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20 Best Female Opera Singers of All Time (Most Famous)

December 12, 2023
female opera singers

I’ve chosen the most famous and best female opera singers of all time, each renowned for their extraordinary vocal talents and commanding stage presence.

This article is a tribute to the women who have left an indelible mark in the world of opera, captivating audiences with their powerful performances.

Top female opera singers of all time

  • Maria Callas
  • Marian Anderson
  • Birgit Nilsson
  • Nellie Melba
  • Renata Tebaldi
  • Montserrat Caballé
  • Kirsten Flagstad
  • Joan Sutherland
  • Sarah Brightman
  • Diana Damrau

1.  Maria Callas

We are opening with the distinguished Greek-American Maria Callas, who is perhaps one of the 20th century. 

She studied from a young age and made her debut in 1942. 

Callas had a powerful set of lungs, and great vocal technicality and became known for her dramatic stage presence.

She brought songs to life in such a way that it didn’t matter if you understood the language in which the songs were sung.

Something hugely important to the narrative of opera.

She had a successful career performing a wide range of roles thanks to her versatility.

Her interpretations of the works of Verdi, Puccini, Rossini, and Bellini were intensely dramatic. 

That drama apparently wasn’t reserved for the stage.

Callas was something of a diva off-stage too. 

Despite tense relationships with fellow performers and stage management she continued to land iconic roles that inspired opera singers to follow.

Her recordings are studied by current budding opera singers to this day.

2. Marian Anderson

American contralto singer Marian Anderson is also considered an important and influential vocalist.

Her roots began in church.

With a natural ability to sing in her church choir, she was encouraged to study the voice as an instrument.

She was fortunate enough to train with some of the best and rose to national fame.

Anderson had an incredible voice, with beautiful tonality and strength that many were in awe of, unfortunately, she faced discrimination during her early career.

Racism was still prevalent in the 1920s and 30s and so she was denied many opportunities.

She was incredibly banned from performing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.on the basis of skin color, something which is hard to comprehend by today’s standards.

Nonetheless, she performed her heart out at less prestigious venues and inspired many others during the civil rights movement.

In 1955, her formidable trailblazer attitude paid off, and Anderson became the first African-American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

Her voice wowed the crowds and she went on to perform for royalty despite her heritage. 

She went on to perform for presidents and royalty and was awarded numerous honors and awards throughout her life.

Anderson was inspirational, a symbol of hope for other singers of color.

For that, she goes down in history as one of the most famous opera singers to have left an important legacy behind.

3. Birgit Nilsson

Next up we have the infamous Swedish opera singer Birgit Nilsson, an iconic leading soprano of the 20th century. 

Nilson began her vocal training aged 17 and performed for over forty years in the Metropolitan Opera in New York, La Scala in Milan, and the Royal Opera House in London.

Renowned for her power and versatility she interpreted many works dramatically in some of the most prestigious houses.

A natural-born actress gifted with an amazing voice, Nilsson is probably best remembered for her performances in the operas of Richard Wagner.

Who can forget her interpretation of Brünnhilde in the “Ring” cycle, or Isolde in “Tristan und Isolde”?

She was inspiring and many that have taken on the roles since try to recapture what she brought to the roles in her heyday.

Nilsson has a long list of honors and awards that celebrate her successful career and her legacy lives on continuing to inspire.

4. Nellie Melba

Australian soprano Helen Porter Mitchell, better known as Nellie Melba will forever be remembered as a virtuoso.

Born in 1861, her career began performing in concerts and operettas. 

She left Australia for Europe to study under some of the masters of the era.

With a powerful voice, Nellie made her operatic debut in Brussels when she was 26 years old.

Her crystal clear high notes soon earned her the leading soprano roles in some of the world’s most famous opera houses.

Melba is remembered for her Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini interpretations.

Working closely with many leading composers of her time she went on to make some of the earliest recordings of opera performances.

Her recordings helped popularize the gramophone which went on to become a must-have item in the home!

5. Renata Tebaldi

Another powerfully dramatic soprano who we have to mention was Italian-born and bred Renata Tebaldi.

