Is it the basic sound? The technique? The musicianship? The sheer virtuosity? The perfect marriage of music and text?
Photos © Pavarotti: Decca/Terry O’Neill; Siepi: Decca; and supplied
Perhaps a combination of all these things, plus a heaping of that elusive ‘it’ factor that separates the merely good from the truly great? What is it about a particular singer that grabs us and never lets go, whose records become touchstones, interpretations blueprints?
Many of us will recall the very first time that we heard a singer who would become a cherished personal favourite. Or, maybe more rewarding still, finally grasped the artistry of a singer whose appeal had previously escaped us. But whether immediate
or gradual, a beloved voice becomes something very near to all-consuming, either for a short period in our lives or over the duration of a lifetime. The thrill of discovery is a heady one, presenting us with the mouth-watering prospect of delving into an artist’s vast discography or the opportunity to play detective, seeking out the privately captured performances of a little-recorded cult singer.
I recall the very first time I heard, yes, Maria Callas. Cue eyerolls among a section of those reading this. My first exposure to her was certainly not ideal – I believe it was Nacqui all’affanno from La Cenerentola, an opera I’d become familiar with through the likes of Teresa Berganza, Frederica von Stade and Joyce DiDonato. These were lyrical, sunny mezzos that had an inherent Rossinian smile in the voice. Callas by comparison registered as ponderous, mannered even, and there was that utterly peculiar instrument – ‘thick like molasses’ is still the best description of it, and we have the soprano herself to thank for that. To my then-virgin ears, Callas’ voice was an unflattering mixture of the metallic and glutinous, with little of the dash and sparkle of the Rossinians who I’d been exposed to so far. Confused by her appeal, embarrassed for not quite getting it, I don’t think I listened to the soprano for some months afterwards.
But as many of La Divina’s fans will attest, the voice stayed with me, drip-drip-dripping in my mind like molasses. I eventually tried again, armed with John Ardoin’s invaluable guide to her recordings and my own obsessive research. I sought out the warrior women that Callas brought to thrilling, three-dimensional life – Norma, Medea, Abigaille. The Verdi heroines that showed me the meaning of true Verdi singing – Violetta, Lady Macbeth, both Leonoras. The mountain of bel canto parts wherein the soprano paired eye-watering virtuosity with unbearable pathos – Amina, Elvira, Lucia. The verismo roles that she cast in entirely new light
through her fresh, startling interpretive insights – Tosca, Butterfly, Manon Lescaut. Even the early Wagnerian assumptions in Italian, with the sexiest Kundry (tied with Régine Crespin of course) you’ve ever heard, and those unbearably intimate French discs recorded in the too-soon autumn of her career.
Maria Callas as Tosca. Photo © Houston Rogers/Victoria & Albert Museum
I made my way through every inch of Callas’s substantial discography until eventually I circled back to that Nacqui all’affanno. Is it my favourite rendition of the aria? No. Do I now understand the artistry and musicianship that Callas brings to it? It would take a lifetime to do that, but I certainly understand much more than I did then. She is, without doubt, my idea of a truly great singer, which brings us to the subject of this feature. Here, we have done what lovers of the voice love to do: compare and contrast, rank and justify. Wars have been started over much less, which is half the fun of these endeavours of course – what it all boils down to in the end is a deep appreciation of that most elemental of instruments.
But what differentiates Limelight’s survey of the greatest voices of all time is an attempt to be representative across the voice types, and to invite today’s singers to answer that question themselves. Over 100 important Australian and international singers were asked to nominate the three artists they personally regarded as truly great, resulting in a list of the 30 greatest singers of all time. Each voice category is represented by five singers, with voters required to put forward at least one artist belonging to their own voice type. You’ll notice that in most cases, each of our great singers is accompanied by an explanation from a singer of that voice type.
As you’ll see, restricting the voting to professional singers has been most illuminating, resulting in a list of 30 greats that has proven to be both interesting and, in many cases, surprising. The eloquent testimonies that we have gathered give us a unique insight into the profession of singing, with many voters discussing the direct influence that an artist has had on a career, personal brushes with musical giants, the brilliance of a particular colleague and the indelible shadow that some artists cast over certain repertoire, even over entire voice types.
