The 20 Greatest Sopranos of all time

Who are the most thrilling, captivating and brilliant divas to have sung the world’s stages? Ten years ago, we asked the experts to draw up their ultimate list. Do their choices still ring true?

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Why the soprano? Most of us would agree that she occupies a very powerful place in classical music. From an imperious onstage presence to an often similar personality offstage, the great diva has an air of daunting mystery about her. And while it may be less so these days, the soprano can occupy the same pedestal as many Hollywood actors. We worship and adore them for who they are and what they do, but we’re ultimately petrified of them.

• Read more: What is a soprano?

So who are – or were – the most magnificent? A tricky one, to be sure. When we asked 22 major opera critics for their top ten sopranos back in 2007, our final list contained over 90 different singers. Many names, of course, were instantly recognisable, a large number no longer alive and several were what you might call ‘forgotten gems’. Now, you’ll find out which have meant the most to them, excited them and moved them. Let the show begin...

 

20. Elly Ameling (b1933)

Born in Rotterdam in 1933, the legendary Dutch soprano charmed audiences worldwide with her Lieder recitals for over four decades, before retiring to teach.

Though I never heard her live, Elly Ameling was the patron saint of my musical youth. I can’t remember the recording I heard first – her light-as-air performance of Schubert’s Seligkeit, her deeply-felt St Matthew Passion, her creamy Mozart Concert Arias, or her hilarious rendition of Cole Porter’s ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing’ – but my love of her voice has never faded. In Schubert, Mozart, Haydn, French Song, and particularly in Bach, she was the standard-bearer for light sopranos: a singer with a natural smile in her voice, and one that could change from a beam of girlish glee to consolation. In decades progressively intoxicated by larger voices, the candour, delicacy and charm of her singing was uniquely touching. And how can you not love a soprano who preferred the intimacy of Lieder recitals to the rough glamour of opera? Anna Picard

In her own words: ‘I felt moved at the beginning of the concert, when I got a warm reception. This happened when I did my first recital at Alice Tully Hall in 1970 and I didn’t understand what was happening. I thought they liked my dress.’

 

19. Rosa Ponselle (1897-1981)

For many of those who experienced both singers live, Rosa Ponselle was even greater, both as a voice and as an artist, than Maria Callas.

After a teenage career as a vaudeville singer, Rosa Ponselle, at the age of 20 and with no previous operatic experience, made her debut at the New York Met in 1918 in the leading role of Leonora in Verdi’s La forza del destino, partnering Enrico Caruso. Apart from three seasons at Covent Garden (1929-31) and one at the Maggio Musicale in Florence (1933), her operatic appearances were all with that company. She created unforgettable impressions in such operas as Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine, Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, Montemezzi’s L’amore di tre re, Verdi’s La traviata and Bellini’s Norma. Her recordings reveal the liquid gold of her voice, heady in emotional power, with a matchless sense of line and legato. Bass Ezio Pinza recalled performances when, ‘instead of thinking of my own role, I would be lost in the dark splendour of her voice’. For Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, she was ‘ultimate perfection’, while for Callas she was ‘the greatest singer of us all’. George Hall

In her own words: ‘Believe me, I worked hard, so hard that I never really had a life of my own in all the years I was singing. You also have to be somebody who is willing to suffer, to feel the pain that goes with all of it.’

 

18. Renata Tebaldi (1922-2004)

Renata Tebaldi was the leading Italian soprano of the 1950s and 1960s in the Verdi and Puccini repertoire. She had a creamy voice, in which the listener could bask.

Tebaldi (above right) began her career in Italy as World War II was ending, and came to international stardom singing under Toscanini at the re-opening of La Scala in 1946. She used her voice skilfully, and became the leading Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello (101 performances) and Mimì in Puccini’s La bohème (111 performances), and she mainly confined herself to the late 19th and early 20th-century Italian repertoire. She learned how to be an adequate actress, but mainly acted with the voice, and in certain roles she became a thrilling dramatic presence. Famous for her warm heart, perhaps also for her ‘steel dimples’ (Rudolph Bing), she was adored on two continents and had a long and fulfilling career. Michael Tanner

In her own words: ‘I know that my voice has entered into the hearts of many people and has caused beautiful reactions. Therefore, how can I not be thankful for this great gift?’

 

17. Christine Brewer (b1960)

First heard as a Mozartian, Christine Brewer has retained the flexibility of her lyric voice while adding to its power.

A peerless Isolde in Wagner’s Tristan, she is now in her prime. At the height of the hoo-hah over Deborah Voigt’s dismissal over weight issues from Christof Loy’s production of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos , it was odd that no one asked Christine Brewer what she thought about the Little Black Dress that caused all the trouble. But the quietly-spoken Mid-Westerner has little interest in building a media profile, and would be the last to criticise a soprano for putting on weight or losing it. If her own physique has held her back on stage, she has triumphed in the concert hall. Brewer’s magnificent, lustrous, easy sound is startling enough in Wagner, Mahler, Berg and Britten. Married to perfect diction, meticulous shading and exquisite phrasing, it is a miracle in Schubert and Strauss. Less secure personalities would have lost the plot with a voice like this, yet Brewer never takes her glorious sound for granted and prioritises text and melody. She is a conscientious and generous musician. Anna Picard

In her own words: ‘The common threads in singing roles like Isolde, Elizabeth I [Gloriana], Leonora [Fidelio] etc is that I find the vulnerability in these women – I try and find what makes them take risks, and then I take those risks.’

 

16. Elisabeth Schumann (1888-1952)

These days, Schumann is seen as a connoisseur’s singer, but her name was once inseparably linked with such Mozart roles as Susanna, Blonde and Despina, and Strauss’s Sophie.

My introduction to historic recordings came through Elisabeth Schumann, and there could not have been a better one. My mother, who had never forgotten a Johannesburg recital Schumann gave shortly before her untimely death in 1952, cherished her records; and though as a young boy I first found the non-stereo sound a little off-putting, the soprano’s special tone quality shone through. She brought tangible human spirit to everything she sang. No less a discerning lover of the soprano voice than Richard Strauss adored her, persuading her to join the Vienna State Opera in 1919. He also accompanied her in his songs on a 1921 tour of the US, the country in which she was to settle when she decided to leave Nazi-occupied Vienna. Though the sadness of exile combined with some inevitable loss of bloom may have affected her 1938 recordings of Brahms Lieder, these remain among her most haunting monuments on disc. John Allison

In her own words: ‘The masterworks of song embody within themselves some secret powers.’

 

15. Karita Mattila (b1960)

Known as the ‘Finnish Venus’, Mattila is a stage animal whose performances carry conviction unsurpassed in the opera house today.