Born in the early 1920s she debuted at a young age in Rovigo, Italy.

Having trained with some of the best in her youth she rose very quickly to fame and was performing the leading roles by the time the 1950s arrived.

She could convey deep emotion while performing, she is best -known for “Aida” and “La Traviata” by Verdi.

She performed in some notable houses including La Scala in Milan and the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

After a successful career and many performances, she went on to become a respected teacher inspiring the next generation of singers.

See also: Best Italian Singers

6. Montserrat Caballé

Spanish operatic singer Montserrat Caballé was born in Barcelona in 1933.

Like many on our list, she began her training at a young age and went on to become one of the most sought-after sopranos of her time.

Caballé wasn’t strictly an opera singer, but with an impressive set of lungs and great vocal finesse and flexibility, she enjoyed both contemporary music genres.

The Spanish operatic soprano brought life to many roles in renowned European and American opera houses.

She received numerous awards and prizes for her artistry including a National Music Prize in Spain and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Caballé’s repertoire was vast and versatile and her voice was warm and rich.

So, in addition to her operatic audiences, she had a wider reach.

Aside from the opera roles she took on, one of her most memorable performances which will go down in history was a duet with the late, legendary Freddie Mercury.

The track “Barcelona” became the theme song for the 1992 Summer Olympics bringing her amazing vocal skills to a different audience.

This brought her the status of an iconic artist, making her one of the most famous female opera singers of all time.

7. Kirsten Flagstad

Another soprano to write home about was the famous Norwegian opera singer Kirsten Flagstad. 

Best-known for her interpretations of Wagner, namely “Tristan und Isolde” and “Die Walküre”.

Her musical career began as a pianist, accompanying herself singing; she had an expressive voice with impressive top notes and tonality. 

She debuted as an operatic singer in Oslo in 1913.

Flagstad moved to the States and went on to frequently perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Her career had a wobble during the Second World War, as Flagstad continued to perform in Nazi Germany.

This got her temporarily blacklisted as a performer in America, but little by little her astonishing vocal skills won out and she went on to perform until her retirement.

Her contributions to opera earned her many titles and honors.

She was appointed a Commander of the Order of St. Olav in Norway and received a posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

8. Joan Sutherland

We already made mention of one great Aussie opera singer here’s another!

Joan Sutherland rose to fame in the 1950s, known for her performances in the bel canto roles of Donizetti, Bellini, and Rossini.

With a powerful soprano voice that demonstrated clarity and brilliance, she was widely considered one of the best opera singers of the 20th century. 

Her vocal hallmark was the effortless way she took on the most challenging of coloratura passages as though they were no trouble at all.

Her vocal flexibility was staggering and her breath control was tough to match.

She performed roles at many of the world’s greatest opera houses and became a prolific recording artist.

The recordings she made are classical music canon to this day.

Her many recordings of bel canto works remain some of the most highly regarded in the classical music canon.

Sutherland earned the title of Dame in 1979 for her contributions to the operatic world.

9. Sarah Brightman

We are looking towards more modern singers as we discuss Sarah Brightman.

The English classical crossover soprano singer-songwriter and actress has a lot of notoriety with the average person aside from opera fans.

With a musical theatre background, Brightman was cast in 1984, as Christine, the lead role of the original West End production “The Phantom of the Opera,” by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Her interpretation of the original Christine is still a guideline for performance worldwide. Her voice is crystal clear and as bright as her surname incidentally insinuates!

Brightman may not have held as many iconic roles as those who came before her, but she is certainly famous. 

Releasing several successful blended albums that experimented with a classical electronic-pop genre she grew her own fan base.

Her musical theatre passion shines through in her performance of original work which often includes costumes and scenery.

Brightman will not only be remembered for her shining mezzo-soprano voice.

She serves as a UNESCO Artist for Peace and helped establish the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation, supporting emerging performing artists.

10. Diana Damrau

Germanic Operatic soprano Diana Damrau began studying early.

