to be financially unsuccessful for the Opera. However, in 1827 she was made an honorary member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts. In the year 1828, she retired in order to dedicate her time towards educating her three children. During one of her visits to Paris, she contracted cholera and succumbed to the infection.
2. Luigi Lablache (6th December, 1794 - 23rd January, 1858)
Luigi Lablache's five unsuccessful attempts of fleeing from his conservatory, were driven by his desire to become an actor!
Luigi was born in Italy. His father was from France, while his mother was Irish. He is renowned for his comical roles such as Don Giovanni, and Sir Giorgio. He had always been interested in acting, and applied his acting skills during his opera performances. He began his career in Naples in 1812, by singing for the comical opera La Molinara by Valentino Fioravanti. He is renowned for the way he enacted the roles of Leporello from Don Giovanni, Henry VIII from Anna Bolena, Oroveso from Norma, and Geronimo in Il matrimonio segreto by Domenico Cimarosa. Luigi sang Mozart's requiem during Ludwig van Beethoven's funeral and was one of the torch bearers during the ceremony. He died in Naples and was buried near Paris.
3. Giuditta Pasta (26th October, 1797 - 1st April, 1865)
"It is a ruin, but then so is Leonardo's Last Supper", as stated by Pauline Viardot to Adelaide Kemble about Giuditta Pasta's voice after her retirement.
Giuditta Pasta was born in Saronno, Italy. She is revered as one of the greatest mezzo-sopranos in operatic history. She made her debut in 1815 and by 1822, had become extremely famous in Paris because of her performance as Desdemona in Otello by Gioachino Rossini. She is credited with the enacting of characters and bringing them to life with her soulful singing and performances. Giuditta Pasta fame grew manifold with her performances of the character Anna Bolena, written by Gaetano Donizetti and Amina, the sleepwalker from La sonnambula by Vincenzo Bellini. Several other operas were composed solely for her, and include works such as Niobe, by Giovanni, and Vincenzo Bellini's Beatrice di Tenda, and Ernani by Giuseppe Verdi. However, her voice began to fade during 1830s and caused her to restrict her performances within St. Petersburg and London. After retiring in 1850, she became a vocal trainer in Italy. Some of her students include, Adelaide Kemble, Emma Albertazzi, and Marianna Barbieri-Nini.
4. Marietta Alboni (6th March, 1826 - 23rd June, 1894)
Gioachino Rossini wrote his last opera Petite messe solennelle in 1863, for Marietta Alboni, so that she could perform the section of 'O salutaris' exactly the way he envisioned it.
Marietta Alboni is considered as one of the best contralto singers of the 19th
century. Her deep voice was unique and highly appreciated by her admirers. She was born in Città di Castello and had the privilege to learn from the master composer Gioachino Rossini himself, who guided and helped start her career. She debuted in 1842, playing the role of Climene from the opera Saffo by Giovanni Pacini. Rossini was also instrumental in giving Marietta a three year contract with Bartolomeo Merelli, a famous manager of an opera house at Milan. She played the leading role for many of Rossini's operas such as, Les Huguenots and Donizetti. She settled in London and married Count Carlo Pepoli in 1853. However, her husband's mental illness caused her to retire in 1863. Marietta gave a few more performances after the death of her husband, in order to fulfill the wish of her master. She performed the role of Bartolomeo Merelli from Il matrimonio segreto by Cimarosa a couple of times, and finally retired from stage in 1872. She died in Ville-d'Avray.
5. Adelina Patti (19th February, 1843 - 27th September, 1919)
Adelina Patti settled in Swansea valley in south Wales after her retirement, where she purchased the Craig-y-Nos Castle. There she founded her own theater and made some of her recordings.
Adelina Patti was born in Madrid, Spain. Born as Adela Juana Maria Patti, she was the last child of Caterina Barilli and Salvatore Patti. Due to her pleasant voice and the unsurpassed quality of her bel canto technique, she was considered as one of the best sopranos that opera had ever witnessed. At the age of 19, she made her debut in opera with the role of Gaetano Donizett's Lucia di Lammermoor, at the New York Academy of Music.
