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Five most Famous Opera Composers

Updated on July 23, 2018
Drawing of W. A. Mozart
Drawing of W. A. Mozart | Source

The most Famous Opera Composers of all Times

The Top Five Greatest Opera Composers of all Times - in this article, I’ll be discussing the five greatest musical theater - opera composers of all times: Mozart, Rossini, Wagner, Verdi, and Puccini. There are many other great opera composers omitted from this article, some of whom contributed to the operatic world even more so than some of these five gentlemen did. Take for example Monteverdi and Meyerbeer’s contributions to opera, which some (few) might argue superseded the contributions of some of these five gentlemen. Furthermore, Gluck,Mehul, and Weber all made important contributions to opera in their own right; Wagner owed a great deal to Weber and Gluck (mostly to Weber) in both orchestration and in the development of his operatic characters; and, French opera would have most likely not been as important without Mehul’s contributions to France’s musical theater. Additionally, Donizetti, Bellini, Gounod and Bizet - four operatic giants in their own perspective right, - merit a separate article of their own.... However and all said, Mozart, Rossini, Wagner, Verdi, and Puccini, are opera’s 'top five' - biggest ticket sellers of all times; the New York Met’s and other opera companies' cash register rings loudest when an opera by one of these five gentlemen is performed.

Just as I previously mentioned in another article that as great as Mozart was, he could not hold a candle to Beethoven in symphonic literature; well, as great a composer as Beethoven was he could not hold a candle to Mozart in operatic literature. In fact, Beethoven had absolutely no knack for the theater. The music to Fidelio is incredible to say the least, yet has little theatrical qualities. I’ll discuss Beethoven’s music later on in this article when I explain Wagnerian theories.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 1756-1791

Kierkegaard and a few other well known thinkers have placed Mozart’s creativity above all others in Western Culture. To say Mozart was great in opera is an understatement if ever there was one. And yet, Mozart didn’t do anything that was too progressive or out the ordinary in opera. In fact, others, even Salieri - one can facetiously argue, was more progressive a composer than Mozart was. Then why? ---Symmetry! - Mozart’s music does not show the slightest hint of a struggle in composition/construction - it’s almost as if he thought of the notes once and then proceeded to write them down on paper (might explain why he wrote over 620 works in a span of 35 short years); his music shows qualities which place him above every other composer before him and since - some will even argue that he’s even above Beethoven himself. Mozart’s arias (songs from operas) are too remarkable for words to describe. Yet ironically enough, Mozart’s music is quite simple in structure and form - almost baby like, one could say. Although Mozart wrote 22 operas, only about 4 or so are regularly performed: Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro are two of these Mozart operas that are very popular with audiences; these two Mozart operas have been considered the culmination of Western musical theater. Additionally, The Magic Flute, although it suffers from a poor libretto (opera plot) among other things, contains some of the some of the most beautiful music ever written.

Diana Damrau sings the famous aria from Act II of The Magic Flute

Diana Damrau sings Queen of the Night act II

Gioachino Rossini 1792-1868

Has been called by some the most successful composer that has ever lived - classical music or otherwise, period. You can easily take this into account when considering that media and publishing rights/laws were virtually nonexistent 200 years ago, yet Rossini was still able to retire at the early age of 37 years old; he lived to be 76 years of age in lavished and upscale surrounding with the royalties he received from the performance of his operas.... The “Italian Mozart” as he came to be known, decided to retire from the opera scene in 1829 and did nothing else in the next 40 years - little else anyway - the only composition Rossini wrote between 1829 and 1868 was the Stabat Mater for chorus and orchestra which he partially supplied the libretto to, along withGiovanni Taldolini. The overture to Guillaume Tell, known in English as William Tell, whose libretto was taken from Schiller’s tragedy entitled Wilhelm Tell, which tells the story of a Swiss marksman and revolutionary of sorts; this opera contains what is arguably the most famous opera overture ever composed. Other Rossini overtures have become so famous - almost cliché like!The Barber of Seville has been called the culmination of the Opera Buffa form and it’s Rossini’s greatest and most famous opera. The aria Largo al factotum and Una Voce poco Fa (cavatina) are too famous to be described by words; Largo al factotum is the most famous and recognizable opera aria (song from an opera), as well as one of the most famous songs, period!

This is one of the most beautiful arias ever written for soprano. And to think that it's not even structured/good enough to be considered an aria... Here's the immortal Maria Callas!