She trained in voice and opera at the prestigious Hochschule für Musik Würzburg and debuted in 1995.

Damrau has an incredible technical virtuosity which allows her to take on a wide variety of roles.

When she sings you can hear her extensive studying put to gloriously good use!

Her dynamic and exciting performances have earned her plenty of honors and awards to brag about.

She was awarded the title of Kammersängerin from the Bavarian State Opera.

Damarau has captivated audiences at many of the major opera houses worldwide, including the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House, and La Scala.

Some of her more notable interpretations include the works of Mozart and Strauss, which she went on to record.

They were received with critical acclaim.

11. Beverly Sills

Beverly Sills began performing in operas in her early 20s.

The American soprano was born in Brooklyn, New York, and showed an aptitude for singing as a child.

With a remarkable vocal range, she went on to be regarded as one of the greatest opera singers of the 20th century. 

Sills had an unmatched crystalline coloratura soprano voice that was precise and full of technique.

She performed a range of roles in operas by Handel, Mozart, and Verdi. 

Like Montserrat, she was particularly known for her bel canto repertoire.

She was able to convey a lot of emotion and one of her most memorable performances was that of Rosina in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.

To this day her interpretation is considered legendary.

For her efforts, Sills received numerous awards and honors.

12. Mirella Freni

Born in Modena Italy in 1935, Mirella Freni’s powerful and emotional soprano voice soon turned heads.

She performed in her first opera at the age of 10 and began her professional career at 20 when she debuted as Micaela in Bizet’s “Carmen.”

Her interpretations of Italian opera are astonishing.

She is famed for her performances of the works of Verdi and Puccini.

Most notably her portrayal of Mimi in Puccini’s “La bohème,” Desdemona in Verdi’s “Otello,” and Juliette in Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette.”

She had the vocal technique and power as well as the ability to convey a complex range of emotions through her singing. 

Her career spanned over four decades performing in prestigious opera houses.

She received numerous awards and went on to become a respected teacher in her later life.

13. Cecilia Bartoli

Another highly respected and beloved mezzo-soprano known for jaw-dropping vocal feats is the Italian-born Cecilia Bartoli.

Her exceptional voice caught the ears of listeners in the early 1980s. 

With an impressive vocal range and nuanced style, she quickly became known for her interpretations of baroque and classical music. 

Particularly, the music of Mozart and Rossini, Vivaldi, and Handel.

Like the other amazing opera singers we have listed, she has sung on some of the world’s best stages.

Her extensive recordings are a wonder to listen to, and her renditions of Mozart’s operas are critically acclaimed.

Bartoli has also curated several successful programs and performances as artistic director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival.

14. Leontyne Price

American soprano singer Leontyne Price was born in Mississippi in the late 1920s.

Like Marian Anderson who we mentioned early on, she started her singing in church as a child.

She took up vocal studies at the Juilliard School in New York City. 

Price’s stunning vocal range and emotive performances earned her a reputation for powerful interpretation.

She has performed the works of Verdi, Mozart, and Strauss, performing for over twenty years at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

It was at this prestigious venue that she was the first African-American to sing leading roles.

Price, like Anderson, was also a pioneer and advocate for African-American performers.

She fought for representation in the world of classical music bringing diversity and encouraging others to follow in her legacy.

15. Angel Blue

Angel Blue is another American soprano who has performed at the Metropolitan Opera.

With a powerful voice, the Californian singer gained recognition at an early age for her mesmerizing stage presence. 

Born in California in 1984, Blue began her singing career at a young age and quickly gained recognition for her exceptional vocal abilities.

She has exceptional clarity and range and is renowned for her Verdi and Puccini performances.

Blue also advocates for diversity and reach using her fame as a platform for change.

She works alongside several organizations to bring music and performance to underserved wider communities.

16. Anna Netrebko

Russian-Austrian Anna Netrebko took her formal training at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. 

Netrebko is an internationally recognized soprano singer known for her performance as Donna Anna in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”. 

She captivated the audience with her stage presence and crystalline vocal control at the Salzburg Festival.