It’s been a delight and privilege for everyone at Limelight to receive these votes and explanations. I am certain you will enjoy these eloquent, amusing and often moving testimonies, as well as recognise the passion and joy that underpins all of them.
We therefore offer up this list of the greatest voices of all time for your delectation, and hope that you’ll not only write in and tell us how wrong it is that a particular singer has been left out, but also be prompted to seek out a singer previously unfamiliar to you, or to rediscover an old favourite. Justine Nguyen
Sir Thomas Allen
Max Emanuel Cenčić
Dame Sarah Connolly
Anthony Roth Costanzo
Samuel Dale Johnson
Danielle de Niese
Juan Diego Flórez
Julie Lea Goodwin
Rosario La Spina
Jakub Józef Orliński
Natalie Christie Peluso
Teddy Tahu Rhodes
Sir Bryn Terfel
Number 1: Maria Callas
I first heard a recording of Maria Callas when I was 15 and had just started taking singing lessons. It was a recording of Lucia di Lammermoor and I would later listen to many of her other recordings. What impressed me immediately was that her technique was obviously a function of emotion. I could not formulate those words at that moment exactly as I do now, but I felt immediately a deep connection with her interpretation. I loved that while listening to her I wondered at her technique – considering I was just a beginner – but also felt how her music moved me and left me completely changed.
There were a lot of other singers I heard over the years but very few touched my soul the way that Maria Callas did and does. She was a true epiphany for me – an example of how an artist should be. She went beyond the notes, giving each one of them a feeling, a purpose and making them part of a structure, which is how music should be. Every note should embody and carry what we have in our souls. This is the only way an artist can connect with his or her audience.
Callas showed us that imperfections make an artist more believable and make it easier for us to express our humanity. Through her work we understand that we should not aim for perfection but for the truth. An artist should try to improve her technique every day, but this work should always be in service of the expression and emotion.
This was Maria Callas, an incredible example to follow and also one to build upon. Ermonela Jaho
Number 2: Joan Sutherland
Dame Joan Sutherland had an incredible range of vocal colours and remarkable coloratura. Her voice was always beautiful. A true bel canto diva, she was someone all Australians and the world loved. She was able to make a difficult line seem effortless, her dynamics and phrasing always so tasteful.
I’m grateful for the few lessons I had with her, but mainly for teaching me through her recordings. Her legacy lives on through Richard Bonynge and her many recordings, a major source of education. Her voice is always there. So beautiful. Emma Matthews
Number 3: Renée Fleming
Photo © Decca/Andrew Eccles
Living legend, Renée Fleming… where to start? Strangely, I fell in love with her interpretations of lieder before realising her mastery of opera – particularly her Schubert album. The warmth, palette of colours, the artistry. It piqued my interest to discover her many (over 50!) operatic roles. My particular favourite is Rusalka. What magnificent singing and breath control, all made to seem effortless. Her Four Last Songs aren’t bad either; only one other singer has similar Olympic-sized breath control and that’s Barbra Streisand. Taryn Fiebig
Number 4: Leontyne Price
Born and raised in Laurel, Mississippi on February 10, 1927, not only was the soprano Leontyne Price an exceptional singer and artist – her vocal technique was exemplary – but she truly paved the way for African American performers in what was then a predominantly white art form. Her Verdian spinto sound is instantly recognisable, with a voice that could easily connect you to your deepest emotions. Watching her final Aida at the Met, given at the age of 57, still brings tears to my eyes. Nicole Car
Number 5: Montserrat Caballé
Photo © Decca/Mike Evans
Montserrat Caballé possessed one of the greatest voices ever, beautiful with a vibrant timbre. She had an incredible technique and could spin out the most exquisite pianissimos. Her repertoire was vast, encompassing all the great bel canto, Verdi and Richard Strauss heroines. She was also a wonderful and colourful character with a great sense of humour. Her duet with Freddie Mercury at the Barcelona Olympics was a classic! Caballé was the last of the great and true divas, often called “the best of the best”. Cheryl Barker
Number 1: Luciano Pavarotti
I sing a lot of the repertory that Pavarotti sang, have listened to and studied his recordings, and I had the pleasure to see him sing live on many occasions. The tenor not only had a beautiful voice, he was also an outstanding technician. Pavarotti’s voice was big, beautiful, exciting, and I felt like it was perfectly produced.
