When it comes to great opera, I am the supreme judge - by which I mean, of course, that like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, when it comes to great opera, "I know it when I see it." Or maybe I'm more like John Cleese's clever reimagining of Pope Pius and I may not know much about opera, but I know what I like. In any case, I'm treating the erudite readers of the Bilerico Project to a suite of essays - mainly favorites lists, with lots of links - on opera. I begin with the ultimate touchstone of opera, and one of its campiest traditions, la diva.
Opera lovers have very strong opinions about divas, which makes a lot of sense because so many opera lovers are divas (especially the gay ones!). But we take our diva-ing very seriously, down to comparisons of careers or who most fleshes out a particular role (there tends to be a lot of flesh in opera), and even who owns which aria or sings which cadenzas the best. We love the golden-throated Amazon princesses of music, the Titanic voices and Olympic personalities. We are enthralled by their bombast and transported by their vulnerability. We simply cannot get enough of these girls!
Below, I furnish my top ten divas, along with accompanying recordings of each at her best! These ladies run the gamut in terms of repertoire, fach, and style: we have coloraturas and Wagnerians, household names and obscure geniuses. Having few criteria - technical excellence, interpretive beauty, and extant samples of their singing - made the selection of a mere ten quite a challenge, but I believe this list pretty accurately covers the greatest female opera singers in, ahem, recorded history.
Enjoy! And don't be shy about sharing your top ten.
10.) Beverly Sills (1929-2007)
Beloved "Bubbles" is on every serious opera lover's list, because the only thing better than loving opera is loving opera singers who love opera. Not only was her voice beautiful and refined, but she used an understated performance technique to get us rooting for her, to bring us along. She also knew her limitations and, unlike certain of her unnamed contemporaries, she knew to call it quits while she was on top. In a brilliant move that only endeared her to us more, Sills retired into the role of beloved commentator and cheerleader, the legacy of her voice untarnished by decline, and her charming chatter at our side to talk us through our favorite sordid operatic tales.
9.) Diana Damrau (b. 1971)
Another high-flyer, this dynamic dame gives us hope for the future. Her voice knows no bounds - she can sing to the rafters, open the ceiling, launch into the stratosphere - and we love her for it. She enlivens even the most warhorse-y roles, like the Queen of the Night, by injecting a sexy savagery few others have mastered. I'm particularly fond of this Star Trek-inspired production:
8.) Anne Sofie von Otter (b. 1955)
Surprised? Well, don't be. One of those rare operatic mezzos with the depth and breadth to do it all, Von Otter is also one of the most unique, majestic interpreters of art song (opera's little brother). For those reasons and more, she makes it onto my list. Too many singers turn every opera into just a bunch of songs; Von Otter turns every song into an opera!
7.) Mado Robin (1918-1960)
What can I say? I love freaks, and this petite French ingenue was a bit of a freak. She could sing - not just whistle, but really sing, with spin and beauty and everything - higher than just about anybody. Think of her as an early 20th-century French version of Mariah Carey, but an opera singer. Par exemple:
6.) Cecelia Bartoli (b.1966)
Cecilia (pronounced CHay-CHee-lee-a, okay?) is the fan favorite for a several reasons, some already mentioned with the previous singers: she's an interpretive genius, conveys a love of singing while she's doing it, and sings high and low. Bartoli also spins through ludicrously dense and rapid fioratura like it ain't no thang, and we love a girl who tears through coloratura. Not only is she a great actress, not only is she fun to watch, not only does she have a badass upper extension, not ONLY can she toss out rapid-fire coloratura - but Cecilia is also a scholar. She has reintroduced audiences to long-forgotten masters and little-known compositions. Singers with brains are awesome: singers with great voices and brains who have fun are the BEST!
5. Birgit Nilsson (1918-2005)
Everything about this woman was big: big head, big personality, big voice. But her outsize voice made room for a universe of nuance in every performance. Best known for her Wagnerian roles, Birgit really touched my heart with her Turandot. I like to believe she thought of this as her "pretty" role, the one where she got to be delicate and feminine and subtle. Very few singers could call Turandot their hair-down role. Dig around for that, but this is a link to her performance of the finale of Salome - one of the greatest musical moments in opera! I would even sit through her "Dance of the Seven Veils" to hear singing like this:
4.) Joyce DiDonato (b. 1969)
Another grande dame of today, DiDonato embodies everything we love about opera - its outsize character, its grandeur, its emotional depth, its elegance - with the matching set of brains, body, and voice. I was fortunate to see her in Chicago as Rosina. I tend to prefer very high sopranos in the role so I can have a few high E's or F's in the barn-burner, "Una voce poco fa" (See Edita Gruberová below). But DiDonato converted me on the spot: she was adorable, absolutely hilarious, and totally owned the classic role, as you'll see.
3.) Leontyne Price (b. 1927)
Leontyne Price is the kind of old-school diva that we love to love. When her jaw swung open and she graced you with the most crystalline mellifluousness, you were utterly transported, not into a story, but into sheer musical bliss. She was never really in character; Queen 'Tyne was the character. You were there for Leontyne Price, and no mistake. For the obvious reason that she had the most perfect voice in the world, this non-acting-ness didn't detract in any way from her performance, as she demonstrates in this clip of Aida.
2.) Maria Callas (1923-1977)
La Callas is almost the opposite of Queen 'Tyne: she was a brilliant actress whose voice served the role. She wasn't afraid to get vocally ugly if the drama demanded it, and we adore her for it. Her Violetta sounds weak and sickly; her Tosca pleads "Vissi d'arte" with a pathos that exceeds mere prettiness. Opera was her life, and her life was an opera - a true diva! And when La Divina was at her best, she could sing circles around anybody else.
1.) Edita Gruberová (b. 1946)
Gruberová is a force of nature: strong as a hurricane, deft as a zephyr. Her coloratura is unmatched, her acting a joy, and her artistic genius without parallel. I would be remiss if I did not include a link to Edita's performance of the cabaletta from Rossini's "Una voce poco fa," but she is best known for bringing the cheeky, randy Zerbinetta to life. Zerbinetta's aria is one of the most difficult in the entire coloratura repertoire, and Gruberová is widely acknowledged to be the best to have ever sung it. The video below is in two parts, and it's worth watching every minute. Enjoy!