How Did Famous Opera Singers of the Past Become Famous?

Famous opera singers of the past are the stuff of legends and icons. They are surrounded in mystery.

Great opera singers of the past are portrayed in pictures, paintings, photographs and opera posters. Museums, concert halls, opera houses and young opera singer awards are dedicated in their honour.

But, how did some opera singers become famous and world-renowned?


What Are Some Famous Names of Opera Singers?

Famous Opera Singers
Famous Opera Singers

Names of famous male opera singers that immediately come to mind are:

  • Enrico Caruso

  • Luciano Pavarotti

  • Jose Carreras

  • Placido Domingo.

Famous female opera singers include:

  • Maria Callas

  • Joan Sutherland

  • Kiri Te Kanawa

  • Anna Netrebko.

To become famous, opera singers must have a unique talent that opera lovers will adore. It must involve much more than just a pleasing and well-trained voice.

Famous opera singers need to have:

  • an extraordinary voice

  • pleasing looks

  • good acting abilities

  • a desire to share their talent with an audience

  • a special sparkle on stage and sometimes even film

  • a unique “something” that distinguishes them from the many other singers, that perform in opera houses around the world.


An Opera Tenor Who Substituted at the Last Minute Before Becoming Famous

Famous Opera Tenor Menzinsky as Nero
Famous Opera Tenor Menzinsky as Nero

The year was 1903. The city was Stockholm. The opera being staged was *Lohengrin* by Richard Wagner.

Aino Ackte (1876 – 1944), a Finnish soprano, had been engaged to sing Elsa. The male lead was to be performed by the Finnish tenor, Arvid Ödmann (1850 – 1914).

Unfortunately, the two stars did not get along. As rehearsals progressed, the situation become more and more intolerable. Finally, several days before the performance, Arvid Ödmann claimed ill health.

It was a classic nightmare for any opera house: a sold-out audience and no lead tenor.

Tenors from all over Europe were contacted. In the end, a young tenor was found and engaged to sing the lead.

After a gruelling 36 hour train ride from Elberfeld to Stockholm, Modest Menzinsky arrived several hours before the scheduled performance.

He sang. The audience loved him. The critics wrote his praises. And, the Royal Swedish Opera House offered him a permanent contract, which he accepted.

Modest Menzinsky was on his way to becoming a famous opera singer.

Click to find out more about famous male opera singers


An Opera Singer, Who Was at the Right Place at the Right Time to Get Famous

Mezzosoprano Ira Malaniuk as Fricka
Mezzosoprano Ira Malaniuk as Fricka

It was 1951. The Wagnerian Festival at Bayreuth, Germany was taking place for the first time since the end of World War II.

Herbert von Karajan was the conductor. The opera was Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), the first of the four operas that comprise Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen. A complete Ring Cycle performance was planned for this inaugural post-war season.

Elisabeth Höngen, a mezzo-soprano, was scheduled to sing. She had performed only a few days earlier. Suddenly on August 11, 1951, Höngen came down with an acute case of appendicitis and was hospitalized.

That fateful day, Ira Malaniuk, a young mezzo-soprano, came into the theatre not suspecting that she would be required to sing the part of Fricka that night. According to her own autobiography, not only had Malaniuk never sung the part, she hadn’t even heard it before.

And yet, with the assistance of the Bayreuth Festival staff, colleagues, prompters and conductor Karajan, Ira Malaniuk went on stage that night and sang. The critics raved. Bavarian Radio broadcast the production.

And, Ira Malaniuk went on to become a famous opera singer – a Kammersängerin – in both Germany and Austria.

Click to discover the details of Europe’s famous female opera singers


What Does Someone Need to Become Famous?

Concert Dedicated to Famous Female Opera Singer
Concert Dedicated to Famous Female Opera Singer

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, a professor at the University of Southern California has an angle on being famous. She has conducted extensive research to find out more about how it is that some people become famous.

Prof. Currid-Halkett claims that in order to become famous, people must know famous people. Someone becomes famous “because they spend time with other famous people”. The old cliché – “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” The professor even goes so far as to claim that all famous people move in the same

social circles and know each other. They form the inevitable “clique”.

In her newest book Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett examines why many of us want, need, aspire to gain celebrity status. According to her, “Some celebrity can be chalked to charisma… Some celebrity is sheer determination to be noticed… Some celebrity is the luck of being born beautiful or being in the right place at the right time.…”

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett quotes a study by the Pew Research Center that claims 51% of 18 – 25 year old want to become famous. Do you belong to this group of people?


How Do Famous Opera Singers Stay Famous?

Festival Dedicated to Famous Male Opera Singer
Festival Dedicated to Famous Male Opera Singer

Mark Borkowski in his book *The Fame Formula*, claims that becoming famous requires “extraordinary talent”. But, Mr. Borkowski also states that fame, once achieved must “be sustained and refreshed”.

So, having a unique voice and pleasing looks and good acting abilities may be enough to become famous. But, this doesn’t mean that it is enough to keep someone famous.

In order to remain famous and not be forgotten, an opera singer must constantly provide something new and interesting for his or her audience.

Being famous requires a great deal of constant work and effort. Even if they have a wonderful voice, not many opera singers can achieve exceptional heights and become famous. Most cannot maintain their fame for a long time. Sad, but true.


Is There a List of Famous Opera Singers?

Below is an ongoing list of opera singers. They belong to a group known as old famous opera singers. These great opera singers were famous during their time on stage. Today, we call them old even though during their time on stage, they were as young as any opera singer performing today.

Unfortunately, over time the names of these old opera singers have become less familiar. Many of us have never heard of them. You may want to explore the lives, achievements and voices of some of these unique, great opera singers.

  • Modest Menzinsky (1875 – 1935) – one of Europe’s Famous Male Opera Singers

  • Ira Malaniuk (1919 – 2009) – one of the Europe’s Famous Female Opera Singers