Richard Wagner 1813-1883

Some have been bold enough to call Wagner the greatest musical genius of all times. Besides being famous in his own right, Wagner also became quite infamous during the Third Reich. Regardless of what anyone thinks about Wagner, he is one of the giants of music. Mahler once said that Beethoven and Wagner were the only two composers to have ever shown development in music. Having said that, Wagner was an ardent anti-Semite and made little qualms about it; he wrote a very hurtful essay attacking European Jews in music, with a strong emphasis on the music of Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn - two composers who were friends of his, and who had helped him when other composers had turned their backs on him. “Music Dramas,” a term coined by Wagner, was his way of saying that he was not just a regular composer in the sense of the word: he was a composer, dramatist, essayist and philosopher all rolled up into one. Wagner once said that he became a composer, because his 'dramas/plays' were incomplete without music. The Leitmotif is Wagner’s greatest accomplishment, although many will argue that Wagner owed a great deal to Liszt and Berlioz.... When you see a film, you’ve probably noticed there are themes associated with each character, e.g. Darth Vader’s theme from the movie Star Wars - Wagner develops his themes to a much greater extent than other opera composers of his day; he develops the character’s psychology through musical motifs, which was somewhat new and original in his day. This is his way of showing us the character’s motives, ideas, character and intentions. All said, Berlioz did some of this in his Symphonie Fantastique, and Liszt did it as well in his famous symphonic poem, Les Preludes. Wagner believed that Northern Europe (Wagner was primarily interested in Germanic history) had produced great artists such as Milton, Goethe, Mozart, - two of the greatest being Shakespeare and Beethoven. All said, Shakespeare was not a composer, and Beethoven was not a dramatist; Wagner's mission being to unite Shakespeare's and Beethoven's artistic epistemology through his music dramas. Wagner believed that the Northern European peoples (Germany, Holland, Scandinavia, England, etc) had cultural and historical ties to Iceland, hence his deep interest in the “Icelandic Sagas” (Norse and Viking mythology) which became part of the plot groundwork for his magnum opus, "The Ring of the Nibelung"; Bernard Shaw considered this work to have been one of the greatest contribution to European music and literature.

Here's one of those famous classical music compositions that needs little to no introduction

Ride of the Valkyries

Guiseppe Verdi 1813-1901

Ironically enough, the two greatest opera composers of the 19th century, arguably of all times were born just shy of 5 month apart from each other. If Mozart is too profound, Rossini too simple, Wagner too intellectual and Puccini too modern, then Verdi is the man for you; Verdi is all of the above rolled up into one. Some have called Verdi the greatest opera composer of all times. Wagner would have argued at great length that he was the one who remained closer to Shakespeare, but many will say Verdi was. Wagnerian characters can be a bit overdone for some at times. I mean, how many times can one see people dressed in viking attire before getting bored? Verdi produced three of the greatest operas of all times: Aida, La Traviata and Rigoletto; Falstaff and Othello are two absolute gems of the operatic world, even if they're not as famous as Rigoletto .


Here's the famous march from act II of Aida - instrumental version

March from Act II of Aida

Giacomo Puccini 1858-1924

“The greatest Italian opera composer after Verdi,” Puccini has been called. Puccini lived in an era when people’s attitudes about the world were rapidly changing. Technology was on the rise, and atheism along with it. Romance and the believe in the afterlife, two things deeply valued in the 18th century, were now on the decline; nevertheless, Puccini’s music is as romantic and profound as anything Verdi could have ever conjured up; Puccini was arguably a more innovative orchestrator than Verdi was, even if some will say Verdi was the greater composer of the two. Famous operas by Puccini include: La Boheme, Tosca, Turandot and MadamaButterfly.

Here's Pavarotti singing one of the loveliest and most famous tenor arias of all times

Pavarotti sings Nessun Dorma

Final thoughts

These five opera composers are undisputable giants in their perspective field - second to none!

Comments

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    • John Sarkis profile imageAUTHOR

      John Sarkis 

      7 months ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Frances, thank you commenting. I do believe the Italians have a high niche on opera. Mozart and Wagner were brilliant, but Verdi and Puccini just tear into your soul like no other.

      Take care.

    • Frances Metcalfe profile image

      Frances Metcalfe 

      7 months ago from The Limousin, France

      Enjoyed the hub. I actually took Tosca, sung by Callas (who I can see you favour here, great!) into hospital with me to play while I was in labour with my son. I love Italian opera which tends to drive straight to the heart, and as I get older I am wising up to the beauties of operas from further back in time - Monteverdi, Handel (Rosemary Jushua is unbelievable in roles from his operas) and Rameau.

    • John Sarkis profile imageAUTHOR

      John Sarkis 

      4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Suzette, actually you're correct - the narrative is self-explanatory - some low rank person takes a rose to some high class girl and tells her it's from some big shot guy who is in love with her, but she falls in love with the peon instead- typical old style narrative... So you're correct: "Knight and the Rose"

      Take care and have a wonderful day as only Naples can produce

      John

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 

      4 years ago from Taos, NM

      Sorry, Alex, my mistake. I thought it was Wagner. Anyway, it was quite an experience seeing "The Knight of the Rose".

