Italian opera has always been an international affair. One of its greatest composers was the Austrian W.A. Mozart (Le nozze di Figaro, Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni). The genre has taken up residence in New York, Paris and Beijing. And some of its finest interpreters have been American, Mexican, Peruvian and Swedish.
Nevertheless, say the word “opera” to most non-specialists, and what they will think of first probably originated in the collection of city-states and principalities called Italy between the end of the 18th century and the early 20th, a period that spans Rossini’s rollicking comedies, the dazzling filigree of bel canto composers like Donizetti and Bellini, the dark grandeur of Verdi, and the emotional intensity of Puccini. For all their differences, these composers tapped a common vein of lyricism — a melodic mother lode that ran the whole length of this complex sliver of land.
During that period, opera was the most intricate, most spectacular, most ambitious and most popular form of entertainment in the Western world, with none of the reputation for highfalutin’ exclusivity that afflicts the genre today. Its composers were showbiz men, rehashing other people’s ideas, cranking out new scores to the producer’s specifications, tailoring arias to their stars’ strengths and foibles, and adapting their styles to changing fashions. They were, by and large, not purists. They made a good deal of their money, after all, publishing sheet music excerpts for amateurs to sing and play at home.
Given opera’s flexibility and its need for the advanced technology of stagecraft (gas lights!) it’s not surprising that at the turn of the 20th century, singers were among the first to understand the potential of gramophones. Some of the very earliest recordings feature operatic excerpts, and from then on, the histories of the art and the technology were intertwined. LPs and CDs permitted opera lovers to listen to evening-length works with a minimum of interruption, DVDs brought theatrical productions into the well-equipped home, and high-definition broadcasts have extended the live theatrical experience — into movie theaters. It’s a big subject: What follows is an introductory anthology of highlights in the spirit of those sheet music “hit singles” that made opera profitable in 19th-century Milan.
Maria Callas (1950s-’60s)
Nobody wove danger and passion more tightly into her singing than “La Divina,” the Brooklyn-born quintessential diva. Her mad scenes were crazier than anybody else’s; her deaths more agonized; her loves more desperate.
Renata Tebaldi (1950s-’60s)
Maria Callas’s rival and public nemesis, the Italian Tebaldi dominated the dramatic Verdi roles with her controlled intensity and assured technique, which won her fans impatient with Callas’s high-wire histrionics.
Rene Fleming (1990s-2000s)
With her buttery soprano, agility, dramatic intelligence, and a gossamer pianissimo that goes floating up to the highest balcony, Fleming has spent nearly two decades as queen of the lyric stage.
Leontyne Price (1960s-’70s)
The embodiment of an outsized art form, Price had a huge, iridescent voice and a bearing regal enough to match those titanic emotions, sumptuous robes and colossal sets.
Beverly Sills (1960s-’80s)
With a gymnast’s control and an aerialist’s high-altitude ease, Sills sang the bel canto repertoire with such enormous charm and penetrating intelligence that she became the face of American opera.
Cecilia Bartoli (1990s-2000s)
One of the few mezzo-sopranos (along with Marilyn Horne) to become a global phenomenon, Bartoli sings Rossini and that honorary Italian, Mozart, with effervescent joy and a singular personality.
Riccardo Muti (1970s-2000s)
Few conductors channel the sensibility of Italian romantic opera as convincingly as Muti, who was for many years music director at the country’s premier company, La Scala. This lovely chorus from Verdi’s early opera became a hymn to Italian patriotism.
James Levine (1970s-2000s)
Almost from the moment of his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1971, Levine has been opera’s most powerful conductor, coaxing orchestras into breathing in sync with singers and managing intricate ensemble scenes with verve.
Carlo Maria Giulini (1950s-’80s)
The lights dim and the heat surges: Giulini cranks these Rossini overtures with enough energy to power the rest of the opera.
Jussi Bjrling (1940s-’50s)
The possessor of one of the most naturally ravishing voices ever to have been heard in opera, the Swedish tenor needed only to stomp downstage center, stand in one place, and open his mouth to mesmerize his audience on the spot.
Tito Schipa (1920s-’50s)
Italy at mid-century, where opera was popular and pop music verged on the operatic, produced a raft of light-voiced tenors, and few were more graceful and spirited than Tito Schipa.
Enrico Caruso (1900s-’10s)
The first mass-culture tenor, Caruso turned his operatic talents into a commercial career at the dawn of the recording age. His warm voice rings right through the surface noise.
Tito Gobbi (1940s-’70s)
The Italian baritone sang with a robust verve that could invigorate a comic number like Rossini’s famous “Figaro” aria or inject true malevolence in a quick aside by the torturer Scarpia in Tosca.
Alfredo Kraus (1950s-’90s)
Tenors, like the characters they sing, come in a range of affects — blustery, heroic, graceful, sunny, romantic — and Kraus sang with a refined Spanish courtliness that made even rubes and rous sound noble.
Plcido Domingo (1970s-2000s)
The tireless tenor is among the most versatile artists in the history of opera, singing north of 100 roles, ranging from light Spanish zarzuela to heavy Wagner heroes. His warm, dark voice is unmistakable, and he sings with intense sincerity.
Luciano Pavarotti (1970s-2000s)
Like Caruso before him, Pavarotti turned opera into mass entertainment, which earned him a reputation among connoisseurs as a vulgarian. At his height, though, he wielded his phenomenal, sun-soaked voice with great finesse, making his hard work sound deceptively instinctive.
Roland Villazn (1990s-2000s)
One of the brightest hopes for the post-Pavarotti/Domingo era, Villazn seemed to be burning out early in his career, but he is in the midst of a comeback, mixing genuine sentiment with a smoky, seductive voice.
Bryn Terfel (1990s-2000s)
The hulking Welsh bass-baritone with the honeyed voice and the roguish snarl has matured into a tragedian, but he also displays great comic flair as the alternately servile and rebellious Leporello in Don Giovanni and the titular buffoon in Falstaff.
Jonas Kaufmann (2000s)
Just now emerging into the big leagues, the photogenic young tenor has displayed a true star’s mixture of power, bravado, and sensitivity — everything you want in the swaggering duke in Rigoletto.
Ruggero Raimondi (1960s-2000s)
It takes a certain kind of gravitas to be a persuasive Verdi basso, and Raimondi has the wisdom for the role of the haunted and ruthless King Philip in Verdi’s sweeping historical Don Carlo.
Juan-Diego Flrez (2000s)
The lithe and light-voiced tenor who can jump from floor to table while simultaneously letting his voice do high-note cartwheels, signals in every measure that he’s having a great time onstage, which is why he sings the Donizetti aria “Allegro io son” (“Happy I am”) with such conviction.
Sherill Milnes (1960s-’90s)
The Verdi bad guy is a baritone’s most succulent role, and Milnes practically drips the juice of nastiness in Iago’s invocation of a cruel and vengeful god.