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The 10 Best Operas of All Time

A prestigious form of art in which music and words combine to transmit emotions in a theatrical setting, the opera is one of human’s greatest artistic achievements. A source of fulfillment and enjoyment, the opera is highlighted by well-defined characters, a dramatic consistent plot, and a professional music orchestra. Originating in Florence at the end of the 16th century, it is a majestic blend of voices and musical instruments that is typically performed in an opera house. A well-acclaimed, emotional and engaging art, the best composers including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Giuseppe Verdi, Georges Bizet and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky helped establish opera as a music tradition. Their operas are still being performed around the globe and continue to dominate the world of performing arts. Leaving you ecstatic and euphoric, here is a detailed list of the ten best operas ever produced, in order of greatness.

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#10 Ludwig van Beethoven: Fidelio

Born in Germany in 1770, the virtuoso Ludwig van Beethoven was a pivotal figure in music who only composed one opera named Fidelio. Editing the opera more than three times and rearranging the last scene ten times, it is said that this opera is an expression of Beethoven’s personality. A hymn to the human dignity, justice and freedom, the plot tells the story of a woman named Leonore who, disguised as a prison guard named Fidelio, manages to save her husband Florestan from certain death at a political prison. A truly unique experience, Fidelio is a testimony of heroism, personal sacrifice, and triumph. Set in 18th century Seville, what makes this “rescue” opera a timeless masterpiece is the distinguished musical score, uncommon structure and uplifting spirit. Premiering on November 20, 1807, at Vienna’s Theater au der Wien, the German libretto was done by the librettist, director, and the secretary of the Vienna court theaters, Joseph Sonnleithuer. Fidelio was first performed in the US on September 9, 1839 at the Park Theatre, New York.

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#9 Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin

A creator of symphonies and ballets, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky is the most popular Russian composer of all times. Respected for his open-hearted melodies, masterful orchestration and emotional depth, his well-acclaimed opera Eugene Onegin is a marvelous depiction of Pushkin’s classic verse novel. Set in three acts, the libretto was done by Tchaikovsky himself, with the help of his brother Modest and the composer Konstantin Shilovsky. The opera tells the story of a country girl Tatyana who desperately falls in love with the high-society bachelor visiting from Moscow, Eugene Onegin. The core of the opera is Tatyana transformation from a sentimental teenager into a fully-developed aristocratic woman that falls victim to raw emotion and social convention. A passionate, jaw-dropping and stellar representation of the Russian fatalism, this opera is full of spirit, dynamics, and character development. The opera was first performed in Moscow in 1879, at the prestigious Maly Theater.

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#8 Richard Wagner: Tristan and Isolde 

A German composer, polemicist, theatre director and conductor, Richard Wagner is internationally known for his complex and theatrically enthralling operas. One of world’s most influential and controversial composers, his opera Tristan and Isolde is based on the German courtly romance by the author Gottfried von Strassburg. Set in three acts, the libretto was done by Wagner himself and it was first performed at the Königliches Hof- und Nationaltheater in Munich in 1865. Describing his work as “the most audacious and original work of my life”, Wagner created a timeless piece or art that is characterized by bold use of harmony, depiction of extreme emotions, and musical innovation. Portraying the topic of undying love through glorious music, Tristan and Isolde is a heavenly meditation of love and death.

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#7 Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly

With his heavenly melodies, realistic action and operatic refinements, Giacomo Puccini is one of the most celebrated Italian composers. Madama Butterfly is his mature opera in three acts, with a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. Loosely based on the short story “Madame Butterfly” by John Luther Long, the main character is a young Japanese geisha who blindly believes that her liaison with an American naval officer will bloom into a permanent and loving marriage. A dramatic meeting of West and East, Puccini masterfully portrays the heartbreak of a young girl, her youthful innocence and her despair. Premiering in 1904 at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, this opera is a glorious blend of Japanese costumes, stunning sets and the divine Puccini’s score.

