Today's Best Opera Singers: Sopranos and Mezzo-Sopranos
And now for the Gents
Every good heroine deserves a hero. It's a well known fact, and the divas would miss the tenors, baritones, and basses who make their stage life interesting, loving, terrifying, or just plain crazy.
There are few things that are as beautiful, stirring and controversial as a classical singer. They have been stereotyped over their sound, their lifestyle, and even their weight; but I am here to tell you that if you actually listen, sopranos do not scream, you don't have to throw fits to be hired at the Met, and the fat lady on stage is something of a relic. Some of the most powerful and memorable melodies have been written for the opera stage, as well as incredible sacred works.
Some say that all the good ones are from past generations, and there will be an eternal war waged between those who idolize Callas and the adorers of Tebaldi. There are still whispers in the far corners of the opera world over whether or not Elizabeth Schwarzkopf was guilty of producing her high notes with tension, and a hush falls over those who have been inspired by Leontyne Price whenever her name is mentioned. Yet others believe that the best torch-bearers for this generation are the so-called "cross-over artist", who sell occasional Handel and Mozart arias between more generally appealing folk and pop selections. Hayley Westenra, Charlotte Church, and others are perfect examples of this, and they have merit in their own right. But as performers of classical music, they lack credibility except for causing a few of their listeners to delve deeper into the classical tradition that they give a taste of.
But there are many women who are out to keep the tradition of classical singing alive and well, and this is a list of ten of them. Some are well established and possibly in the twilight years of their careers, while others are in their fresh-faced, beautiful beginnings. Some will never have a large following but will be loved by those they do reach with their music. Some will be icons, remembered and revered by thousands for years to come. All love their art and are doing their best to make others love it too. There is a word that can describe every one: bellissima.
The darling of the Met and one of the few modern American sopranos to gain world-wide recognition, Renee Fleming has rightly earned her moniker of "The Beautiful Voice". Not only does she have is all -- the velvet voice, the technique, the looks, and the acting chops-- she is becoming something of an icon and classic. With a broad repertory and a reputation for being un-egotistical and easy to work with, she has worked hard to maintain a solid career, even dabbling in the pop world recently. But never fear, she has remained squarely in the classical world and is quite likely to stay there as reigning queen of the American opera world.
Best of Renee: Fleming took Dvorak's Song to the Moon from an obscure aria to a famed piece of the repertoire, and her recording is still the one of the best you will find.
Vivacious, energetic, and possessing a powerful mezzo-soprano, Joyce DiDonato is a rising star in the opera world. There's something very appealing about DiDonato, whether it's in her charismatic interpretations of characters or her general enthusiasm for the music she sings. Not only is she passionate about what she does, she loves connecting with her public, an endearing quality in a world that is rife with snobbery. Listening to her is like seeing cream poured-- her voice flows in rich, smooth waves that you never want to end. She is ever broadening her repertoire, from little known Handel masterpieces to modern works, giving the same energy to everything she does.
Best of Joyce: Mozart's aria Non so Piu from Le Nozze di Figaro highlights her sparkling high range and excellent interpretive qualities.
Now here is what the opera world loves best -- a self-contradicting diva with lots of drama. This Italian mezzo-soprano is famous for her brilliant coloratura, her engaging stage presence, a love of the obscure Baroque and Classical repertoire, and of course the ability to pull off much of the soprano literature. For most singers this would be suicide, but Bartoli does it all with flair as is evidenced by numerous awards, both from the US and Europe, as well as the adoration of audiences everywhere. With immense talent and a voice that seems to get even better as it ages, Bartoli has been and remains an operatic force to be reckoned with.
Best of Cecilia: Casta Diva, with all the sighings and melodrama your heart could desire.
