This list is intended to make opera a little more exciting for those who think it is boring. If you’ve never tried to sing an opera aria, try it, and try to make your voice sound like the pros. Not easy. And here for your entertainment are the ten most insanely difficult opera arias ever written. Some you may know, some not. Great care has been exercised in selecting the best possible performances of these songs from Youtube.
The Modern Major-General
The Pirates of Penzance
This aria has been accepted into popular culture, as opposed to most opera. Gilbert and Sullivan made themselves very rich in the realm of comic opera, and their masterpieces are the quintessential English light operas: The Pirates of Penzance, H. M. S. Pinafore, The Mikado, The Yeomen of the Guard and a slew of others. They may not have invented the modern idea of a foppishly gay British Naval officer, but they hoisted him to his pinnacle. The characters aren’t actually homosexual, lest you think this lister considers them so, but they certainly act in hilariously effeminate manners, and none is more legendary than the Modern Major-General.
His famous song comes at the end of Act I, and he informs the titular pirates that he has impossibly expert knowledge on absolutely everything, except that his knowledge is strangely insignificant: Then I can write a washing bill in Babylonic Cuneiform, / And tell you every detail of Caractacus’s uniform.” You don’t write with cuneiform, because it is a pictogrammatic language. Caratacus wore nothing but a loincloth.
The difficulty of this song is not in its range, as is the case with most of these entries, but with the tongue-twisting lyrics and the breakneck speed with which they gallop to the end, and thus, this is referred to as a “patter song.”
Largo al Factotum
Il barbiere di Siviglia
The other legendary patter song, this one even more world-renowned than #10. Gioacchino Rossini had no one in particular in mind to perform the titular character, but this aria requires a fairly high baritone range, and the utmost precision in scales, arpeggi, and pronouncing Italian, especially at the end, with the allegro vivace lyrics, “Bravo bravissimo! / Fortunatissimo per verita!…Pronto prontissimo…” etc.
The phrase “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro!” comes from this aria. Every baritone opera star is expected to master this one, and it’s the measuring rod by which the popular consciousness of opera judges all baritones. [The singer in this clip is Ettore Bastianini – probably the greatest operatic baritone to have ever lived – even more so than Titta Ruffo, in my opinion. His interpretation and clarity in this song is impeccable. You can see a great live performance by Bastianini here which demonstrates his equally great understated acting; in this performance Bastianini was suffering from terminal throat cancer which would kill him two years later. –jfrater].
Ariadne auf Naxos
Richard Strauss’s operetta is not particularly popular today, which is a real shame. Zerbinetta sings this aria, “High and Mighty Princess,” consoling Ariadne, who is stuck on the isle of Naxos, waiting for Theseus to return. Zerbinetta’s consolation lies in her admonition that Ariadne forget about Theseus and find a new beau. This aria is about 10 minutes long, a very sustained exercise in coloratura technique, but the premiere audience actually hissed after the first act, at the end of which this aria occurs.
Why? Well, the simplest answer is probably that Strauss did not compose operas with obvious arias set apart from the rest of the opera, a la the Italian composers, etc. Strauss was a follower of Richard Wagner, whose work doesn’t have many segments set apart from the rest. And like Wagner, Strauss is an acquired taste. He’s not as easy to enjoy as, say, Rossini. But as with all showpieces of skill, this aria is a highlight to be enjoyed on the edge of your seat.
Martern aller Arten
Die Entführung aus dem Serail
In this early masterpiece from Mozart, Konstanze is captured by pirates and sold into evil Pasha Selim’s harem to be a prostitute. Mozart did not name Konstanze after his wife, as some like to believe. Constanze, the German form of Constance, was a common name back then. The librettist, Christoph Bretzner, named the damsel in distress, but Mozart’s wife thought it was a hilarious honor.
In this aria, Konstanze informs her maid, Blonde, that Selim intends to make love to Konstanze, and if she refuses to consent, he will torture her in all kinds of twisted ways. Mozart was just fantastic, wasn’t he? Because the music is, as it always seems to be, effervescent, full of fun and laughter, lighthearted and supremely entertaining, no matter how many times you listen to it. In terms of difficulty, Mozart wrote the role for Catarina Cavalieri, one of the finest sopranos in history. This aria is loaded with arpeggi, scales and an extreme range for a coloratura soprano.
