It began with Jacopo Peri’s lost ‘Dafne’ that was produced in Florence around 1597. Opera soon spread all over Europe like wild-fire. By the 18th century, it was the opera dominated Europe, becoming the biggest platform for the most famous composers to date.
The opera is one of the most complex art forms created by man. It requires the perfect combination of theatrical drama and huge musical scores. Some of them even include dance. What started in Italy during the 16th century, quickly became the most popular form in all of western classical music. It’s still alive today, after going through going through 4 centuries of being adapted into a lot of cultures and molded accordingly.
According to tradition, you had the original composer who hatches the idea, the librettist who writes the text (like the scriptwriter in a movie). You then have a vast number of singers, actors and costume artists, all coming together to create the opera.
I’ve listed the most famous operas in four categories. The first name will be that of the opera itself, with its most popular aria given in apostrophes, with the composer/singer included as well.
Caro nome, from Rigoletto, composed by Giuseppe Verdi.
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave.
Gilda, daughter of Rigletto, sings of her new-found love, Gualtier Malde. Malde is actually the Duke, who pretends to be a poor student to woo Gilda. A forever sheltered Gilda experiences falling in love with a man for the first time and sings it aloud when she is alone.
Che faro senza Euridice?, from Orfeo ed Euridice, composed by Christoph Willibald Gluck.
Libretto by Ranieri de’ Calzabigi.
The aria takes place towards the end, when Orfeo, who was given the right to fight and take back his deceased lover, Euridice, from the Underworld, looks at her. It was the one condition that the Gods demanded be met by Orfeo – that he would not look at his lover’s face till they return to the upper world. Euridice, thinking that Orfeo would not look at her because death made her lose her beauty, cries out against Orfeo’s infidelity in the aria, “Che fiero momento”. Unable to bear his lover’s misery, Orfeo turns back to look Euridice in the eyes, only to find her life taken away by the Gods.
Je veux vivre (Juliet’s Waltz), from Roméo et Juliette, composed by Charles Gounod.
Libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré.
The title of the aria translates to “I want to live in the dream that exhilarates me”. Juliet wishes to spend her life inside her dream, where it is eternally spring, far away from the men that try to seek her hand in marriage.
Voi, che sapete che cosa e amor, from Le nozze di Figaro, composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte.
My personal favorite in the list, this is Cherubino, trying to convince the ladies around him to see how much love he is capable of giving. He talks to them in the aria, urging them to see whether it is love that he is feeling. The aria precedes the ever-famous Cherubino hiding-in-the-closet scene.
Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix, from Samson et Dalila, composed by Camille Saint-Saëns.
Libretto by Ferdinand Lemaire.
The aria encapsulates Dalila’s attempt to seduce Samson, hoping that he would forget about leading the Israelite rebellion, and tell her the secret of his strength. The first verse is to be a little desperate, with a duet in the second verse as Samson joins in.
Vissi d’arte, from Tosca, composed by Giacomo Puccini.
Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.
In this aria, Tosca is praying to God and pleading Scarpia to free her true lover, Cavaradossi. Scarpia rejects her pleas and plans a fake execution to make Tosca submit her love to Scarpia.
Celeste Aida, from Aida, composed by Giuseppe Verdi.
Libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni.
The aria is to be sung by Radamès, who hopes to conquer in a battle against the Ethiopians, and also win over the heart of Aida, the Ethiopian slaves whom he loves. It describes beautifully how Radamès compares Aida to heavenly bodies and wants to make her, his queen.
Una voce poco fa…Io sono dolcile, from Il barbiere di Siviglia, composed by Gioachino Rossi
Libretto by Cesare Sterbini.
The fist part of the Figaro trilogy, The Barber of Seville contains this marvelous aria built on Rosina’s cavatina. She sings of her love for Lindoro (who is Count Almaviva in disguise), after reading his letter to her.
Où va la jeune Hindoue? (Bell Song), from Lakmé, composed by Léo Delibes.
Libretto by Edmond Gondinet and Philippe Gille.
This masterpiece by Delibes marks the turning point in the play, where Lakmé is forced by Nilakantha, her father, to sing this song to lure out her admirer, Gérald. Once he comes out, Nilakantha stabs him. From there starts the classic lover’s conflict portrayed in many operas.
Ebben? Ne andrò lontana, from La Wally, composed by Alfredo Catalani.
Libretto by Luigi Illica.
Seldom do you come across (just once, in this very opera, in fact) a heroine that is gutsy enough to throw herself into a crashing avalanche. So much so that staging the scene is nigh impossible. The aria mentioned (translated to “Well then, I’ll go away,”) is about the heroine, La Wally, deciding that she’s going to leave her home.
Major-General’s Song, from The Pirates of Penzance, composed by Arthur Sullivan.
Libretto by W. S. Gilbert.
A patter song than an aria, the Major-General’s Song is a delectable piece of music that has found its way into a century’s worth of parodies and laughs. The best things to be gotten out of the song are the exquisite details in poetry, and the major-general’s iconic mustache.
Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen, from Die Zauberflote, composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mo
Libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder.
This aria is a true example of just how great a composer Mozart was. A part of The Magic Flute, “Der Hölle Rache…” is fast, surging and awe-inspiring. There aren’t too many singers who can pull it off. It shows the Queen of the Night in all fury, who is angry because Tamano wants to join Sarastro’s brotherhood, wants Pamina to kill Sarastro.
Famous Operas with Female Singers
• Carmen – Bizet – ‘Habanera’ (Singer ~ Célestine Galli-Marié)
• Madama Butterfly – Puccini – ‘Un bel di’ (Singer ~ Maria Callas)
• Marriage of Figaro – Mozart – ‘Dove sono’ (Singer ~ Luisa Laschi)
• Marriage of Figaro – Mozart – ‘Venite, inginocchiatevi’ (Singer ~ Ann Storace)
• The Barber of Seville – Rossini – ‘una voce poco fa’ (Singer ~ Geltrude Righetti)
• La Boheme – Puccini – ‘Si mi chiamano Mimi’ (Singer ~ Cesira Ferrani)
Famous Operas with Male Songs
• Turandot – Puccini – ‘Nessun dorma’ (Singer ~ Calaf)
• Tosca – Puccini – ‘Recondita armonia’ (Singer ~ Emilio De Marchi)
• The Marriage of Figaro – Mozart – ‘Non piu andrai’ (Singer ~ Francesco Benucci)
• I Pagliacci – Leoncavallo – ‘Vesti la giubba’ (Singer ~ Fiorello Giraud)
• La traviata – Verdi – ‘Un dì, felice, eterea’ (Singer ~ Lodovico Graziani)
• Giulio Cesare – George Frideric Handel – ‘Empio, dirò, tu sei’ (Singer ~ Senesino)
Famous Italian Opera Arias
• Tosca – Puccini – ‘E lucevan le stelle’
• Gianni Schicchi – Giacomo Puccini – ‘O mio babbino caro’
• La bohème – Giacomo Puccini – ‘Che gelida manina’
• Rigoletto – Giuseppe Verdi – ‘La donna è mobile’
• Traviata – Giuseppe Verdi – Libiam ne’ lieti calici’
• Nabucco – Giuseppe Verdi – ‘Va, pensiero’
• Il barbiere di Siviglia’ – Gioacchino Rossini – ‘Largo al factotum’
• Don Giovanni – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – ‘Là ci darem la mano’