Do You Recognize These 10 Famous Opera Songs?

All over the world, famous opera songs are an important part of the repertoire of opera music and classical music concerts. The names of operas that feature some of the most popular opera songs are among those considered by audiences to be the world’s best operas.

Interestingly, most famous opera music includes French and Italian opera songs. The most famous Italian opera songs are part of the standard Italian opera repertoire every opera lover ought to know.

The best opera music includes classic opera songs from the most popular operas.


Read to Discover Famous Opera Songs:


To What Extent do Famous Opera Songs Help Us Enjoy Opera Performances?

Famous Opera Songs
Famous Opera Songs

During a performance, the theatre audience will often welcome the most famous opera songs with a round of applause. Frequently, this happens as the first introductory notes are produced by the orchestra. Obviously, the audience is expressing their delight that a piece they have been looking forward to and expecting is about to be peformed.

In 1968, Robert Boleslaw Zajonc (1923 – 2008), a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, wrote a paper entitled «Attitudinal effects of mere exposure». In it, Professor Zajonc stated that a «first encounter with [a] novel stimulus produces fear reaction. If no negative consequences are associated with [this] first encounter, the avoidance reaction upon the second encounter will naturally be weaker.»

How many of us recall having a bumbling or painful reaction the first time we ever heard an opera song? Actually, there are probably very few people (if any) who can honestly say that their «first encounter» with an opera aria sung by a high soprano voice (or, any operatic voice), was positive. More likely, it was only after repeated exposures to such music that we acknowledged liking opera songs.

More recent brain research has confirmed that the more familiar we are with a song, the more we tend to have an emotional reaction to it.

A group of researchers from the University of Porto, Portugal and the University of Helsinki, Finland published a paper in 2011 on «Music and emotions in the brain: Familiarity matters.»

During the study, subjects listened to music, which they had previously designated as familiar or unfamiliar. As the listeners' listened, the multi-national research team observed the electrical impulses produced in their brains. The results confirmed that when listening to music, our brains «light up» in those areas which other research has designated as areas associated with emotions. Interestingly, whether we like or dislike the music is not as important as, whether or not we are familiar with it. It seems that if we know the music, we become emotionally engaged (or, at least, our brains do!).

After all, if you were to hear any of the following famous opera songs completely unprepared (particularly if you are not sitting in the best opera house theatre seats, would you honestly be able to say that you enjoyed them?

  • 1. Der Holle rache kocht in meinem Herzen, more commonly know as The Queen of the Night Aria from Act 2, Scene 3 of the opera The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has very high trills that can send either positive or negative shivers up your spine.
  • 2. Stride la vampa from Act 2, Scene 1 of the opera Il trovatore by Giuseppe Verdi has haughting musical echoes. Having the opportunity to read the lyrics in English translation as you listen, this might enhance your classic opera song listening enjoyment – although, it is definitely not a pleasant read!
  • 3. Mercè, dilette amiche (Thank-you, beloved friends), more commonly known as Elena's Bolero from the opera I vespri sìciliani (The Sicilian Vespers) by Giuseppe Verdi is frequently performed during opera concerts. If you personally have never heard it before, you might wonder why?

So, yes! If you are planning to attend a live opera performance, it is a very good idea to spend some time listening to recordings of the famous opera songs you will be hearing during the performance. You might not like what you initially hear, but as you listen to the music several times, there is a very good chance that you will get to enjoy it more.

Whatever your personal attitude, the more familiar a famous opera song becomes, the more emotionally engaged you will become. Research suggests that having become accustomed to the music beforehand (particularly famous opera songs), you are assured a more gratifying opera experience.


How do Opera Songs Become Famous?

Opera Songs in Commercials
Opera Songs in Commercials

Have you every wondered why certain songs (opera and others) are famous and others are not?

Chrysanthos Dellarocas, currently Professor of Information Systems at Boston University is a frequently cited expert on online reputation and digital learning. In 2004, he claimed that the «internet has enabled individuals all over the world to make their personal experiences, thoughts, and opinions easily accessible to the global community 'at the click of a mouse'…».

Building on this claim, Chris Dellarocas has proposed that although the inclination to manipulate the capabilities of the internet on the part of corporations and agencies (or, 'firms' as he calls them) is great, there is both mathematical and research evidence to suggest that such interference is both costly and, more importantly, mostly ineffective. It would appear that exploiting the internet to make an opera song famous may be counterproductive. Many, if not most, people do know what they enjoy and appreciate without corporations telling them otherwise.

Opera songs and opera music have been used consistently in promotional campaigns by products having nothing in common with opera. Do you remember the Coke – Pepsi promotional «wars» at the turn of the century? If you don't, you might want to discover more about this forgotten marketing phenomenon.

In a successful TV commercial created by The Edge Creative advertising agency, a famous opera song is used to promote Coke (a new window will open).

  • 4. Vesti la giubba from the opera Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo is a famous opera aria in which the lead clown bemoans his fate of having to smile and play the clown part even though he is not happy.

A little boy witnessing a live performance of the great clown aria believes that the clown is truly sad and offers him a Coke to cheer him up. Ironically (or, in keeping with the promotional aim of the advertising campaign), the audience cheers the sharing of the Coke, rather than the opera singers performance.

The question is: Does the opera song become famous because it is given wide exposure by a successful advertising campaing? Or, is the promotional campaign successful because it has used a famous opera song people recognize and react to emotionally?


Under What Circumstances Might Opera Songs Become Famous?