I will never forget the first time I heard him live. It was October of 1992, and he was singing Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera. The immediacy with which his voice reached me in the upper balcony of the theatre was stunning. It was like he was standing directly in front of me, instead of 40 or 50 metres away. His voice, deeply charged with emotion and drama, cut straight through Puccini’s thick orchestration, and arrived clean and pure like a beam of sunlight. I heard Pavarotti singing live multiple times after that first performance, in varying repertory, and his vocal delivery was always like that.
Something else I found amazing about watching Pavarotti perform was that he generally gave performances that were every bit as great as his recordings. When you consider that recordings are made with multiple takes, in order to assure the most perfect results, to be able to reproduce that in a live setting is remarkable. The quality of his technique, combined with the beauty of his voice, plus his natural charm and charisma made him utterly irresistible. Matthew Polenzani
Number 2: Fritz Wunderlich
Photo © Siegfried Lauterwasser/DG
Fritz Wunderlich’s promising career was abruptly cut short by his tragic death, but I will never forget the best German tenor in singing history. It’s more than a beautiful voice, it’s a musical instrument perfectly made. No shrillness or guttural sounds, he is an example of a genuine lyrical tenor who possessed an overwhelming and precise musicality, elegant phrasing, endless breath control and lack of mannerisms. His recordings of Die Zauberflöte, Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Die Schweigsame Frau are unmatchable in their brilliance. Diego Torre
Number 3: Plácido Domingo
Plácido Domingo in 2019 can still fill opera houses and arenas, still sell concerts and recordings, still have one of the most exciting singing competitions for budding opera singers and is still the most professional, caring, down-to-earth human being to ever tread the boards. When he walks into a rehearsal room everyone wants to be better at what they do. We pull out all the stops for him. He can turn heads like no other and there is that gravitas and dignity and a passion and strong unyielding will to still study and learn as hard as he ever did. Bryn Terfel
Number 4: Jussi Björling
Pavarotti once said: “When I’m about to train for a new opera, I first listen to how Jussi Björling did it. His voice was unique and it’s his path that I want to follow. I would more than anything else wish that people compared me with Björling. That’s how I’m striving to sing.” I think this comment by the great Pav sums it up – Björling is the tenor’s Tenor! I first heard Björling’s voice on the Decca re-release of his 1959 album of operatic arias. His performance of Cilea’s È la solita storia del pastore stays with me as the standard of perfection. Simon O’Neill
Number 5: Enrico Caruso
Enrico Caruso is of course one of the greats! In his 25-year career spanning 1895 to 1920, he raised himself out of poverty in Naples to become the Primo Tenore at La Scala, Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera, all with the beauty of his voice and conviction of performance. He was one of the first ever recording artists, with 260 commercially released recordings. He sang the great tenor roles like Rodolfo, Cavaradossi and Don José and created many others, including Dick Johnson from my favourite opera La Fanciulla del West. Samuel Sakker
Number 1: Janet Baker
Photo © Decca
Dame Janet Baker is for me the most important classical singer of the 20th century. Yes, there are the great voices of bel canto too, yet Dame Janet’s performance of Maria Stuarda at ENO was electrifying and I have heard the recording.
When I was a music student in London in the 1980s, I saw her perform in concert and recital whenever I could, which was often. Her stage manner could be quite fragile or imperious but when she sang, something magical happened. I was always struck by how much she gave of herself, by her vocal and dynamic range, in particular her controlled, high soft singing. There are many examples of this on disc, but Britten’s Corpus Christi Carol and Strauss’s Morgen with Gerald Moore are two that immediately come to mind. Then of course there are the drama and pathos of her Angel in Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius and Britten’s Phaedra, written for her.
With Sir Charles Mackerras, Raymond Leppard, Sir Anthony Lewis and director John Copley, she breathed life into forgotten baroque heroes and heroines, notably Purcell’s Dido, Handel’s Giulio Cesare and Cavalli’s Calisto from 1971 with James Bowman. This is the music that most impressed me as an 18-year-old.