She has landed many of the world’s most sought-after leading roles for a soprano.

Performing “La Bohème,” “Carmen,” “Eugene Onegin,” and “Aida.”

Her recorded albums are numerous and include collaborations with some of the best musicians the classical music world has to offer.

It isn’t just her singing voice that impresses either!

As a well-known philanthropist, she is recognized for her advocacy work for many causes.

She is very outspoken about the fight against HIV/AIDS, support of the LGBTQ+ community, and music education.

17. Jessye Norman

This next female opera singer also started off her early days in the church choir.

Jessye Norman was born in 1945 to a musical family and studied at Howard University and the University of Michigan.

In 1969 she made her operatic debut and shared her powerful voice with the world.

Norman went on to take on some of opera’s most challenging roles performing at major worldwide opera houses with renowned conductors and musicians.

Like Netrebeko above, she also used her platform to raise awareness. 

Norman spoke out against racism and poverty, involved herself with numerous charities, and supported the fight against  HIV/AIDS.

Norman holds a National Medal of Arts and Kennedy Center Honors and her legacy as an artist and humanitarian still lives on inspiring the masses.

18. Kathleen Battle

Celebrated for her pure high notes, Kathleen Battle is yet another American operatic soprano.

Born into a musical family in Ohio in 1948, she also grew up singing in a church choir environment.

She soon followed her passion and enrolled at the University of Cincinnati to study her craft, and later College-Conservatory of Music.

Kathleen established herself as a lead soprano shortly after her 1975 operatic debut where she dazzled the audience.

She has collaborated with many renowned conductors and musicians such as James Levine and Plácido Domingo and graced many of the world’s most famous stages.

Her church roots remain intact, as in addition to operatic recordings she has released several spirituals and gospel tracks. 

She also endeavors to uphold African American musical traditions inspiring singers and music lovers outside of the classical music scene.

Her singing career triumphs and commitment to showcasing diversity have earned her many awards and honors over the years.

19. Denyce Graves

It’s a similar backstory for our next entry, Denyce Graves.

The American mezzo-soprano was born in Washington, D.C. in the early 60s and found her home in the church choir.

Graves studied at the Oberlin College Conservatory and the New England Conservatory of Music.

Known for her powerful voice and captivating performances of the music of Mozart and Verdi, Graves has performed at the Metropolitan Opera, the Paris Opera, and the Royal Opera House in London. 

She doesn’t shy away from the contemporary and her versatility and willingness to try something new landed her some premier roles in new works.

Like many we have praised already, she is an advocate for diversity and inclusion in the arts who works with organizations to support and promote social justice and education. 

20. Sumi Jo

With a mature technique that appears effortless, the South Korean operatic soprano  Sumi Jo is another well worth listening to.

Her voice is crystalline and her control is staggering, she makes the toughest of coloraturas seem like little to no work at all.

Jo studied music at a young age, training at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia in Rome.

Her skills were as crystal clear as her voice and she rose to international fame not long after her 1986 operatic debut.

Sumi’s sweet soprano voice has been heard at many of the world’s leading opera houses.

She has taken on many leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House, and La Scala.

Her vocal artistry has won her many awards and she is also beloved and celebrated for her philanthropic interests.

Her recorded concert performances and sacred music albums earned her several Grammys. 

She was also presented with an Order of Cultural Merit from the South Korean government. 

Best Female Opera Singers of All Time – Final Thoughts

Whether it is your particular cup of tea or not, opera is home to some of the most amazing voices of the 20th and 21st centuries.

The best female opera singers of all time are the ones who still continue to inspire from beyond the grave.

The female opera singers of the past cemented the roles they brought characters to life for the audience and shaped the way they are still played today.

So that was our opinion on the most famous female opera singers, how does it compare with yours?

You may also like: Best Opera Songs of All Time

Will Fenton

Will, the founder of MIDDER, is a multifaceted individual with a deep passion for music and personal finance. As a self-proclaimed music and personal finance geek, he has a keen eye for futuristic technologies, especially those that empower creators and the public.

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