Great Sopranos I Have Heard

I don’t know why there isn’t an opera about Maria Calllas. (There is a pretty great movie with Fanny Ardant playing her in her last years in a film directed by Franco Zeffereli, who directed her onstage.). Her weight loss to look better and thereby injuring her voice is tragic. Her fixation on Onassis is tragic. I subscribe to the rap that her voice became shrill early on, but that she was a great actress. (She can be seen in the title role of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s sriking “Medea,” a non-singing role).

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I’m too young to have heard her live, but have heard some other divas who protected their voice, including Joan Sutherland, Margaret Price, and Christine Brewer.


Sutherland was aptly called “La Stupenda.” She had a stupendous voice. Producing beautiful sound seemed enough for her, but she did do some acting, too.

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(getting CDs signed, 2010)

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I like big, beautiful sound, as produced by the more than ample Jessye Norman and by Christine Brewer (both American-born, in 1945 and 1955, respectively), both of whom I had the luck to hear multiple times (including Brewer’s “Alceste” in Santa Fe). Brewer was a student of the great Wagner soprano Brigit Nillson, whom I never got to hear live, alas.

I’ll always remember the great Catalan soprano Monserrat Caballeé enthroned in Rossisinig’s Semiramade in a gown that continued at least a yard below her feet and looked in proportion (not the one pictured below).  Caballé is a legendary for her girth as for the beauty of her voice, a voice that she carefully preserved for decades.

Margaret Price also produced a lot of beautiful sound. I’ll always remember her saying that Mozart felt good in her throat. I heard each of these three sing Strauss’s “Four Last Songs,” some of the most ravishing vocal writing ever done.


I heard a pretty sensational version of one of Dame Joan’s signature roles by Olga Borodina, whom I thought of as a Verdi soprano, not a bel canto one (she more recently did QEI here in “Roberto Devereux,” an opera without any inspiration in my view).


The very pure-voiced Dawn Upshaw (1960-) is best known for her best-selling rendition of Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony, but has done a wide range of contemporary parts and earlier French one. I have not heard Jessica Rivera often enough (though I had an extended conversation with her at a reception after the première of John Adams’s “Flowering Tree.”)

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I think that I heard Leontyne Price sing in the park. I’d have put her no my list, except that I just listened to a live performance of Trovatore with Franco Corelli in which she sounds shrill to me. Her case is under advisement.

Though I approve of her taking on new music, I am not a fan of Renée Fleming. I only heard Elizabeth Soderstrom well after her peak, but admire her. I did not hear Mirella Freni , Lucia Popp, or Renata Tebaldi live, though am pretty sure from recordings that they were among the great ones.  . Kiri Te Kawane, good, but not great. Scotto, I’m not sure about, though she was a great recorded Mme. Butterfly and the Youtube video of the last scene of “Suor Angelica” is very impressive. “Bubbles”(Beverly Sills) was before my time, though I enjoyed her hosting Met telecasts after she topped singing.

I was impressed by Patrice Racette in Paul Moravec’s “The Letter” at Sanda fe. She definitely could act, as well as sing. I’d like to hear her non-operatic  “Diva on Detour.”Longer ago at Santa Fe, I heard Alessandra Marc sing a beauiful Ariadne, but I’ve been told that she quickly ruined her voice.

[The only great tenor I’ve heard live is Placido Domingo, though John Aler is a contender; the only bass Samuel Ramey, though Eric Owens and Simon Estes are contenders.]

©2019, Stephen O. Murray [photos I’m not in are from WIkipedia]

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