Opera is a form of theatre that is almost entirely composed of songs. Opera was developed in Renaissance Italy so the bulk of opera works are in Italian. But as the art form spread throughout Europe, non-Italian language operas came into being.
Opera is a form of armchair travel, transporting one mainly to Italy. But opera is a highly expressive art form. A range of emotions are both expressed by the performers and cultivated by the listeners.
Listening to opera is one of my stress relief tools so in this post I’m listing ten famous opera songs that can uplift and delight on any miserable day.
FAMOUS OPERA SONGS
Libiamo ne’ lieti calici (Let’s drink from the joyful cups)
Taken from Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata, this duet is a brindisi, a song that proposes a toast and is sung in the company of people and alcohol. This piece of work is so famous that you only have to type The Drinking Song or The Brindisi into an internet/YouTube search and it will appear.
Nessun Dorma (Let no one sleep)
Taken from Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, Luciano Pavorotti’s version of this song was the soundtrack of the opera that was the FIFA World Cup held in Italy in 1990 (Italia ’90).
Pavarotti did the world of opera a great service as this was the introduction to the art form for many. It is now one of the most famous opera songs of our time. Inevitably, it is Pavarotti’s version that I’m sharing here.
Sull’aria…che soave zeffiretto (On the breeze…what a gentle little Zephr)
This duet comes from The Marriage of Figaro written by the magical pen of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
This glorious composition will be familiar to film buffs as it’s featured in The Shawshank Redemption in the scene where Tim Robbins’ character locks himself into the warden’s office and plays this over the loudspeaker. And as Morgan Freeman’s character says ‘For the briefest of moments, every last man at Shawshank felt free’. Close your eyes and so will you.
La donna è mobile (Woman is fickle)
This lively number is taken from Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto. Such is its popularity, it is performed at practically every classical concert. In Rigoletto, it is a solo song but I think this version by The Three Tenors (Pavarotti, Domingo, Carreras) is fabulous.
O mio babbino caro (Oh my dear papa)
This sublime aria is taken from Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicci opera. The range in this song is massive so mastering this composition is a challenge. Many singers accomplish this but I think Maria Callas did so the best.
Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour (Beautiful night, oh night of love)
This barcarolle duet is taken from The Tales of Hoffman written in French by Jacques Offenbach. A barcarolle is a classical music version of a traditional folk song and Offenbach’s composition is the most famous barcarolle of all.
I first encountered the song via Roberto Benigni’s Oscar-winning film La vita e bella/Life is beautiful in two scenes that will make and break your heart. Anna Netrebko & Elīna Garanča’s version is my favourite but check out the film as well.
L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (Love is a rebellious bird)
This aria, better known as Habanera, is taken from the French language opera Carmen by Georges Bizet. It’s the entrance song of the seductress that gives the opera its title. Here is the Royal Opera House version of the aria.
Un bel di vedremo (One fine day, we’ll see)
Taken from Madame Butterfly, this is the final Giacomo Puccini composition on my list. One doesn’t need to speak Italian to see the hope and beauty of the lyrics as the melody conjures up that. This version by Angela Gheorghiu will blow you away.
Je veux vivre (I want to live)
We all know the story of Romeo and Juliet and this song is taken from Charles Gounod‘s opera version of the Shakespeare play. Written in French, the song is performed by the Juliet character. I think Aida Garifullina’s version is stunning.
Va, Pensiero (Fly, my thoughts)
The only chorus in my list, this song is taken from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Nabucco, and is also known as Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves. Although the opera’s story covers the exile of the Jews from their ancient homeland, it was associated with the Italian unity movement in the 19th century.
While not works from operas, honourable mentions go to the Neapolitan songs O sole mio and Funiculi Funicula. The former is a love song and the latter composed to celebrate the opening of a funicular railway in Naples. A version of O solo mio has been featured in Cornetto ice-cream TV adverts for as long as I can remember.
Finally, Bold Gendarmes/Gendarmes Duet/Couplets des deux hommes d’armes is taken from Offenbach’s operetta Genevieve de Brabant. This is a fun and catchy number, and can be performed in both English and in its original French version. If you like the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, you’ll love this.