She was invited to the Covent Garden, to perform the soprano role of Amina in Vincenzo Bellini's La Sonnambula in 1861. Patti excelled in soubrette roles like, Zerlina in Don Giovanni, Rosina in The Barber of Seville; coloratura parts in Lucia di Lammermoor and La Sonnambula, as well as roles in Charles Gounod's Faust and Roméo et Juliette. She was an excellent actress and often enacted roles such as, Gilda from Rigoletto, Leonora from Il trovatore, Semiramide by Gioachino Rossini, and Violetta from La traviata. During her peak career years, Patti was highly paid and used to name her fee. Patti died at Craig-y-Nos, and was buried near her father at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
6. Francesco Tamagno (28th December, 1850 - 31st August, 1905)
Francesco Tamagno was often chided by critics for unnecessarily exaggerating the top notes during his performances.
Francesco Tamagno was a tenor with a booming and majestic voice. He was born in Turin. He learned singing from the composer Carlo Pedrotti, who was instrumental in giving Tamagno his first professional operatic role in 1873. In 1874, Tamagno's portrayal of the character, Riccardo from Un ballo in maschera by Giuseppe Verdi gained him much repute. In 1988, he performed the role of Otello by Giuseppe Verdi, and became an opera sensation overnight. He was invited all over the world by the leading opera houses, and performed in 26 countries during his professional career. He was also a dotting father and a single parent. He is remembered the most for the recordings he left behind.
7. Luisa Tetrazzini (29th June, 1871 - 28th April, 1940)
"I am old, I am fat, but I am still Tetrazzini." ~ Luisa Tetrazzini.
Luisa Tetrazzini was perhaps one of the best known soprano singers of her generation. She was born in Florence, and got her first operatic debut in 1890 when the actual singer could not make it for the show. Luisa performed as Inez from the opera L'Africaine by Giacomo Meyerbeer, and was appreciated for her role. Her shrill and flexible coloratura soprano voice, gave her the ability to perform many complex roles with fluid ease. She was in demand for the way she portrayed characters such as, Violetta, Lucia, Oscar, and Gilda. She shocked the world, when she performed on the streets of San Francisco in 1910, thereby keeping her promise to the people of San Francisco. She was absolutely adored in London for her performance of Violetta from Giuseppe Verdi's La traviata. However, this great singer wasn't so lucky in her personal life and had to face many marital and financial problems after retiring from the stage.
8. Enrico Caruso ( 25th February, 1873 - 2nd August, 1921)
In 1987, Caruso was awarded the 'Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award', and a 22 cent postal stamp was issued in his honor by the United States Postal Service.
Enrico Caruso was born in a poor family in Naples. He continues to remain one of the most famous Italian Opera singers of all time. As a boy, he sang in church choirs, cafes, and even on streets, to make ends meet. His enormous record sales, striking tenor voice, and a musical career of 25 years (1895 - 1920), made him one of the best male operatic stars of his era. Caruso made his professional debut on March 15, 1895, at the Teatro Nuovo in Naples, in an opera by Domenico Morelli. In 1898, he received his first major role as, Loris in Umberto Giordano's Fedora at the Teatro Lirico in Milan.
Caruso was absorbed by the Gramophone and Typewriter Company, where he made his first recording which brought fame and recognition. In 1902, he performed at the Royal Opera House and a year later, he performed at the Metropolitan Opera as the Duke of Mantua in Verdi's Rigoletto. In 1917, he became an honorary member of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia (the national fraternity for men involved in music, by the fraternity's Alpha chapter at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston). Caruso recorded many discs in September 1920, for Victor at Camden's Trinity Church, that included sacred music by Rossini; these were his last recordings. On December 11, 1920, while performing in Donizett's L'elisir d'amore at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Caruso suffered a throat hemorrhage. Thereafter, he gave only three performances at the Met, wherein his final role was as, Eléazar in Fromental Halévy's La Juive. He died in Naples due to peritonitis arising from a burst abscess.
9. Giuseppe De Luca (25th December, 1876 - 26th August, 1950)
"Absolutely the best baritone I ever heard" as told by the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini.
Giuseppe De Luca is best known for his roles of Sharpless from Madama Butterfly and as Gianni Schicchi, both by composer Giacomo Puccini. De Luca was born in Rome. He had a wonderful baritone voice, which left his audience spellbound. He gave his first stage performance in 1897, where he sang the song Valentine from the opera Faust by Charles Gounod. He was applauded for this performance and was booked for further shows. By 1910, he was already famous in Milan, and had performed at the Royal Opera House in London. Yearning for more, De Luca turned towards America and was inducted into the Metropolitan Opera, where he sang for over two decades. After retiring, he taught singing at The Juilliard School in New York.
