Before the word soprano became infamous with the series about Italian-American mobsters, the term referred to a specific type of female singer in the opera.
The vocal range of a female soprano should begin at middle C and go all the way to high A. The soprano role can be broken down into sub categories the coloratura, soubrette, lyric, spinto, and dramatic soprano.
Derived from the Italian word “sopra”, which means “above”, the word soprano was given as a moniker to those whose vocal range could reach the highest pitch available to the human voice. The word “soprano” also stems from the Latin word “superius”, which also referred to the highest pitch in human vocals.
This list brings your attention to six sopranos that have made impressions all over the world of opera.
1. Maria Callas
This Greek-American singer is considered one of the most renowned opera singers of the twentieth century. She had a unique ability to mix her wide range vocally with theatrical interpretations.
Callas developed a stock of opera classics from Donizetti to Bellini to Rossini. Her repertoire extended from the beautiful bel canto numbers to the more dramatic opera seria. Her abilities enabled Callas to retain the moniker La Divina.
Our first soprano on the list was born in New York City in 1923. Her father was rather passive with no real interest in the opera or art.
The singing talents of Callas began to appear at the tender age of three. She had admitted to not enjoying singing but her mother, who once had her own professional ambitions in the arts, forced her to perform.
Her mother, tired of her marriage that just wasn’t working, relocated them, including Maria, to Athens. This is when Callas began her formal education.
In the beginning Callas’ mother wanted her to attended the Athens Conservatoire but she failed her audition. Her vocals were raw and Callas was unsuccessful in wowing the director.
Not letting herself take no for an answer, Callas’ mother approached Maria Trivella at the Greek National Conservatoire. This school was younger than the Athens Conservatoire. Trivella recognized Callas’ amazing talent and agreed to train her.
Callas’ Professional debut was at the Parnassos music hall performing a duet from Tosco.
Since her younger days of despising singing, Callas grew to become an international opera sensation. She has toured all over the world giving audiences everywhere a chance to hear her distinct Callas sound.
2. Renée Fleming
The next spectacular soprano on our list is another American opera 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.
3. 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.
4. Anna Netrebko
This soprano hails from Russia, one of the oldest communities to hail opera as an art form. Born in Krasnodar, Russia Netrebko has a Kuban Cossack heritage. While studying at the Saint Petersburg conservatoire she was employed as a janitor at the St. Petersburg Mariinsky Theatre. When she auditioned for Valery Gergiev he agreed to become her mentor.
She debuted at the Mariinsky in Le nozze di Figaro at the age of twenty-two in the early 90’s. In 1995 she appeared at the San Francisco Opera for her American debut. In 2002 she took on the role of Natasha in War and Peace at the Metropolitan Opera and performed as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni at the Salzburg Festival.
In 2003 she sang at the Los Angeles Opera and the Royal Opera House in London. Her Carnegie Hall debut was on May 30, 2007 alongside Dmitri Hvorostovsky. In 2008 she performed in Paris for the first time in I Capuleti e I Montecchi.
Netrebko continues to sing throughout the world while she lives in Austria and New York City. To date she has fourteen completed video recordings and nine completed audio recordings.
This Russian soprano was awarded the State Prize of the Russian Federation in 2004. In 2007 Netrebko was placed on Time magazine’s Time 100 list. The journal Musical America said she is “a genuine superstar for the 21st century.” In 2008 she was selected as Musician of the Year.
5. Leontyne Price
This next soprano is from The United States as well, but what sets her apart is that she is the first African-American to make 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.
6. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
The last soprano on our list is a German-British singer who was born in the Province of Posen in Prussia on December 9, 1915. She performed in her first opera in 1928, which was an amateur production at her school.
Schwarzkopf’s serious musical studies started at the Berlin University of the Arts in Germany. She trained under Lula Mysz-Gmeiner who had hopes for Schwarzkopf to perform as a mezzo-soprano. Elisabeth went on to train with Maria Ivogün. She joined the Deustsche Oper Berlin in 1938.
Schwarzkopf’s father, who was a headmaster at the local school, was removed of his position for not allowing a Nazi party meeting on the school premises. The party also banned him for teaching anywhere else.
The original plan was for Elisabeth to become a doctor, but after her father’s dismissal she was not allowed by the Nazi part to attend university. So Schwarzkopf studied music in Berlin.
After becoming an Austrian citizen in 1945 Schwarzkopf toured with the Vienna State Opera to The Royal Opera House in London in 1947 and 1948.
Elisabeth married Walter Legge, a British record producer who founded the Philharmonia Orchestra, in 1953. When asked by the BBC’s Desert Island Discs to choose eight records she would consider her favorites seven of her selections were her own.
At the age of ninety Schwarzkopf died at her home in Austria. She has won numerous awards including the Mozart Medal of Frankfurt.
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