    • John Sarkis profile imageAUTHOR

      John Sarkis 

      4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      AlexDrinkH20, thank you for that excellent observation!

      Have a wonderful day

      John

    • AlexDrinkH2O profile image

      AlexDrinkH2O 

      4 years ago from Southern New England, USA

      Not to be picky but "Der Rosenkavalier" (The Red Knight) was written by Richard Strauss, not Wagner.

    • John Sarkis profile imageAUTHOR

      John Sarkis 

      4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Hi Suzette, and thanks for stopping by and commenting.

      Yes, I love the waltzes from "Der Rosencavalier" very much; I love the German language, even if I cannot understand one word.

      Thank you again and have a wonderful week

      John

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 

      4 years ago from Taos, NM

      Fabulous hub! I really enjoyed reading this. I think you picked some of the greats and some of the great operas. I enjoyed the videos too. I saw Wagner's "Der Rosencavalier" when I lived in Germany. Four hours long! I am embarrassed to say I fell asleep in the middle of it. But, I loved the opera all sung in German and consider myself so fortunate to have seen and heard it. It was beautiful, both the music and the staging. Thanks so much for sharing this with us. I so enjoyed it.

    • John Sarkis profile imageAUTHOR

      John Sarkis 

      4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Hi AlexDrinkH20, and thanks so much for stopping by and reading my hub; I really appreciated!

      Domingo and Pavarotti are increadible. I couldn't help myself using the Pavarotti recording of "Nessun Dorma" on the article.

      Thanks again and take care

      John

    • John Sarkis profile imageAUTHOR

      John Sarkis 

      4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Hi twilight dawns, and thank you for stopping by and commenting.

      I agree, I'm not to crazy about Wagner. One of things that makes him unique amongst composers, was his abilities as a writer and philosopher. A poignant point, he wrote really well, but he was very vociferous, negative, and a bit condescending about races - especially and foremost Jews!... However, I personally don't care much for his music; Brahms is my personal weakness and I praise him above all else in music. Furthermore, I don't care much for opera; I prefer symphonic music any day of the week. As far as Verdi, Rossini and Puccini - ditto on that all the way; I love them!

      Thank you again and take care

      John

    • AlexDrinkH2O profile image

      AlexDrinkH2O 

      4 years ago from Southern New England, USA

      In answer to Twilight Lawns - I LOVE Wagner! Anyway, good stuff -I feel sorry for people who don't like opera. They don't know what they're missing! I've heard Pavarotti, Carreras and Domingo sing and I have a picture of myself and Domingo taken in Verona after he sang three last acts from 3 operas - fantastic night! Voted up and shared.

    • Twilight Lawns profile image

      Twilight Lawns 

      4 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

      Lovely hub. Thank you once again.

      However, can I disagree? With some of your choices?

      I find Richard Wagner’s operas to be incredibly tiresome and wonder about the box office’s interest in his works. (I love your rationale, by the way.):- “However and all said, these are opera’s top five - biggest ticket sellers of all times; the New York Met’s and other opera companies' cash register rings loudest when an opera by one of these five gentlemen is performed.”

      I have never, I must admit, found anyone who likes Wagner very much. But perhaps I mix in the wrong circles. I just feel that people feel that they should like him. But having said that, I have to admit that ‘The Pilgrim's Chorus’ from ‘Tannhäuser’ is one of the most moving and stunningly emotional pieces of music I know.

      I noticed that you have discussed Verdi with a little less enthusiasm than I would, but that’s your choice. However, why did you leave out ‘Don Carlo’ either in Italian or the full, original French? I could listen to [and watch that opera at the drop of any opera hat (My metaphor, so not brilliant)].

      And Puccini? Too much recitative or whatever those little mutterings are between arias. Give me tuneful arias à la Verdi, Rossini or Donizetti.

      I’ve just looked over my comment, and it looks like the griping of a dissatisfied customer. On the contrary, they are the voiced feelings of a very impressed admirer of a great hubber. Thank you once again, your hubs are always excellent and give so much inspiration.

    • John Sarkis profile imageAUTHOR

      John Sarkis 

      4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Hello Bronwyn, You're welcome!... I'm glad you enjoyed my hub. And, thank you for stopping by and reading it!

      Yes, my three favorite operas are: Tales of Hoffman, Magic Flute, and Der Freiszchutz. I love German, but know virtually nothing about the language. All said, some of my favorite philosophers are Germans, so I've been exposed to words here and there.

      Again, thank you and I'm glad you enjoyed the article

      John

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