Famous Classical Singers Who Defined the Genre

Famous Classical Singers Who Defined the Genre

In truth, classical music isn’t exactly the most famous genre out there. Genres like Pop, Rock, Hip-Hop, and R&B are flooding the music industry. However, real music lovers understand that there is a lot of appeal for classical music. 

Calm, meaningful, and thematic, classical music speaks to the soul. It provides an outlet through which we can channel our feelings and tell our story. Like every music genre, several artists are responsible for making classical music so popular. We’ve compiled a list of these special people below and discuss their contributions to classical music.

Maria Callas (1923 - 1977)

Maria Callas was a Greek soprano singer and, possibly, the most famous and controversial classical artist of her time. Born in December 1923, Callas was the daughter of two Greeks. Due to having to leave New York for Greece after her parents separated, she relocated with her mother to her hometown. 

Callas made her professional debut in 1941 with the Royal Opera of Athens. She had a small role in Boccaccio, a production of Franz von Suppe. Later that year, she had her first major role in Tosca. 

Following the events of the Second World War, Callas made her operatic debut in Verona in 1947. Four years later, she had become one of the most famous international singers. The singer went on to have several other performances, including an appearance of Norma at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. She also had the opportunity to sing with the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1956.  

Despite her controversial professional and personal lives, Callas was a force to be reckoned with. Opera lovers simply adored her for her captivating voice. Callas shined in tragic operas due to her ability to convey the seriousness of the role through her captivating and expressive voice.

Joan Sutherland (1926 - 2010)

Fans of classical music don’t need any introduction to Joan Sutherland. She is famous for her versatility and agility as a big soprano. Like Callas, she was loved by just about everyone. 

Sutherland had a warm and inviting stage personality that helped her significantly. Audiences felt her presence at all times, leading her to have one of the most loyal and committed audiences of any opera singer dead or alive.

Born in Sydney in 1928, Sutherland grew up and studied in Australia before heading to the Royal College of Music in 1951. It was there that she managed to join the Covent Garden Opera Company. Soon enough, she had garnered a certain reputation after appearing in projects such as The Mastersingers.

Sutherland’s star shone once more when she participated in Lucia di Lammermoor in 1959. After a successful outing, Sutherland was in high demand everywhere.

In 1960, Sutherland debuted at La Fenice in Alcina. Once again, she gained a significant following and got excellent reviews. Fans especially loved her down-to-earth nature, as well as her consistency over the years. After several more decades of impressive work, Sutherland retired in 1990 following her appearance in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots at the Australian Opera. She was truly a gem.  

Franco Corelli (1921 - 1976)

The tenor is one of the most important voices when singing. Beyond the voice strength and depth, a tenor singer is also expected to possess an imposing look that gets you hooked immediately. 

That was what made Franco Corelli so great. He was tall, dark, handsome, and had a superlative tenor voice that hooked audiences almost immediately. 

Born in Ancona, Italy in July 1921, Corelli had little by way of formal musical training. In fact, he didn’t take up singing until he was 23! He honed his craft by studying the notes and recordings of older tenors, primarily Enrico Caruso. Corelli had modeled his singing style after Caruso. 

In 1951, Corelli was accepted by the Centro Lirico Sperimentale, a Spoleto-based organization that trained aspiring young opera singers. He had his operatic debut in Carmen at the Teatro Novo, where he played Don Jose. Just like that, his career took off. 

Classical fans today might hear Corelli’s voice and think of it as old-fashioned with a nod to the former era and a rapid vibration. Corelli could certainly hold high notes for extended periods of time, as seen by his ability to sing for 12 seconds straight during a rendition of Tosca.

As a singer, Franco Corelli had a dark and lustrous voice that enabled him to explore new depths from time to time. The 50s and 60s had many exceptional tenors, but no one was quite as impressive as he was.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (1915 - 2006)

Born in 1915, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf was the daughter of two Germans. She showed an interest in music from an early age, performing in her first opera in 1928 at a school production of Orfeo ed Euridice in Magdeburg, Germany. 

