The art of opera first came about more than 400 years ago and it has become one of the most honored and prestigious art forms known to man. Many aspects of the opera draw us in. The elaborate sets, the ornate costumes, the story being told, often times, in a language you don’t even understand, yet somehow, you are able to follow along.
Why? Because of the vocalists. Opera singers are the heart of this art form and without them there would be no opera. So it is for the beautiful arias they serenade us with that we take some time to honor their immense talents.
1. Montserrat Caballé
Hailing from Spain, this powerful soprano was born in April of 1933 in Barcelona. Caballé began her musical education at the Liceu Conservatory while she studied voice with Napoleone Annovazzi, Eugenia Kemény, and Conchita Badia.
After completing her education Caballé moved to Basel, Switzerland, where debuted professionally in 1956. She joined the Basel Opera company the next year. While there she sang Mozart and Strauss. While singing Strauss she stuck to the original German vernacular, which was out of the ordinary for Spanish singers.
Caballé went back to Spain in 1962 and debuted at the Liceu performing the lead part in Strauss’ Arabella. After that debut she toured through Mexico.
It was in 1965 she replaced another soprano at New York’s Carnegie Hall in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia. Her performance earned her a twenty-minute standing ovation. Caballé spent the rest of the sixties and all of the seventies singing in some of the best opera houses in major cities all over the United States.
In 1987 Caballé sang a duet with Queen’s Freddie Mercury on a song entitled “Barcelona.” It became an instant hit and Mercury is said to have called Caballé’s voice “the best in the world.” In 1992 this track became Spain’s anthem in the Summer Olympics, which were held in Barcelona that year.
2. Alfie Boe
This tenor was born the baby to a family of nine children in Blackpool, Lancashire, England. Boe’s earliest memories of music were his father’s Richard Tauber records and his first experience with Puccini’s La Bohéme.
Boe passed the time while apprenticing to become a mechanic at the TVR factory in Bispham, Blackpool by performing opera areas while buffing cars. On a random day a customer suggested he audition for the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company so he did. Boe blew them away and was offered a slot to attend. Boe has never been able to thank the customer that suggested he audition.
After moving to London Boe studied at the Royal College of Music, the National Opera Studio, and the Royal Opera House’s Vilar Artists Programme. He was also showcased as the “opera dude” on recordings by the Clint Boon Experience in 1999 and 2000.
In 2010 Boe accepted the role of Jean Valjean of the musical Les Misérables in a concert performance at the O2 Arena in London.
Boe also performed for English National Opera in January of 2011 in La Bohéme and The Mikado. In March of that same year he sang three shows in Idaho quickly going on to sing in The Great British Musical – The Famous and the Future in April of 2011. This performance was held at the St. George’s Day celebration concert Trafalgar Square, Westminster, Central London.
This tenor continues to perform last singing on June 4th and 5th of 2015 at Symphony Hall with the Phoenix Symphony. Boe filled in for Colm Wilkinson, who had to drop from the concert due to sickness.
3. Leontyne Price
Leontyne Price is from The United States and is the first African-American on our list. Born in Laurel, Mississippi in 1927 Price reached opera stardom across the globe in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Price’s father was a lumber mill worker and her mother, while singing in the church choir, worked as a midwife. The couple had tried to conceive for thirteen years so once they had Leontyne she was showered with attention and affection.
While a teenager Price sang with the “second choir” at St. Paul’s Methodist Church, performed with the chorus at her segregated school meant for black students. She would work on the side singing at community events and funerals.
She attended Wilberforce College in Ohio with the hopes of becoming a music teacher. While there her talents had a place to shine and the faculty encouraged her to continue her vocal lessons. Price eventually attended Juilliard School in New York City with the help of wealthy supporters and a benefit concert held for her organized by American bass singer Paul Robeson.
In 1958 the Metropolitan Opera offered Price the title role in Aida, a tale about an Ethiopian princess who is held captive by the Egyptians. After consulting with friends and mentors Price refused the part. It is noted that director of the NBC Opera at the time, Peter Herman Adler, said, “Leontyne is to be a great artist. When she makes her debut at the Met, she must do it as a lady, not a slave.”
Price was an Honoree at the National Endowment of the Arts Opera Honors in 2008.
4. Enrico Caruso
Hailing from Italy, this singer was born on February 25, 1873, Caruso performed in many of the great opera houses in Europe and the Americas. Between 1902 and 1920 Caruso released roughly two hundred and sixty commercial recordings.
Caruso was born in Naples, Italy and began singing lessons at the age of sixteen with Guglielmo Vergine. He made his singing debut at the age of twenty-two at the Teatro Nuovo in Naples. It was a performance in the not-well-known opera L’Amico Francesco by composer Domenico Morelli.
Following his first professional performance in Naples, Caruso went on to sing at other little known opera houses in the area.
In 1903 Caruso fulfilled a new contract with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. He debuted in a new production of Verdi’s Rigoletto, which opened on November 23 in that same year.
After a long career Caruso died at the age of forty-eight in Naples most likely from peritonitis and a sub phrenic abscess in 1921. For many years his embalmed body was displayed in glass at Del Pianto Cemetery in Naples for all to view. That was until 1929 when his body was preserved in a stone tomb.
5. Renée Fleming
This soprano is an American singer born in Pennsylvania in 1959. This daughter of two music teachers got her musical education at the Crane School of Music and the State University of New York at Potsdam. From Potsdam Fleming went on to further train at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester.
After winning a Fulbright Scholarship, Fleming moved to Europe to work with Arleen Augér and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Yet her education didn’t end there. She went on to the Juilliard School and sang with the Juilliard Opera Center.
Her professional career began while she was attending Juilliard playing minor concerts with small opera companies. Until 1988 when she attained the Metropolitan Opera Auditions.
Fleming closed out the 80’s by with a debut at the New York City Opera in the role of Mimi in La bohéme and an initial performance in the role of Dircé in Médé with The Royal Opera of London.
The next decade found her being given the Richard Tucker Award by the Richard Tucker Foundation, an organization that dedicates itself to furthering talents in opera. She spent the rest of the decade traveling and performing in some of the most prestigious opera houses in the world.
The turn of a new century didn’t slow Fleming down and she appeared at the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, and at Covenant Garden in the year 2000. Later that year she performed at the Salzburg Festival and at the Met.
In 2002 Fleming sang on the soundtrack for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and in 2014 she became the first opera soprano to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” for the Super Bowl.
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