If you mention the name Barbara Bonney, there may not be many faces that light up with recognition, but it certainly is not her fault. A nearly perfect technique, combined with a silky, natural sounding voice make her a top-notch singer. Her chosen path in lesser-known music hasn't given her the limelight she deserves, but if you listen to her recordings, it's not likely that you won't become a Bonney fan. Also, she recently formed the Bonney Foundation to help give young singers a good musical education and a strong career start.
Best of Barbara: He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd from Handel's Messiah.
The Russian soprano who set the opera world on it's ears, Netrebko is not only musical, beautiful, and wildly popular, she is pretty much the height of the opera stratosphere. Her soprano is strong and doesn't have any kind of shrillness, even on the top of her range. Although she has her detractors, her interpretations are intense and passionate, and she has begun to prove herself capable of some of the most difficult roles in the repertoire.
Best of Anna: She delivers O Mio Babbino Caro more believably and movingly than most can, and that's saying something for one of the most popular showpieces.
Yulia van Doren
Young and talented, Yulia van Doren is coming into her own as a first class soprano specializing in Baroque music. Her recent collaborations with Dawn Upshaw have achieved great acclaim and she is has great promise, if not the fame to accompany it yet. A colloratura voice that shimmers perfectly on Handel's showpieces, and still has the depth to deftly sing Bach's serious sacred works is a rare find, but van Doren handles it all well. The fact that she specializes, no matter how well she does it, is something of a handicap, but she does have the talent to do it as successfully as possible.
Best of Yulia: Unfortunately, she has yet to make any recordings. You can find a few live recordings on her site, yuliavandoren.com
A thorough going diva with a golden voice, who lives up to all one expects when one thinks of a leading lady. Though she keeps up lots of drama in real life, she has plenty of it left for the stage and is a well rounded performer with a silky soprano that can keep up with the best of them. Her performances of the Italian repertoire are most acclaimed, and a great stage presence rounds out her giftings.
Best of Angela: Her duets with former husband Roberto Alagna from Romeo et Juliette and La Traviata are delightful in their rapport and artistry.
Technically sound, a charming voice, and charismatic, communicative performances make Dawn Upshaw a delightful singer. She's stayed mostly in the American audience, with an emphasis in her career on recital performances and smaller works. A lack of universal fame shouldn't put any tarnish on her name though; she is a first class singer and can perform a broad repertoire. A 2006 battle with cancer has set her back some, but she's pulled through and is continuing to perform, if not as much as in former years.
Best of Dawn: The American repertoire is her strong suite, as well as her recent emphasis on the works of Bach.
Latvian Elina Garancas is a package deal. She has a mezzo-soprano that is nearly flawless (especially in one so young), looks to kill for, and the ability to act while she's singing and looking good. Her interpretations lean toward the more subtle than DiDonato's overt expressions. In a mere ten years she has climbed to the top, being ranked with the likes of Netrebko and Bryn Terfel, and it seems that the best is yet to come.
Best of Elina: Her 2010 rendition of Carmen received great acclaim and is powerfully rendered, with lots of nuance.
A soprano with a light agility of tone, Battle's voice is famous for it's purity of quality and deft coloratura. Though her opera career was cut short when she was fired from the Met in 1994 for "unprofessional actions", she still had enough credentials in having worked with the likes of Herbert von Karajan and James Levine to not disappear from the music world. Battle has managed to maintain a career in a broad recital and recording repertoire, with her interpretations of Baroque, early Classical, and jazz music among her best. Especially breath-taking are her renditions of spirituals, a nod to her African-American roots that make them more emotive and powerful than practically any other recording you will find. Her voice, never having the largeness of most professionals, may be waning as she gets older, but Battle still has the voice and musicality to put on a good show.
Best of Kathleen: Rejoice Greatly and Were You There from the album Grace. If her spirituals don't send tingles down you spine, you may want to have your nervous system checked
This is far from an exhaustive list; there are many other talented women on the stage today, and I would love to hear your favorites! These are just some of those that have universal appeal, and the true artistry to back it up. I hope you enjoy discovering the uniqueness and beauty of each one.