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 Wagner, read on as we outline some of the most popular operas to grace the stage, composed by some big names we think you’ll recognise and featuring music that remains embedded in pop culture.

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.

One of the most loved operas in the comedy genre, Iolanthe is a topsy-turvy fantasy brimming with mischief and mayhem. Created by the most famous comedy duo in the opera business, Gilbert and Sullivan are famed for creating absurd and hilarious operas that often parody Victorian-era society. Iolanthe encompasses the duo’s recognisable composition style and features themes of romance and satire.

Speaking of absurd, in this chaotic tale the fairy world and Parliament are reversed (doesn’t seem too far-fetched, does it?). The half-human half-fairy Strephon has fallen in love with a mortal, Phyllis. But she needs the Lord Chancellor’s permission to get married, and he wants her for himself. Strephon must then appeal to his fairy mother Iolanthe to help him challenge the peers of the realm. A classic Gilbert and Sullivan satire, Iolanthe pokes fun at the British establishment and celebrity culture of the day. There are side swipes at famous names in Victorian society, including Queen Victoria, John Brown (her personal servant and ‘close companion’), Lord Randolph Churchill (reformist Tory) and William Gladstone (the serving Liberal PM).

If you want to find out more about arguably the most well known composer/librettist duo in history, you can read our beginner’s guide to Gilbert and Sullivan.

Left unfinished at the time of his death, Puccini’s Turandot has remained as one of the most recognisable pieces of opera. Inspired by a German play of the same name, it took Puccini several years to turn his enthusiasm for the piece into one of his best known operas. The writing process was an extremely difficult one as Puccini battled severe illness throughout and ultimately died before being able to finish.

Featuring the most famous tenor aria of all time ‘Nessun Dorma’, Turandot is full of exquisite orchestral music, typical of Puccini. The story centres on a cold-hearted princess who beheads suitors unable to answer her riddles. But when a young prince falls for her and correctly answers all three riddles, the tables are turned and she is taken on a tumultuous journey to discover the true meaning of love.

Visually and audibly stunning, Madam Butterfly immerses the viewer in a tragic tale of love and heartbreak. Famous around the world, it inspired the musical Miss Saigon and has memorable music many will recognise from TV and film.

Already on this list for his masterpieces Tosca, Turandot and La boheme, Giacomo Puccini is widely considered the greatest proponent of Italian opera but Madam Butterfly was not an instant winner. In fact, its premiere was a complete disaster. After four revisions he finally presented the ‘standard’ version, that we know today, in a second premiere, and it’s safe to say, his hard work paid off!

One of opera’s most enduring tales of unrequited love, Puccini’s poignant score follows the tragic tale of Cio Cio San, a young Japanese girl who falls in love with American naval officer Pinkerton, with devastating consequences.

Learn more about this famous story in our introduction to Madam Butterfly or get to know the key players in our character guide.

Controversial for its time, The Marriage of Figaro came to fruition at the height of Mozart’s illustrious career. Based on a play that had been banned in France, it took some convincing (and editing of political content) for Emperor Joseph II to commission the staging. Now considered to be Mozart’s operatic masterpiece, it was the first of three operas that he wrote in conjunction with Italian librettist and poet Lorenzo da Ponte – Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte soon followed.

A musical comedy, The Marriage of Figaro has a farcical plot filled with mistaken identities, disguises and misunderstandings, all taking place on one single day – the wedding day of Figaro and Susanna. When the big day arrives, it becomes clear that Count Almaviva is hell-bent on seducing Susanna before the ceremony can take place. Susanna and Figaro conspire with the Countess to outwit her husband and teach him a lesson in fidelity.

If you want to know more fun facts, you can read our introductory guide or get to know the composer with our guide to Mozart.

We hope this has given you a good overview of some of the greatest works in the world of opera. If we’ve ignited your interest, you can learn more about some of these great composers in our Discover Opera section. Or if you want to experience one of these for yourself, you can find out if any of these winners are coming to the ENO stage – find out what’s on.