Top 10 Opera Songs
Top 10 Opera Songs

Some 40 years after the research by Robert B. Zajonc (see above, another researcher, Matthew J. Salganik, currently professor of sociology at Princeton University, has conducted research into how individuals pick and choose the songs they enjoy and to what extent they are influenced by how others have reacted to a song. He named his paper “Leading the herd astray: An experimental study of self-fulfilling prophecies in an artificial cultural market”.

Using the capabilities of online databases, Professor Salganik manipulated results of what songs people claimed to like. For his research, Salganik informed his subjects that others had given a high rating to songs, which consumers had actually rated as low on a scale of ‘likes’.

Not surprisingly, Salganik found that people were “…about six times more likely to listen to the most popular song…” What was surprising was that people were also “…three times more likely to listen to the least popular song, than to listen to a song of middle popularity rank.” But, as subjects were given more opportunities to listen, they began to base their choices less on the given ratings and more according to their own preferences.

Furthermore, Matthew Salganik found that if telling people what they should like is done on a small-scale, then there is potential for the music industry to manipulate consumer preferences. But, once such manipulation becomes large-scale, people will no longer accept being told what they should or should not like.

In short, it would appear that people actually know what they consider to be “good”. We may initially choose to listen to something because others have recommended it, particularly if those “others” are our friends and not large advertising companies. However, ultimately, we seem to be quite capable of making up our own minds on what we consider to be amazing and what we find wonderful.


What Opera Songs are Performed by Famous Opera Singers?

Famous opera singers perform famous opera songs in opera concerts all over the world. As soloists, they are often the reason some of us will choose to set aside the money to pay the price of a ticket and to find the time to attend a performance.

A frequently performed song in an opera that is included in concert programs and performed by opera singers around the world is:

  • 5. Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour, more commonly known as The Barcarolle from Act 3 of Les contes d’Hoffman (The Tales of Hoffmann) by Jacques Offenbach (1819 – 1880) with lyrics by Jules Barbier (1825 – 1901).

In the video clip above, Nataliya Datsko and Oksana Nahay perform the beautiful opera song, Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour (Barcarolle by Offenbach), at an open-air concert in Lviv, Ukraine in 2008. The Lviv Festival Orchestra is conducted by Myron Yusypovych.

Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour This beautiful night, this passionate night
Souris à nos ivresses Smile upon our ecstasy
Nuit plus douce que le jour For the night glow is smoother than daylight
Ò, belle nuit d’amour! On this beautiful passionate night!
Le temps fuit et sans retour Time vanishes and does not return
Emporte nos tendresses It carries away our hearts
Loin de cet heureux séjour Far from this happy sojourn
Le temps fuit sans retour. As time vanishes without return.
Zéphyrs embrasés A soft and gentle breeze arises
Versez-nous vos caresses And caresses us
Zéphyrs embrasés This soft and gentle breeze is
Donnez-nous vos baisers! Providing us with its kisses!
Vos baisers! Vos baisers! Ah! Its kisses! Its kisses! Ah!
Belle nuit, ô, nuit d’amour This beautiful night, this passionate night
Souris à nos ivresses Smile upon our ecstasy
Nuit plus douce que le jour, For the night glow is smoother than daylight
Ò, belle nuit d’amour! On this beautiful passionate night!
Ah! souris à nos ivresses! Ah! smile upon our ecstasy!
Nuit d’amour, ô, nuit d’amour! This passionate night, this passionate night!
Ah! ah! ah! ah! ah! ah! ah! ah! ah! Ah! ah! ah! ah! ah! ah! ah! ah! ah! ah! ah!

(NOTE: The above translation of the lyrics was done for this website!)

Originally, Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour was composed as a choral piece to be sung offstage. It was based on barcarolle melodies, meaning “boat songs” sung by the Venetian gondoliers.


What Role do Choral Songs Play in Famous Operas?

Famous Opera Choruses
Famous Opera Choruses

In the history of opera, the chorus has been given various roles. In early opera, the role of the chorus was to comment on the action or conflict experienced by the main characters as portrayed and performed by the opera singers. In time, the opera chorus became a character with a voice and characteristics of its own.

Opera chorus songs are often very popular parts of an opera performance. When an opera chorus performs, there are more people, more colour, more costumes and more movement on stage. Certainly, static performances, when the opera choir entered the stage, stood and delivered their song and then exited are, for the most part, in the past.

There are many famous opera songs performed by an opera chorus throughout the opera music repertoire. Some of the greatest opera choral songs include:

  • 6. The Grand Triumphal March from the opera Aida by Giuseppe Verdi in which the people of Egypt praise and welcome Radames and his triumphant army.
  • 7. Guerra, guerra from Act 2, Scene 7 of the opera Norma by Vincenzo Bellini, in which the high priestess riles the Gaul warriors to war against their Roman oppressors.
  • 8. Va, pensiero, often referred to as the Hebrew Slaves Chorus from the opera Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi, in which the Hebrew people reminisce about their lost freedom.
  • 9. March of the Toreadors from Act 4 of the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet, in which the people of Seville welcome the toreadors (bullfighters) as they enter the city before the bullfight.
  • 10. Evviva! Beviam!, the Grand Opening Chorus from Act I of Ernani by Giuseppe Verdi, an all male famous opera song during which bandits demand to know why their leader is unhappy.

Interestingly, there is one very important feature that binds many of the famous opera songs. This feature is often referred to as the ‘whistle test’. Can ordinary listeners, who are not professional musicians whistle the tune (that is, if you know how to whistle)? If so, time and time again a tune that passes the “whistle test” will become famous.

For those of us, who don’t whistle, a simple humming test will probably let us know that the opera song we can’t get out of our head, is one that is most likely part of the list of top 10 famous opera songs.

Text by Oksana A. Wynnyckyj-Yusypovych


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