Di Quella Pira
This one brings the house down. Giuseppe Verdi wrote this aria with no regard as to whether tenors could manage the powerful dramatic acting required in it. Manrico’s mother, Azucena, is about to be burned at the stake. When Manrico finds out, he is immediately infuriated and calls all his soldiers together, and the aria is intended to sound more like him shouting in rage than singing. This aria “only” goes up to high C, but it may be the most immortal high C in opera, and the tenor must hit it spot-on, like ringing a bell. The length for which he holds it, and the rich timbre of his voice is what every two-bit opera fan awaits for some 2 and a half hours. The aria can’t sound pinched or thin. The tenor must sound as if he has muscle to spare when he’s finished.
Mes amis, écoutez l’histoire
Le postillon de Lonjumeau
Adolphe Adam did not write this aria for any particular star, but simply made the role one of the highest tenor roles in opera. This aria is in verse form, not the free form arias typically taken in operas. The postillon, or coachman, from Lonjumeau sings to the other guests at an inn, about the history of a coachman, who became king of a tropical island. This aria hits a high D, one full step above high C, at the end, and even superior tenors, like Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, even Caruso, have had great difficulty managing it well. They can hit the note, but can’t quite dwell richly on it as long as they’d like. Nicolai Gedda is a legend at it.
Vincenzo Bellini wrote the role of Arturo in this opera for a friend, Giovanni Rubini, the Enrico Caruso of his day. It requires the inordinate extreme of F above high C, and almost every tenor on record, even Luciano Pavarotti, has had to cheat by using his falsetto voice to hit it. Rubini could hit it in full chest voice, and once did so with such power that he broke his collarbone. Not to mention that it occurs in nearly the last scene, after some 2 and a half hours of singing.
Ha, wie will ich triumphieren
Die Entführung aus dem Serail
By far the lowest and most impossibly galloping romp for a basso in all of opera, Mozart wrote this aria as difficult as it is for a friend of his, Ludwig Fischer, who had an extremely expansive basso profondo range. The aria occurs near the beginning of Act 3, when Osmin captures Belmonte and Pedrillo, and intends to have them and their lady lovers tortured to death. It goes down to a low D, two octaves below middle C. The very next note, after holding this low D for several measures, is an octave jump.
The opera is so popular that it has been translated into Italian and Hungarian, among other languages, and the most unbelievable performance of the aria on record belongs to the one and only Ezio Pinza, in Italian, who never learned to read music, but memorized his roles by ear.
Der Hölle Rache
Possibly the most famous of all operatic arias, because of Mozart’s divine music, and equally because of its unbelievably voracious difficulty: it will swallow the coloratura soprano whole if her practice or concentration lapse for one instant. Popularly called “the Queen of the Night’s aria,” but since the character has more than one aria, it is better referred to by its first few words.
The Queen wants revenge on Sarastro, and gives her daughter, Pamina, a knife, and makes her swear to kill Sarastro on pain of her mother cursing her if she refuses. Does the aria sounds vengeful or malicious? Maybe a little. Mozart must not have had a lot of malice pent up in him. The famously difficult passages sound full of jubilation, happiness, not malice, not hatred, not even anger. But this lister’s amateur analysis of the aria does nothing to detract from its difficulty or impact. The performance in the above clip is absolutely incredible – one of the best ever recorded – the singing begins around 2:10.
Il Dolce Suono
Lucia di Lammermoor
By Gaetano Donizetti. The coloratura soprano role of Lucia has essentially to duel with a flute in the orchestra, in a scene near the end of the opera (after a great deal of coloratura singing), in which she has gone insane and stabbed her brand new husband, Arturo Bucklaw. Donizetti composed this aria with the accompaniment of a glass harmonica specifically required, but a flute is usually used, unfortunately. It is written in F Major, and ends on a high F above high C.
When Lucia is finished, her brother, Enrico, enters and Lucia dies, apparently from grief. After this superhuman feat of bel canto singing, the audience is left wondering if Lucia dropped dead of a stroke from the effort.
As a baritone who worked professionally as an opera singer, I (Jamie Frater) wanted to add an addition to this list. We seldom hear great baritone arias, which is a shame as there are many which are truly stunning and so they often end up not appearing on lists relating to opera. Fortunately, Flamehorse has a broad enough knowledge of opera that that is not true of this list. But the aria that is probably the most difficult for a baritone doesn’t sound that way at all. The aria I am referring to is O Du Mein Holder Abendstern (Song to the Evening Star) from Wagner’s Tannhauser. The aria is difficult on many levels – the first is that it is by Wagner – all Wagner music is difficult for its long lines requiring a mastery of legato – one of the most difficult operatic skills to develop. This aria then adds a slowly creepy line in a very uncomfortable part of the baritone range. It just goes and goes. In my professional career I sang many difficult arias by Verdi but I never reached the level of being able to master any Wagner arias. Do listen to this one right to the end as it is very beautiful.