Musicality and communication at the total service of the composer seem to be her driving force, and the need to be understood, meaning that clear diction is vital. Her discography is large, so thankfully, Janet Baker’s distinctive voice will continue to influence singers for ever. Dame Sarah Connolly
Number 2: Christa Ludwig
Photo © Arthur Umboh/DG
I have loved and admired Christa Ludwig since I started singing. For me she is a perfect example of a fully accomplished singer who has excelled in every possible way, having sung opera, lieder and sacred music, Mozart to Verdi to Wagner to Bernstein. After an impressive career, she had the courage and dignity to leave the stage at a time when her voice didn’t show any signs of needing to give up. Her last concert in Vienna is legendary and an example of how greatness and class, experience and love for music and detail can marry. Elīna Garanča
Number 3: Cecilia Bartoli
Photo © Kristian Schuller/Decca
The otherworldly gifts of Cecilia Bartoli were evident the moment she opened her mouth to sing. Her ability to virtually invent a new level of expression while performing some of the most technically difficult music ever written, is legendary and groundbreaking. I’ve never heard such accuracy, clarity, articulation, and passion. I’ve always called it the ability to do a triple backflip on a high wire. Astonishingly impressive, but so much more than just technical fireworks.
Her enormous heart is also very much in play. Susan Graham
Number 4: Shirley Verrett
Shirley Verrett had one of those presences that hits you at your core. Her voice and temperament were impossible to categorise. Whether she was singing Mozart, Pete Seeger or a Negro Spiritual, she poured her whole being into it. Although she faced discrimination, her confidence and perseverance were unswayed; and the support she received, she passed onward: “Don’t try to go faster than you can go… Hurry slowly. Make each step count… Don’t let whatever is in the way of you in a particular moment keep you down.” Easier said than done, but she did it. Julia Bullock
Number 5: Marilyn Horne
Photo © Decca/Christian Steiner
I remember, just as I discovered opera, I heard this VOICE. A voice that could sing Mozart, Rossini and Verdi. A voice that could sing non-opera and sound like a non-opera singer. A technique and a set of cords that were steel-solid. Then I discovered that Marilyn Horne could also act and was famously delightful. I always remember her famous words: “Whenever you think you are getting too big for the people around you, remember all that separates you from the guy sitting next to you is a little piece of gristle in your throat.” Jacqueline Dark
Number 1: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
The first recording I was ever given was Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing Die schöne Müllerin. I didn’t understand what lieder or classical solo singing was so when I first heard him sing, it wasn’t like anything I’d ever heard. There was an expressivity and tenderness that made me feel he was personally invested. As a teenager I was in no way aware of technique, I didn’t understand German or comprehend the form, I simply reacted to the intensity of expression that, dare I say it, just seemed pure and unfettered.
Knowing what I now know, he represented the nirvana of what I think classically trained singing is about, which is to find an unencumbered way of releasing the emotion that the composer is offering. Fischer-Dieskau had an immediate ability to do that. His recitals are legendary for audiences being convinced that he was singing directly to them, and he was revolutionary insofar as his voice was perfect for the intimate situation of a recording studio. And I think that’s his legacy – because of him we expect from song recitals and recordings a sense of real personal encounter.