10. Titta Ruffo (9th June, 1877 - 5th July, 1953)
"I never knew how to sing; that is why my voice went by the time I was fifty. I have no right to capitalize on my former name and reputation and try to teach youngsters something I never knew how to do myself." ~ TitTa Ruffo
Titta Ruffo was born in Pisa, Italy and rose to fame because of his distinct baritone voice. Even though he learned singing from many vocal teachers, he developed his own style of singing which was unconventional, pleasing, and unique. Ruffo made his debut in 1898 in Rome as the King's Herald in Lohengrin by Richard Wagner. 1902 saw Ruffo gaining international repute for his voice and the enacting of his characters. There was no turning back from thereon and he eventually reached the New York Metropolitan Opera by 1922. Renowned as the 'Voce del leone' meaning 'Voice of the Lion', Ruffo Titta's forceful method of singing caused severe strain to his voice. By the time Rufo was fifty years old, his voice had lost substantial vigor. The legendary Giuseppe De Luca once described Titta Ruffo's voice as, "His was not a voice, it was a miracle".
11. Pasquale Amato (21st March, 1878 - 12th August, 1942)
Pasquale Amato was made an honorary member of the Louisiana State University's Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia in 1939.
Pasquale Amato was a gifted and highly regarded baritone singer. He was born in Naples, and made his career debut in 1900, as Germont père from Giuseppe Verdi's La traviata. He gained popularity quickly and by 1904 had given his first performance at London. By the year 1908, Amato had reached America where he was absorbed by the Metropolitan Opera, and gave regular performances until 1921. He shot to fame with his performance in the opera Armide by Christoph Gluck, where he co-starred with the legendary Enrico Caruso and others. Some of his iconic roles include, Walter Damrosch's Cyrano in 1913, Escamillo from Carmen by Georges Bizet and Manfredo from L'amore dei tre re by Montemezzi in 1914. He retired in 1920 and spend the rest of his life in Queens, New York.
12. Giovanni Martinelli (22nd October, 1885 - 2nd February, 1969)
A Vitaphone short film of Giovanni Martinelli from 1926 showcases him singing 'Vesti La Giubba' from 'Pagliacci' by Leoncavallo.
Giovanni Martinelli was one of the most celebrated tenors of his time. He was born in Montagnana and began his career as an opera singer after having served in the military, where he also played the clarinet. He debuted in Milan for the opera Ernani, by Giuseppe Verdi. His performance in the opera La fanciulla del West as Dick Johnson in 1911, won him instant acclaim. By the year 1913, he had reached Philadelphia. During the same year, he performed in Paris as Pantagruel in the world premier of the opera Panurge by Jules Massenet. He gave over 900 performances at the New York Metropolitan Opera, and performed many iconic characters such as Radames from Aida, Calaf from Turandot, and Pollione from the opera Norma. He retired in 1950 and taught singing in New York until his death.
13. Tito Schipa (27th December, 1888 - 16th December, 1965)
Tito Schipa knew more than five foreign languages, and performed in several non-Italian operas.
Tito Schipa's birth name was Raffaele Attilio Amedeo Schipa. He is counted among the greatest tenors in operatic history. As a child, he impressed his teachers with his singing and was eventually taken under the wing of the town bishop who offered to pay for the boy's expenses and further studies. He began his career at the age of 21 by debuting in Vercelli and from thereon began performing in Buenos Aires and other major halls in Italy. Tito decided to expand his career in the United States in 1919, where he was accepted by the Chicago Opera Company and stayed with them until 1932. He began recording his songs from 1913 onwards and made records of the opera Don Pasquale by Donizetti, which is still in circulation. Tito Schipa was also an opera Conductor as well as a teacher.
14. Claudia Muzio (7th February, 1889 - 24th May, 1936)
"Singing with that unique voice of hers made of tears and sighs and restrained interior fire." as stated by the Italian tenor, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi
Claudia Muzio was born in Pavia, and was introduced to the world of opera at a very young age. Her father was a stage manager for the opera, which allowed Muzio to travel to various opera houses. Muzo learned singing from her mother who was a choir singer. Claudia shifted to England with her family when she was 2 years old and finished her schooling there. However, when she turned 16, she returned to Italy in order to learn operatic singing from Annetta Casaloni in Turin. She also learned from the lesser known teacher, Elettra Callery-Viviani in Milan. Her operatic debut was in 1910, in the opera Manon by Massenet. She gave some of her best performances at the Covent Garden, playing roles such as Floria Tosca, Mimi, and Desdemona. Her most memorable role was Violetta. She gave her last performance in 1934 in Rome, as Cecilia written by Licinio Refice. Claudia Muzio died two years later of a heart failure.
