Beginner’s Guide to the Best and Most Famous Operas of All Time

Opera keeps on evolving, with incredible, new, contemporary works continuing to wow audiences to this day. However, there are a few classics, widely thought of as the best operas of all time, that understandably keep popping up on the production schedule. That’s because they are some of the most famous operas in the canon, delighting audiences old and new the world over. From Verdi to Puccini, read more as we discuss the most popular operas to grace the stage.

Considered one of the greatest operas, it’s no surprise that Verdi’s La traviata is frequently performed around the world. It is one of the best examples of ‘Verismo’ – a style of Italian opera that focused on realism. Its timeless plot is based on a true story that aims to blur the lines between actors and audiences. True to the opera form, it features a heartbreaking tale of love, family and honour that climaxes to a tragic ending.

Its unforgettable score includes ‘The Drinking Song’, which remains an audience favourite, as well as the heart wrenching aria ‘Addio del passato’ (Farewell past happy dreams) where the main character Violette bids her farewells. Verdi’s clever use of music as a way of emotionally connecting the characters on stage with the audience in the theatre is what makes watching La traviata a truly unique experience. 

Learn more about Verdi’s popular opera in our Introduction to La traviata.

Whether you’re an opera expert or novice, chances are you’ll have heard of Puccini’s La bohème. Thanks to frequent performances, as well as infiltrations into popular culture such as being the inspiration for Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent, it has become one of the world’s most popular and loved operas.  Its timeless story of love at first sight and friendship in the wake of hardship keeps audiences coming back for more. But not every performance is the same…

La bohème has been performed by pretty much every opera house in the world, multiple times. But Puccini’s masterpiece continues to be reimagined with new stagings, and modern interpretations. In fact, you could see La bohème every year and something would be different. Throughout our multiple productions of the opera ENO have incorporated different stylings and stagings, including adapting to unforeseen circumstances through our Drive and Live. 

But no matter how it’s produced, La bohème remains a firm favourite, and will be performed for years to come, making it a great opera for beginners to attend to see what all the fuss is about!

Mozart is undeniably one of the most famous composers in the world. He is a great entry into opera for beginners as you may be more familiar with his compositions and style of music. The Magic Flute is one of his most frequently performed works due to its unique score that evokes mysticism, magic and the wonder of fairy tales. One of Mozart’s most famous songs from the opera is the ‘Queen of the Night Aria’ which is considered to be one the most vocally demanding arias to perform, requiring extraordinary talent and vocal range.

The Magic Flute is also a famous example of singspiel – a popular opera genre similar to musical theatre in that it features singing and dialogue. Therefore, if you love musicals then this could be the perfect bridge to get you into the wonderful world of opera.

You will recognise that Spanish music anywhere! Carmen includes some of the most famous opera songs in the world like the ‘Habanera’ and ‘Toreador Song’, which is what has contributed to the popularity of Bizet’s opera. That and the plot of Carmen, which consists of everything that makes a good opera – passion, drama and tragedy.

However, Carmen joins a long list of operas that were not well received when they were first performed – way back in 1875. The controversial, immoral themes and spoiler alert, the death of the main character, broke the typical conventions of French opera at the time. But like most great works of art, it was more appreciated after its time, with Bizet’s opera becoming critically acclaimed after his death, and remaining one of the most beloved operas to date.

Tosca is the second opera in the list from the legendary Italian composer, Puccini. Set in Rome during a turbulent time following the French Invasion, the story reflected the political unrest in Italy at the time of Tosca’s first performances, which had to be delayed several times. However, once it was finally performed, Tosca was an immediate hit due to its dramatic plot and epic score.

It features one of the most famous Puccini arias, ‘Vissi d’arte’, which is an example of how Puccini represents dark, thrilling themes through the drama of the music. This was a ground-breaking concept, with Tosca being considered one of the first operas that portrayed real, genuine violence on stage which aimed to shock as well as entertain audiences. This thrilling, fast pace production is what keeps audiences coming back time and time again.

Wagner’s Ring Cycle, or Der Ring des Nibelungen to give it its German name, is famous for being one of the most revolutionary works ever completed. It was part of Wagner’s attempt to disrupt the idea of ‘opera’, with his new, contemporary genre known as ‘music dramas’.

Typically The Ring Cycle is performed as four stand alone operas, The Rhinegold (Das Rheingold ), The Valkyrie (Die Walküre), Siegfried and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) – in that order. However, if you are committed you could listen to Wagner’s complete Ring Cycle in one sitting. You will need to take a few breaks though as Wagner’s work amasses to a total of 15 hours of music!

The plot of the Ring Cycle centres around the Gods from Norse mythology, meaning those who are new to opera will still be familiar with the characters from wider historical or pop culture references like Thor. Although each individual opera follows a different story and focuses on different Gods there are still small references to each of the other operas. However, you do not necessarily need to know all the stories as you can watch each individual show and enjoy them as stand alone pieces of art.