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#6 Giacomo Puccini: La Bohéme

Another timeless classic by the masterful Giacomo Puccini, La Bohéme is a marvelous blend of divine music and enthralling theatre. Set in four acts, the opera is based on Henri Murger’s novel Scènes de la vie de bohéme. The premiere performance was held at the Teatro Regio in Turin, on 1 February, 1896. One of the most frequently performed operas around the globe, La Bohéme tells the story of passionate love between young artists in Paris. Capturing emotion and taking us back into Bohemian Paris, it depicts the realities of poverty, ill health and tragic death. Puccini majestically presents the vibrancy and noise of the Parisian society with deep emotion and unforgettable score.

DG5 144#5 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Don Giovanni

A theatrical retelling of the Don Juan legend, Don Giovanni is an opera in two acts by the virtuoso Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Italian libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte. A unique “marriage” of comedy and tragedy, it depicts Giovanni’s last 24 hours as he begins with a fatal duel and ends with being dragged to hell. Filled with sensational music and appealing elements like sex, violence and tension, we see Mozart’s portrayal of Giovanni as an ironic, urbane, and lighthearted persona. This brilliant masterpiece had its premiere at the Teatro di Praga, in 1787.

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#4 Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto

An opera in three acts, Rigoletto was composed by Giuseppe Verdi with a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. Verdi was a leading composer of opera in the 19th century, respected for his most famous works such as La Traviata, Otello, Falstaff and Rigoletto. Based on the play Le roi s’amuse by Victor Hugo, the plot tells the story of Rigoletto, a court jester to the libertine Duke of Mantua, and his beautiful daughter Gilda. When Gilda is seduced by the immoral Duke, Rigoletto grows thirsty for revenge. Highlighting the cruelty and decadence of the court, it is a story of sacrifice, jealousy and vengeance. Featuring a thrilling musical score including “Women Abandon Us” (La donna è mobile), and “Sweet Name” (Caro Nome), Rigoletto is an opera where the traditional world of arias and the new world of continuous flow of music meet. An opera that has an exceptional musical depth, it was composed at a time when Verdi was going through some difficult period in life. Mainly consisting of duets, the opera had a victorious premiere at La Fenice in Venice on 11 March 1851.

#3 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro

Composed in 1786 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and with an Italian libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte, The Marriage of Figaro is a crowd-pleasing magnum opus. An ageless message of love and forgiveness, it tells the story of Figaro and Susanna whose wedding is jeopardized by the wandering eye of the Count. A masterpiece of morals, manners and mistaken identities, this opera portrays how clever servants outwit their pompous masters and how intelligent women outsmart their foolish husbands. From the exhilarating opening notes to the heartwarming final curtain, it is a charming exploration of the risks of temptation and the victory of love. This brilliant opera premiered at the Burgtheater in Vienna on 1 May 1786.

018_the-traviata-verdi_theredlist#2 Guiseppe Verdi: La Traviata

A story of the tragic love between the beautiful courtesan Violetta and the provincial young man Alfredo, La Traviata is based on the well-acclaimed novel La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils. From surviving an unsuccessful opening night at Teatro la Fenice in Venice, to becoming one of the most respected operas of all time, La Traviata is a profound and heartfelt masterpiece. Evoking the social realities and degeneracy of 1850’s Paris, this majestic opera offers some of Verdi’s most divine melodies including “Sempre Libera” and “Amami Alfredo”. Highlighted by passionate duets between broken hearts, lavish crowded sets and exquisite costumes, La Traviata is the ideal way to experience opera for the first time.

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#1 Georges Bizet: Carmen

George Bizet was a brilliant French composer of the romantic era who is best known for his divine operas including his magnum opus Carmen. An opera in four acts and with a libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, it is based on Prosper Mérimée’s novella of the same title. A tale of power, destruction and corruption, Carmen is an enticing, colorful and highly entertaining work of art. Following the story of the ultimate femme fatale and her obsessive lover, this much-loved opera sets the stage on fire with Spanish heat and gypsy passion. George Bizet’s 17th and last opera, it features a heart-racing musical score including Carmen’s seductive “Habanera” and Escamillo’s Toreador Song. Bringing 19th century Seville into life, Carmen is filled with alluring melodies, captivating dances and dazzling bursts of color. The opera was first performed at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on 3 March 1875.

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