15. Beniamino Gigli (20th March, 1890 - 30th November, 1957)
"We have all had to bend our knees before his greatness." as told by Tito Schipa about Beniamino Gigli's voice.
Beniamino Gigli's singing abilities made him the reigning tenor of his generation. The recordings of some of his performances are testament of his magnificent voice. He played a crucial role in the history of opera, and paved the way for future tenors and others. Gigli won an international competition for singing in 1914, which landed him an offer to perform for an actual opera. He made his debut in the same year, with the portrayal of the character Enzo from La Gioconda by Amilcare Ponchielli. His performance won him great acclaim and several other stage opportunities. Gigli preferred playing fewer roles and mastering them. Some of his iconic roles include, Edgardo from Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti, the title role of Andrea Chénier by Umberto Giordano, one of the tenors in the opera Mefistofele by Arrigo Boito, and Rodolfo from La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini. Beniamino Gigli also performed in some popular movies, such as Ave Maria, and I Pagliacci.
16. Mario Del Monaco (27th July, 1915 - 16th October, 1982)
Mario Del Monaco once claimed that he had performed the role of Otello around 427 times during his career!
Revered as one of the best dramatic tenors of his generation, Mario Del Monaco thrilled his audience with his enchanting voice and good looks. He made his debut in 1940, playing the part of B. F. Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly. By 1946, he was called upon to give his first performance at the Royal Opera House, where he was highly regarded by the esteemed audience. He had become an operatic celebrity by then, and gave his first American performance at the Metropolitan Opera in 1951. He was retained by the Metropolitan opera house and continued to sing for them until 1951. Some of Del Monaco's iconic roles include, Radames from Aida, Samson from Samson and Delilah, Don Jose from Carmen, and Manrico from Il trovatore. He retired in 1975 because of ill-health and eventually died of nephritis.
17. Franco Corelli (8th April, 1921 - 29th October, 2003)
Franco Corelli loathed voice trainers and teachers so much that, he referred to them as a "plague to singers".
Franco Corelli was popularly known as the 'Prince of tenors' in the world of opera. His career began in 1951, when he won the annual opera competition in Florence which gave him the chance to perform in an actual opera. Corelli played the part of Don Jose from the opera Carmen, and did a commendable job. He did several small roles until he got to perform with Maria Callas in 1953. Maria Callas was mesmerized by his voice and they formed a steady professional relationship that lasted throughout Corelli's life. By then, he had become an indispensable member of the Rome Opera, which gave him the chance to perform all over world. He made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1961 and continued to perform for them until 1975. Even though he did plenty of popular roles, Corelli was acknowledged for creating roles for rare operas, such as Giulietta e Romeo, Agnese di Hohenstaufen by Gaspare Spontini, and Enea by Guido Guerrini.
18. Giuseppe Di Stefano (24th July, 1921 - 3rd March, 2008)
"I wanted to enjoy life - not just the opera," ~ Giuseppe Di Stefano
Giuseppe Di Stefano was fondly nicknamed the 'Golden Voice', because the quality of his tenor voice was overwhelmingly enchanting. He made his debut in 1946 as Des Grieux from the opera Manon by Jules Massenet. His voice won over people's hearts and by 1948 he had been absorbed by the New York Metropolitan Opera House! He made his American debut, playing the role of Duke of Mantua from Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi. He recorded and performed some of the best operas with Maria Callas. He was also an exception among his counterparts, because he rose to fame in spite of being unable to read musical notations.
In 2004, Giuseppe Di Stefano and his wife were assaulted in his car by unknown attackers. His condition remained critical for an entire week after the attack and had to undergo operations as a result of the injuries sustained. He died in 2008 after being in a coma for almost three months.
19. Luciano Pavarotti (12th October, 1935 - 6th September, 2007)
Pavarotti was presented the Kennedy Center Honor and two Guinness World Records; one for receiving the most curtain calls, and other for the bestseller classical album, 'The Concert by Three Tenor'.
Luciano Pavarotti was born in Modena. At the age of 19, he started studying music with Arrigo Pola, a professional tenor. In 1955, he won the first prize at the International Eisteddfod in Llangollen in Wales. During this time, he met Adua Veroni, whom he married in 1961. Pavarotti started his career as, Rodolfo in La boheme. In February 1965, he made his American debut with the Greater Miami Opera, singing in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor opposite Joan Sutherland, on the stage of the Miami-Dade County Auditorium in Miami. His biggest breakthrough in the United States was under the production of La fille du regiment, at New York's Metropolitan Opera.