In 1934, Schwarzkopf got accepted into the Berlin Hochschule für Musik. She began studying with Lula Mysz-Gmeiner, who helped her become a mezzo-soprano. Eventually, she moved on to train with Dr. Egonolf, who helped her become a coloratura soprano. After joining Berlin’s Deutsche Oper, Schwarzkopf made her stage debut in Act II of Wagner's Parsifal. 

She eventually left the Deutsche Oper in 1946, joining Vienna’s Theater an der Wien. Thanks to roles like Mimi in La Bohème and Violetta in La Traviata, she was able to garner significant fame and success. 

Schwarzkopf remains arguably the only singer to perform under two stage names in one performance. In October 1941, she sang for Adele for the first of a series of Die Fledermaus performances. But, she was made to play the role of Ida for the rest of the performance. When the Vienna State Operate kicked off its tour in 1947, Schwarzkopf was accepted and made her debut at London’s Royal Opera House. There, she played Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni.

Schwarzkopf's last operatic performance came in Act I of Der Rosenkavalier on December 31, 1971, in Brussels. 

Carlo Bergonzi (1924 - 2014)

Carlo Bergonzi was another singer who managed to captivate audiences with his voice depth. He might not have been as loud as people like Franco Corelli or Mario del Monaco, but he managed to outlive them all. With over 50 years in his career, Bergonzi was consistent and breathtaking. 

Born in Vidalenzo in 1924, Bergonzi found his musical training after serving in the Italian army in the Second World War. He initially trained as a baritone and made his debut in that voice, playing in Rossini's Figaro in 1948. Two years later, however, Bergonzi concluded that he might actually be a tenor. 

Following this change, Bergonzi appeared in his first appearance in Giordano's Andrea Chénier in 1951. Despite initial troubles, Bergonzi was able to excel. When he made his debut at La Scala in 1953, he had completed his transformation. His debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera came in 1956, where he played Radames in Aida. 

Bergonzi also debuted at the Covent Garden in 1962, receiving a significant amount of praise as a result. He became an instant fan favorite and returned several times. The great tenor had an illustrious singing career, of course, filled with memorable moments that fans are sure to remember.

Tito Schipa (1888 - 1965)

Tito Schipa is another one of those singers who never had the deepest or loudest voice. But, what he had was so impeccably produced that it was able to seamlessly travel to the ends of even the biggest theaters. Schipa was loved for his perfect command of phrasing and dynamics, as well as his ability to deliver tones in different languages. 

Born in 1888, Schipa’s talents had become obvious from an early age. He was already an avid composer and pianist before he found that his true talents lay in singing. From his little village, Schipa went on to Milan to study more. 

After six years in Milan, Schipa made his debut as Alfredo in La Traviata in 1910. That same year, he debuted in Messina at the Duke in Rigoletto. Schipa sang in small houses in Italy for the next two years, but he traveled to Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro in 1913. 

Schipa made his debut in the United States in Chicago, playing the Duke in Rigoletto again. He toured the country - as well as Canada - for the next 20 years, giving concerts and recitals. When he returned to the Italian Opera, he played across Rome, Florence, and Naples. 

The singer returned to New York in 1929, debuting at the Metropolitan Opera in November 1932. He kept making appearances there in 1941 while also spending time in South America.

Following the World War and its fallout, Schipa was able to appear in a handful of recitals. But, his final performance was a recital tour that spanned Riga, Leningrad, and Moscow.  

Peter Pears (1910 - 1986)

Sir Peter Pears was a skilled singer who gained fame for his affiliation with Sir Benjamin Britten. Born in June 1910, Pears studied at the University of Oxford and the Royal College of Music. 

Pears met Britten in 1936, and the two gave the first of many recitals two years later. Pears eventually made his operatic debut in London, working in Tales of Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach. He then joined the Sadler’s Wells Opera where he played out the title role in Britten’s Peter Grimes. The two men founded the English Opera Group in 1946 and were also key in the establishment of the Aldeburgh Festival a year later. 

In the first performances of all operas from Britten, Pears was present. These included Billy Budd, Albert Herring, Owen Wingrave, and Death in Venice. Pears was also a notable part of W.A. Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

Kirsten Flagstad (1895 - 1962)

Kirsten Flagstad is remembered as one of the greatest Wagnerian soprano singers of the 20th century. Born in 1895, Flagstad came from a family of professional musicians. She studied music in Oslo, where she made her operatic debut in 1913. Of course, the operatic role was a small one, with Flagstad having a tiny role in Nuri / Tiefland at the National Theatre. 

