This was a tough piece to write. With all the great sopranos of different vocal types active in the 20th century, picking just 10 is a daunting task. But I’m giving it a try regardless. I have excluded the high sopranos like Tetrazzini and Galli-Curci, but I still have a surplus of riches that my limit of 10 causes me to omit. As I’ve previously said about previous compilations, this list represents nothing more than personal opinion and taste. Feel free to disagree and post your own list. The singers are presented in the order of their birth. I heard all these sopranos, with the exceptions of Flagstad and Ponselle, in performance.
Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962) was the dominant Wagnerian soprano of the pre WWII years. She sang 260 performances, all but 16 between 1935 and 1941, at the Met. She returned to the house in 1951 for her last appearances with the company. She was relatively unknown before her New York appearances. It was the Met that made her famous throughout the operatic world. Her combination of vocal beauty and power made her unmatched. Her decision to return to her husband and native land during the Nazi occupation of Norway made her a controversial figure after the war, though she only performed in neutral countries during the conflict and never collaborated with the Nazis. She performed Isolde 73 times at the Met, almost always with Lauritz Melchior as Tristan. As you could have predicted, the house was always sold out. Flagstad Liebestod
Rosa Ponselle (1897-1981) made her operatic debut opposite Enrico Caruso in 1918 in the Met’s first performance of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. I’ve listened to just about all of her recordings. While they are quite good they do not reveal the miracle that all who heard her in performance say she was. When I first started going to the Met, less than 20 years had passed since her retirement from opera. I talked to many who had heard her live and they were unanimous in their praise of her vocal beauty. The last act aria from her debut role shows a dark and rich spinto voice, but it has none of the glory that is displayed in the Milanov version below. Her concluding high note is rather odd. Rather than sing the aria’s last word, she just inserts a vowel – ‘ah’. Ponselle Pace, Pace, Mio Dio
Zinka Milanov (1906-89) was the greatest Verdi soprano I ever heard. For sheer vocal beauty no one could match her. If you heard her at her best during her vocal prime (1950-56) you had a life altering experience. She was the quintessential late bloomer. I’ve written about her before, so I won’t go further into the details of her career. Her recording of Pace, pace, mio Dio! starts with the most beautiful first word since Edison changed the world.
Birgit Nilsson (1918-2005) was another vocal miracle. Her voice was characterized by power, stamina, and supersonic high notes (I know that’s an impossibility, but the metaphor is apt). Her voice could overpower Wagner or Strauss at their loudest. She was built like a human loudspeaker, a very well amplified one. Once you heard her, you could never forget her sound. He favorite role wasn’t by Wagner or Strauss, but was Puccini’s Turandot. She said it made her rich and it was over in a Wagnerian blink. The Met brought the opera back after a 30 year hiatus just for her. Of her 222 performances at the Met, 52 were as Puccini’s cruel and repressed princess. Many of these were with Franco Corelli. This was an unbeatable combination. In questa reggia is from a Met performance with Corelli. She was such a major figure, that her death was announced by the king of Sweden, her native country.
Maria Callas (1923-77) is the one opera singer known to people who haven’t the slightest interest in opera. This fame persists 40 years after her death. So much has been said and written about her that it is impossible to separate the reality of her performance from the thick crust of legend that surrounds it. She had an unattractive voice that had great power and range during the early part of her career. When she was about 30 she lost 80 pounds. This period corresponds the onset of her vocal decline. The causes of this decline, by 40 her career was effectively over, have been debated at great length. I won’t add to the speculation about its causes. She was a vocal actress of great power and expressiveness. It is her interpretative genius that ranks her among the greatest singers of her time. Her singing of Ah non credea mirarti from Bellini’s La Sonnambula shows her gift for expression, though the wobble that was to take over her voice is present in it incipient stage.
Victoria de los Angeles (1923-2005) gave 139 performances at the Met between 191 and 1961. She had a voice of unique delicacy. It conveyed sensitivity and meaning with every syllable. She was also a noted recitalist and sometimes accompanied herself on the guitar. Madama Butterfly was the second role she sang at the Met. Un bel di, vedremo from the second act shows the best qualities of her voice.
Joan Sutherland (1926-2010) was a unique vocal type – a dramatic coloratura. She could sing Lucia and Norma with equal facility. A large voice with supreme agility and high notes justified her eponym – La Stupenda. The title role of Rossini’s Semiramide was one of Sutherland’s most celebrated roles. She was to have sung it at the Met, but it fell aside because of a disagreement with management. Bel raggio lusinghier is from the opera’s first act.
Leontyne Price (b 1927) was the great American soprano of the second half of the 20th century. She sang throughout the world. She made a spectacular debut at the Met in 1961 as Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore. This performance was also the Met debut of Franco Corelli. She sang 204 times with company. After retiring from opera she continued to give recitals. Her last appearance was in 2001 at a concert honoring the victims of the 9/11 attack.
I heard her both in New York and Chicago. She had a large, smooth, and very distinctive voice that was ideal for the big Verdi roles. The last role she added to her repertoire was the title one in Strauss’s Ariadne Auf Naxos. Her recording of Es gibt ein Reich from that opera was made before she sang the role onstage. It’s a virtually perfect reading of this difficult piece.
Montserrat Caballé (b 1933) was, like de los Angeles, a native of Barcelona. She first achieved international recognition when she filled in for Marilyn Horne in a 1965 concert performance of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia at Carnegie Hall. Her beautiful pianissimo high notes caused Zinka Milanov to say, “She reminds me of early me.” She made her Met debut later that year in as Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust. Sherrill Milnes also made his Met debut in the same performance. She sang 98 performances with the company. Caballé had a wide repertoire even reaching into Richard Strauss. She was best known, however, for her interpretations of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, and Puccini. Her reading of Ebben, Ne Andrò Lontana from Catalani’s La Wally shows the vocal characteristics that made her famous.
The last soprano may be a surprise. Diana Soviero (b 1946) is an American soprano who, though she had a major career, never achieved the elevated status that her gifts warranted. She was by far the best singing actress I ever saw. If you attended a performance of one of her best roles (eg Traviata, Suor Angelica, Madama Butterfly) you were forever marked by the searing intensity she emitted – both vocal and dramatic. Suspension of disbelief was total. I will soon do a piece solely devoted to her. Senza mamma is from Puccini’s Suor Angelica. Alas, I only heard Soviero do the role once in performance. It was the Saturday matinee (Dec 16, 1989) at the Met devoted to all three of Puccini’s one act operas. Soviero made 102 appearance with the company.