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Top Six Opera Superstars of the Recording Era

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Few opera singers have reached a truly global audience, and even fewer have achieved the status of superstar. The six singers on this list have done both and more. Though not necessarily the greatest of all time—critics and connoisseurs may prefer other singers—their immense talent cannot be denied. Live or through the medium of recordings, their voices have been heard all over the world and have helped introduce opera to a wider audience.

6. Joan Sutherland

The celebrated Australian soprano, nicknamed La Stupenda, had a remarkably unique voice and a repertoire ranging from Wagner to bel canto. It was, however, the latter style, which her conductor husband Richard Bonynge encouraged her to explore, that made her into a superstar in the opera world. Sutherland was instrumental in the rise of Luciano Pavarotti, who toured Australia with her, and became a friend and frequent collaborator. Dame Joan Sutherland retired from performing in 1990, after a distinguished career spanning four decades. She passed away in 2010.

Joan Sutherland with Luciano Pavarotti
Credit: By AP Wirephoto (eBay) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

5. Montserrat Caballé

Famous for the beauty and power of her voice, especially in bel canto roles, Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé is among the most acclaimed singers of the 20th century. Her first great success came in 1965, with Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, and many more followed, including Bellini's Norma and Verdi's La Traviata. In 1987, Caballé scored a memorable pop hit with the song “Barcelona”, a duet with Freddie Mercury, lead singer of British band Queen. The song went on to become the anthem of the 1992 Summer Olympics. Caballé's daughter, Montserrat Marti, is also an opera singer.

Montserrat Caballé
Credit: By Unknown (Mondadori Publishers) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

4. Plácido Domingo

The Spanish-born tenor, one of the most successful operatic performers of the last half-century, is also one of the most prolific, having sung close to 150 roles as well as tackling other musical genres and conducting. As member of the Three Tenors, along with Luciano Pavarotti and José Carreras, he helped introduce opera to a global audience, performing on stadiums around the world and releasing the best-selling classical album of all time. Throughout a career that's still going strong, Domingo released several crossover albums, won 14 Grammy awards and collaborated with various pop stars.

3. Enrico Caruso

The first superstar of the recording era, Italian tenor Enrico Caruso is perhaps the greatest opera singer of his time and still highly praised to this day. Born in Naples in 1873, Caruso sang a large variety of roles throughout the world, many at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He premiered roles for various distinguished composers, including Giacomo Puccini, and reached amazing popularity before his death in 1921. He made more than 250 gramophone recordings, the first as far back as 1902, playing a huge part in promoting the emerging medium. Many of these can be enjoyed today in digital format.

2. Maria Callas

The most celebrated soprano of all time, Greek-American singer Maria Callas charmed audiences all over the world with her beautiful and versatile voice, which brought her the nickname La Divina. She shone in a wide range of roles, from Puccini's Tosca and Bellini's Norma to Verdi's La Traviata and Bizet's Carmen. Her tumultuous personal life and the early decline of her voice have only contributed to her legend. Almost 40 years after her death, Callas remains one of the biggest icons of the opera world—the quintessential diva.

Maria Callas
Credit: By Houston Rogers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

1. Luciano Pavarotti

Everybody, or almost everybody, has heard of the great Italian tenor. He's almost as famous as Michael Jackson or Madonna, which is a feat not many classical musicians have achieved. Probably the most commercially successful opera singer of all time, Pavarotti was famous for his powerful voice, often reaching spine-tingling heights in arias such as Puccini's “Nessun Dorma”. His many charity performances included collaborations with some of the biggest pop artists of his day. Born in 1935, Pavarotti passed away in 2007, leaving behind an amazing legacy of best-selling recordings—proof that classical singing isn't only for the elites.

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