As a student in London, I heard him sing Wolf at the Wigmore Hall, which is a thing of legend now. I couldn’t believe that not only was this a human being, but that I was experiencing a perfection in risk taking, of his perfectly judged ability to know where his breath would run for a phrase, and how much he needed to enunciate a final consonant. The sheer beauty of sound. I just feel fortunate that I was alive and able to witness some of his performances. Gerald Finley
Number 2: Bryn Terfel
Photo © Mitch Jenkins/DG
Hearing Bryn Terfel’s early Schubert lieder and English song recordings were a revelation. His clear understanding of the language and ability to colour the text, matched with his unique bass-baritone timbre was what I aspired to as a student and continue to aspire to. From Scarpia to Wotan, Bryn Terfel remains my ‘go-to’ artist. I’ve been fortunate enough to perform with Bryn and he proved to be an incredibly supportive colleague. It’s not every day one gets to discuss the ups and downs of singing a role like Wotan with a master! Shane Lowrencev
Number 3: Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Iwas in a coaching room at San Francisco Opera when I heard a voice from next door. I had to stop singing as I felt so inadequate hearing such a glorious, dark, yet beautiful sound. It was Dmitri Hvorostovsky singing an aria from Il Trovatore. That moment has remained with me. At a concert at Carnegie Hall he was sharing the stage with many of the top singers in the world but when he walked out the audience erupted before he even sang. He created true excitement. We lost him far too early. Teddy Tahu Rhodes
Number 4: Piero Cappuccilli
Piero Cappuccilli was the ultimate Verdian voice with power, legato, phrasing and musicality. He had the unusual range of three octaves and this enabled him to always sing with a relaxed diaphragm. His recordings have become anthology ones. Besides singing, the sea was his other passion – he owned a sailboat and was a brilliant scuba diver. This is not just anecdotal, as Cappuccilli’s experience with scuba diving reinforced his breathing capacity – he was able to sing extremely long phrases without having to catch his breath. Ambrogio Maestri
Number 5: Giuseppe Taddei
I find it impossible to state who I think is the greatest opera singer, but my three favourite singers is headed by Giuseppe Taddei, not only because of the beauty and technical assuredness of his singing, borne out by the longevity of his career, but his acting skill, whether in comic or dramatic roles, which was of a subtlety not regularly seen on the operatic stage. The Italians are supposed to have said that they gave Tito Gobbi to the world but kept Taddei for themselves. Maybe selfish but understandable. Alan Opie
Number 1: Cesare Siepi
Photo © Decca
Cesare Siepi is generally considered the finest bass of the post-WWII period and is, quite simply, an opera God for any low-voiced singer. Largely self-taught, his cello-like voice was mellow, dark and warm, with a full, resonant, wide-ranging lower register, a sappy, treacly middle-voice, and a ringing top. Handsome and a good actor, Cesare Siepi had it all!
Born in Milan in 1923, his unofficial birthdate in 1919 makes more sense, placing his career milestones in line with most other singers. Making his debut in 1941 at the unlikely age of 18 as Sparafucile, he was ultimately most famous for the title role in Don Giovanni. He rocketed to superstardom at age 27 when he sang King Philip in Don Carlo for Rudolf Bing’s first season as Metropolitan Opera chief in 1950 (having been denied a US work visa, Bing’s original choice, Boris Christoff, never sang at the Met despite being the pre-eminent bass of his time). Siepi’s Met innings spanned 23 years, though he remained active for many more at the world’s major venues. He retired in 1989, after a 48-year career, settling into secluded suburban family life in Atlanta, Georgia.
My personal brush with him almost occurred in 1990 when his friend, Walter Price, called Siepi about me with a view to taking lessons. “He is tall and handsome, with high notes, low notes, a good middle, and can sing coloratura,” said Price. Not renowned for his warmth, Siepi simply responded: “Well, what does he need me for, then?” Daniel Sumegi
Number 2: Hans Hotter
Photo courtesy of Universal Music Australia
It’s difficult to talk about Hans Hotter because those of us who haven’t heard him must judge on the basis of recordings. Nonetheless, one hears his beauty of tone and ease of delivery, and one reads of his peerless Wagner singing and the sheer power of his voice, not to mention his impressive stage presence. His is the sort of voice perfect for the Wagnerian bass-baritone roles: a rich, open sound with a ‘high’ placement, and certainly many of those who heard him say that he was the greatest Wotan they heard. I wish I had been one of them! Derek Welton
Number 3: George London
George London had to retire at the age of 46 due to a paralysed vocal cord. To have achieved the status that he did in a relatively short career is testament to his magnificent voice and stage presence! He possessed a voice of liquid gold with a huge and thrilling range – it was even from top to bottom. His repertoire was wide, and his recordings of Wotan and the Dutchman are second to none. He once said that to be a compelling artist a singer had to immerse himself in all of the arts. A true legend. Peter Coleman-Wright