In Oslo, Flagstad primarily worked as a light soprano. But, she was a formidable part of opera, oratorio, and operetta. After a great concert debut at the Oslo University, Flagstad got married and joined the Opera Comique. She proved to be a formidable scorer and landed parts such as Desdemona/Otello, Minnie//La Faniculla del West, and Amelia/ Un ballo in Maschera.

She joined the Stora Theatre in Gothenburg, Sweden in 1928, where she was able to add several other operatic roles to her catalog. She was discovered that year, debuting as Agathe in Der Freischütz. Two years later, she sang Michal in Carl Nielsen’s Saul and David. 

Following a brief retirement period, Flagstad took the operatic lead role of Isolde in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in 1932. Three years later, she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York as Sieglinde in Die Walküre. She both appeared at Covent Garden and performed as Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Ring Cycle a year later.

After a few other controversies, Flagstad retired from public singing in 1953. But, she continued to make phonograph records and broadcast for a few more years until 1960. 

Nicolai Gedda (1925 - 2017)

Nicolai Gedda, a Swedish singer, was one of the most cosmopolitan and versatile classical singers of the 1950s and onwards. Fluent in more than six languages, he was admired by many in his career. 

Born in 1925, Gedda made his operatic debut at the Stockholm Opera in 1952. As an opera singer, he performed the role of Chapelou in Le Postillon di Langiumeau by Adolphe Adam. That same year, he also played Nicklaus in Offenbach’s Le Contes d’Hoffman, as well as the tenor role in Der Rosenkavalier.

After an audition in Stockholm, Gedda gained prominence and went on to the Italian Opera with conductor Herbert von Karajan. Gedda toured Milan, Rome, and Turin. His debut at La Scala came in 1953. He also debuted at the Paris Opera a year later with a tenor role in Weber’s Oberon.

In 1954, Gedda appeared in a solo event at Covent Garden in London, playing the Duke of Mantua. He also gained recognition in Salzburg, performing tenor roles in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Gedda’s Metropolitan Opera debut came in 1957, where he played in Charles Gounod’s Faust. One year later, Gedda was back playing Anatol in Samuel Barber’s Vanessa.

Margaret Price (1941 - 2011)

Many classical musicians have tried to interpret Mozart, but none have even come close. That is, except Margaret Price. Her impeccable phrasing and shining timbre made her a force to be reckoned with. 

Born in 1941, Price studied music at the Trinity College of Music in London. Her stage debut came as Cherubino in 1962, where she played at the Welsh National Opera. The following year, she was given a contract to cover Teresa Berganza. When Berganza fell ill, Price played Figaro at the Covent Garden, where she absolutely owned the role. 

Within a few seasons, Price had effectively transitioned into a soprano. Her debut at Glyndebourne came in 1966, where she played the Angel in a staging of Jephtha by Caspar Neher and Gunther Rennert. In later seasons, Price returned as Konstanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serai  and as Fiordiligi in Cosi Fan Tutte. She joined the English Opera Group in 1967, appearing as Britten’s Tytania and Galatea in Acis and Galatea. She also played a part in Mozart’s The Impresario.

In the United States, Price debuted in the San Francisco Opera in 1969, where she played Pamina in Die Zauberflöte. The Lyric Opera of Chicago also welcomed her as Fiordiligi, the Countess, Desdemona, and for a gala in 1979. 

Price never exactly played the most glamorous roles on stage because she was more than that. Instead, she always expressed herself through her performances in generous plays.


Classical singers have always been part of our music heritage. It’s understandable if people in the younger generations are only familiar with certain genres - including Pop, R&B, and Hip-Hop. However, these genres all have roots in classical music.

Several top musicians in today’s world have even alluded to classical music as a primary source of inspiration for them. Whether it’s the calming influence or an inspiration for sound and background voices, classical music remains one of the most influential genres worldwide. The singers on our list had an incredible influence over the classical music genre, and they should be celebrated.  

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