How Did Famous Opera Singers of the Past Become Famous?

Famous opera singers of yesterday are mired in legends and mystery. But, what is the secret, opera singers of the past had to becoming famous? Was it just a great operatic voice capable of opera singing? Was there a trick to winning opera singer auditions?

Whether British, Canadian, Austrian, Swedish, Ukrainian or Italian, great opera singers of the past are classical singers that are frequently portrayed in pictures, paintings, photographs and opera posters. Opera singing competitions are named in honour of the best of these top opera singers.

New opera singers often need to know how to become an opera singer? And, studying the career paths of iconic famous opera singers of the past is always a good idea.


Read to Discover: Famous Opera Singers’ Path to Fame

How to Become a Famous Opera Singer
How to Become a Famous Opera Singer

  1. Names of Famous Opera Singers
  2. A Famous Opera Tenor Who Substituted at the Last Minute
  3. Being at the Right Place at the Right Time on the Road to Fame
  4. A Soprano Who Saved an Opera From a Flop To a Success
  5. The Secret of Staying Famous
  6. List of Singers that Were Famous and Sang Opera

What Are The Names of Some Famous Opera Singers?

Famous Opera Singers
Famous Opera Singers

Names of famous male opera singers of the past and present that immediately come to mind are: Enrico Caruso (1873-1921), Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007), Placido Domingo (b.1941) and Jose Carreras (b.1946). Isn’t it interesting that they are all Italian opera tenors? True Placido Domingo is of Spanish heritage. But, all of these top male singers have made a career singing Italian opera.

Names of famous female opera singers that opera lovers around the world will immediately recognize include: Lisa Della Casa (1919-2012), Maria Callas (1923-1977), Joan Sutherland (1926-2010), Kiri Te Kanawa (b.1944) and Maria Guleghina (b.1959). Among the female opera singers there is more diversity: Switzerland, Greece, Australia, New Zealand and Ukraine.


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 (1813 – 1883). 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. Finally, a young tenor was found and engaged to sing the lead. After a gruelling 36 hour train ride from Elberfeld to Stockholm, Modest Menzinsky (1875 – 1935) 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.


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 after the end of World War II. Herbert von Karajan (1908 – 1989) 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 (1906 – 1997), a mezzo-soprano, was scheduled to sing. She had performed only a few days earlier. On August 11, 1951, the morning of the performance, Höngen came down with an acute case of appendicitis and was hospitalized.

That fateful day, Ira Malaniuk (1919 – 2009), 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.


A Famous Soprano Who Saved an Opera After a Catastrophic Premiere

Soprano Salomea Krusceniski as Cio-Cio-San
Soprano Salomea Krusceniski as Cio-Cio-San

It was February 17, 1904. Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924) had just experienced a fiasco (a theatre term for “a failure in performance”). The La Scala audience in Milan had booed, hissed, laughed and stomped their feet during the premiere of his new opera – Madama Butterfly.

To this day, the opera world has never witnessed such tremendous objection to a performance. Reluctantly but meticulously, Puccini began to rewrite his beloved opera. Between 1904 and 1907, the Madama Butterfly libretto and score were reworked 6 times.

On May 28, 1904 three months after the disastrous premiere, the second rewrite premiered at the Grand Teatro in Brescia. Puccini had made changes in the music and text. He also chose a different singer for the lead role of Cio-Cio San. The dramatic soprano Salomea Krusceniski (1872 – 1952), an accomplished and well-known Ukrainian-Italian opera singer, was engaged. Spectacularly, the evening ended with 32 curtain calls, 7 encores and rave reviews.

Salomea Krusceniski went on to perform the role of Cio-Cio San 100 times. Anecdotes claim that upon her 100th performance, she retired the role and personally returned her well-used score to Puccini. After a disastrous beginning, a famous singer gave new life to a famous composer’s work.

Today, the opera Madama Butterfly is among the top 10 most performed operas in the world today.


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

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.

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 (in alphabetical order). 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 singing career, they were as young as any opera singer performing today.

Unfortunately, over time the names of these unique 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 great famous opera singers.

Text by Oksana A. Wynnyckyj-Yusypovych