Number 4: Paul Robeson
To exist in this world is to engage with life in all of its many forms. It only behooves us to work to improve the forms that we can perceive. The influential singer and activist Paul Robeson utilised the entirety of his deep wealth of resources in body, mind, and voice to improve upon his existence and that of others. As an artist, and especially as a young, Black, gay artist, Paul Robeson is an indelible example and model for what it might mean to exist successfully within this world. He is an ancestor. Davóne Tines
Number 5: Samuel Ramey
Photo © Arthur Umboh/DG
Samuel Ramey can sing anything from Handel to Rodgers and Hammerstein with equal perfection. His Don Giovanni, Scarpia and Gounod’s Méphistophélès are the greatest the world has ever heard. His coloratura is also second to none. There is no bass alive or recorded who can replicate his timbre, speed and precision. I have been a huge fan since I started singing lessons but had no idea how approachable he was until, through a mutual friend, I received a Facebook friend request from Sam in 2017. We have been friends ever since. Adrian Tamburini
Number 1: Andreas Scholl
Photo © Decca/James McMillan
At the beginning of my solo singing career, I listened to Andreas Scholl’s Deutsche Barocklieder album and absolutely fell in love with the colour of his voice, how he uses it and the material. I think he‘s one of the best recording countertenors ever. His voice is very warm, rounded and clear. I remember that I was absolutely amazed by how pure it sounded and I thought, “he is embracing the material in a way that is very, very gentle but also shows it in the best way.” I think he is an extremely intelligent singer and a very gentleman-like artist.
Andreas Scholl really showed me something that I wanted to find in my own voice, this kind of warmth and a feeling that it is not forced. I don’t want to offend any other singers but sometimes you feel like it costs them something, that it costs them to sing that high or fast or to do this special effect in the music, but with Andreas’ voice, even though I have never heard him sing live, I’ve heard hundreds of his performances on recordings, it just sounds so easy.
I’m also fascinated by his versatility. He can do the very largo things and it’s super smooth with this amazing line, and then he does these arias that are very virtuosic, and it’s extremely well done and clear. One of my very favourite albums is his recording of Purcell music. The material is so beautiful and you just never get tired of it.
I’m extremely excited to say that I will be singing with him live in Frankfurt in May. We are doing Rodelinda and I am singing Unulfo and he is singing Bertarido, one of his signature roles. Jakub Józef Orliński
Number 2: Alfred Deller
If today baroque music is performed and known, we have to be grateful to Alfred Deller, who, during times in which this repertoire was almost ignored, contributed to its rediscovery, studying historically informed practices and opening a new path to generations of singers and players. Even if today the countertenor technique is developed in a more lyrical way, we can still appreciate his beautiful voice, full of colours, and his refined style, capable, especially in English repertoire, of enlightening the details of each phrase. Carlo Vistoli
Number 3: David Daniels
Photo © Robert Recker
David Daniels will always be groundbreaking for me in the sense that for the first time you could listen to him as a singer first and countertenor second. Even now, there are what I consider to be stubbornly retrograde attitudes about countertenor voices, that they ‘should’ sound like a boy soprano or an artificial ‘other’. David’s round, warm, and even natural timbre divided listeners at first, but eventually won the world over through his undeniable musicality and peerless vocalism. Christopher Lowrey
Number 4: James Bowman
Alfred Deller is rightly credited with the revival of the countertenor voice in the 50s and 60s, but James Bowman is the countertenor who, from the mid to late 60s on, brought the voice into the mainstream concert and opera world with a mighty bang! He influenced and inspired a whole new generation of singers with his uniquely resonant, full bodied yet flexible and often ethereal masculine voice. He proved the countertenor could be developed and trained like any other voice to be heard above an orchestra on
the largest of stages and concert halls. Christopher Robson
Number 5: Graham Pushee
Photo © Bridget Elliot
I was a student when I first heard Graham singing live, in Handel’s Alcina. I recall the clarity in his voice, as if, in the allegro arias, it was conducting the orchestra. His ornamentation was thrilling and achingly beautiful. “So, THIS is what a countertenor is capable of!” I thought. Later I was fortunate to cover Graham in a number of operas, gaining insight into his musicianship, preparedness, rehearsal room discipline and wicked wit. If you want to hear his artistry, I recommend his recording of Mi lusinghe on ABC Classic. Tobias Cole