Pavarotti was felicitated with many Grammy awards, platinum and gold discs for his performances. In 1980, he opened a Pavarotti International Voice Competition for young singers, and performed with the winners in his concerts. In 1990, he became popular, when his rendition of Giacomo Puccini's aria, 'Nessun Dorma' from Turandot' was used as the theme song of BBC's TV coverage of the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy. Following this, on the eve of World Cup final, Pavarotti performed at the Three Tenors concert with his fellow tenors, Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras, and conductor Zubin Mehta at the ancient Baths of Caracalla in Rome. He was the first opera singer to perform with Vanessa L. Williams on Saturday Night Live. In 2003, he released Ti Adoro, which was his final compilation and first crossover album. He announced his 40-city farewell tour on December 1, 2004, and during the tour, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Before he died, he received the sacrament of Penance and Anointing of the Sick, from the Roman Catholic Church. The ultimate collection CD entitled 'Pavarotti Forever' was released soon after his death. He is truly one of the most famous Italian opera singers of the 20th
20. Andrea Bocelli (22nd September, 1958 - Present)
Bocelli is 6 feet, 2 inches tall. The People Magazine listed him among the 50 Most Beautiful People in 1998.
Andrea Bocelli was born in Lajatico, Tuscany in Italy. He grew up with his parents Alessandro and Edi Bocelli on the family farm. From his birth, he had problems with his sight and was diagnosed with glaucoma. At the age of 12, he lost his sight completely due to an accident in a soccer game. In February 1994, he won the San Remo Festival competition along with a record score. The same year, he released his debut album, II mare calmo della sera. The album entered the Italian Top Ten charts. In September 1994, he made his debut in an opera, as Macduff in Verdi's Macbeth at the Teatro Verdi in Pisa. His second and third album, Bocelli and Viaggio Italiano respectively, were released in 1995 and made double platinum sales in Italy.
In 1997, Bocelli released his first international album, Romanza, which made him popular world-wide. Since then, he has released many albums like Aria, The Opera Album (1997), Hymn for the World (1997), Sogno (1999), Sacred Arias (1999), Verdi (2000), Requiem (Verdi) (2001), Cieli di Toscana (2001), Sentimento (2002), Andrea (2004), Amore (2006), The Best of Andrea Bocelli: Vivere (2007) and Incanto (2008).
Andrea Bocelli is a classical soloist and has sold up to 65 million albums. Bocelli has recorded seven operas namely, La boheme, Tosca, II Trovatore, Werther, Pagliacci, Cavalleria rusticana, and Carmen. He has also received many awards such as, Echo music awards, Italian Music Awards, American Music Awards, and World Music Awards.
21. Cecilia Bartoli (4th June, 1966 - Present)
Cecilia Bartoli has won 5 Grammy Awards for the 'Best Classical Vocal Performance'.
Cecilia Bartoli's parents had been professional singers as well. She gave her first operatic stage performance in 1987. Her performance of the character Rosina from The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini, won her great acclaim. She is famous for her performances of roles created by Wolfgang Mozart, such as Dorabella from Così fan tutte, Idamantes from Idomeneo, Zerlina and Donna Elvira from Don Giovanni, and Cherubino from Le nozze di Figaro. In 2007, she was commended for her album Maria based on the enigmatic singer Maria Malibran, which topped the U.S Classical Billboard Charts.
Her album Sacrificium made the modern operatic world, take notice of her unconventional style of singing and her approach towards opera. This album is based on the ancient practice of 'castrato singing', which was rampant in Italy during the 18th
century, wherein young boys were castrated before they reached puberty. This practice was meant to prevent the voice from maturing, so that it retained its cherubic tone even in adulthood. The album also contains a twenty minute recording of the composition, Son qual nave by Riccardo Broschi and is based on baroque music. Cecilia Bartoli has also been awarded the Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France in 1995 and the Commander of the Order of Cultural Merit of Monaco in 1999.
Italian singers played a remarkable role in bringing Opera to the world. They constantly competed with their own standards in order to improve and sharpen their performances and compositions. The fact that Opera houses continue to flourish even today and hold performances regularly, goes onto prove that this art form will never wither or fade into oblivion.