Updated: Jun 25, 2022
By Alkis Karmpaliotis, High School Student NYC
Founder of AppreciateOpera.org
Few genres can bring as wide a variety of emotions to listeners as opera -- some operas make us cry, some make us laugh, and others make us smile. As a longtime fan of classical music, I’ve heard almost all there is to listen to, and I’ve loved every minute of it. That is why I created this list of ten pieces that I consider to be opera’s finest. If you want to start listening to such music but don’t know where to start, this list is for you.
The “Liebestod” or “death of love” is the dramatic finale to Wagner’s tear-inducing tragedy Tristan und Isolde. Isolde, driven mad by Tristan’s death, reminisces about their time together and hallucinates that he is with her. The aria is sung here by the incomparable Jessye Norman, alongside an orchestra conducted by the great Herbert von Karajan.
It would be wrong not to include on this list a piece from Wagner’s brilliant tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen, also known as the Ring Cycle. This short aria, a love song from Siegmund to Sieglinde, comes in the first act of Die Walküre, the second installment in the Ring saga. It is sung beautifully by German tenor Jonas Kaufmann.
This duet from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte is one of the sweetest and happiest tunes in all of music. Papageno and Papagena, the opera’s two star-crossed lovers, sung here by Olaf Bär and Eva Lind, joyfully imagine their future together.
Tosca, the protagonist from Puccini’s opera of the same name, is one of the most demanding roles for a soprano to perform. Renata Tebaldi, one of the greatest singers in history, did it better than anyone. In “Vissi d’arte”, Tosca worries about her imprisoned lover, Mario Cavaradossi, and wonders why God has seemingly abandoned her despite her constant faith.
“Che Gelida Manina” is one of the most recorded tenor arias in the canon. It is sung in the first act of Puccini’s La Boheme, as Rodolfo tells Mimi his life story. In the selected recording, it is sung perfectly by Luciano Pavarotti.
This passionate piece is one of the most beautiful french arias ever composed. It comes at an intense point in Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila, where the enticing Dalila attempts to seduce Samson, an enemy of her people, so as to lure him into a trap where he can be arrested. Samson, ensnared by Dalila’s beauty, falls for her plan and is captured.
This soprano-mezzo-soprano duet is one of the most recognizable tunes in all of music. In fact, it was described in the Grove Book of Operas, as “one of the world’s most popular melodies”. It is sung beautifully here by Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanča.
Vincenzo Bellini is known for his beautiful and memorable melodies, and “Casta Diva” is no exception. In this aria, Norma prays to the “Chaste Goddess” for peace and security. Maria Callas, one of the greatest Normas ever and one of the greatest sopranos in history, is particularly famous for her rendition of this aria.
This famous baritone aria, sung here by the great Dmitri Hvorostovsky, comes around the middle of Verdi’s La Traviata. It is a father’s heartfelt plea to his son, begging him to return home.
This is arguably the most famous choral piece in all of opera, and rightfully so. “Va Pensiero”, also known as the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves”, is the highlight of Verdi’s early opera Nabucco, the work that helped raise him to prominence in the European music scene. The text was inspired by Psalm 137 from the Tanakh.
Before you rush to the comments, angry that your favorite piece wasn't on the list, just remember: this list is constantly evolving, and these are only ten of the hundreds of amazing pieces of music that are very dear to my heart. With that being said, if you have any suggestions, be sure to leave a comment!