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10 of opera's greatest soprano roles

From the Queen of the Night to Turandot by way of Norma and Brünnhilde, we round up some of opera’s most devilishly difficult soprano roles.

By Kate Hopkins (Content Producer (Opera and Music))

15 September 2016 at 11.55am | 53 Comments

Is there any limit to what a great soprano can do? There’s a host of roles that astonish and delight us: true showcases of extraordinary musical and dramatic talent from across the history of opera. We’ve gathered together some of our favourites, starting with…

The Queen of the Night – Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte

Mozart wrote the role of the Queen in The Magic Flute for his sister-in-law Josepha Hofer, who was famous for her outstanding vocal technique and high notes. The Queen of the Night’s two dramatic arias are accordingly packed with fiendish coloratura, taking the soprano voice to amazing heights, particularly in the Act II aria ‘Der Hölle Rache’.

Elena – Rossini’s La donna del lago

Elena is one of several roles that Rossini wrote for his first wife Isabella Colbran. Colbran had an exceptionally wide vocal range and the writing for Elena spans the gamut. The opera culminates in one of Rossini’s greatest showpieces for the female voice: Elena’s virtuoso Act II aria ‘Tanti affetti’.

Norma – Bellini’s Norma

Norma requires immense stamina, vocal agility and (particularly for the aria ‘Casta diva’) lyricism and beauty of tone. But the challenges don’t stop there: the singer also has to convey the varied and intense emotions of a heroine torn between religious devotion and jealousy, romantic passion and maternal love.

Lucia – Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor

Lucia is another role that makes huge demands on a soprano’s stamina: she has to retain enough energy through the demands of Acts I and II in order to carry off Act III’s famous mad scene – a breathtaking display containing a stratospheric virtuoso cadenza accompanied by glass harmonica.

Abigaille – Verdi’s Nabucco

Abigaille is a notoriously difficult part: it calls for a singer with a powerful, very agile voice who can move from the bottom to the very top of her range at great speed. Even the most lyrical of Abigaille’s arias, ‘Anch’io dischiuso un giorno’, includes a thrilling two-octave leap.

Brünnhilde – Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen

Brünnhilde is often seen as a dramatic soprano’s ultimate challenge. She must sound equally comfortable in the high notes of her opening war cry in Die Walküre and in the low-lying passages that punctuate Götterdämmerung. She must be heroic and tender, vengeful and noble. And above all, she must have the stamina to sing in three operas, each more than five hours long!

Olympia – Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann

Olympia the doll is only on stage for about half an hour, and for much of that time simply says ‘oui’. But her one aria ‘Les oiseaux dans la charmille’ is a virtuoso tour de force, each verse adorned with ever more elaborate coloratura. The part also calls for comic acting: Olympia’s mechanics periodically run down and stop her mid-flow.

Elektra – Richard Strauss’s Elektra

At 90 minutes, Elektra is relatively short role – but it’s fiercely difficult. The singer has to project over a vast, intricately-scored orchestra and sing some of the most dramatic, declamatory music ever written for soprano, while also conveying lyrical tenderness in her reunion scene with Orest. She also needs to retain enough physical energy for the dance which brings the opera to its devastating close.

Turandot – Puccini’s Turandot

Like Elektra, Turandot requires a powerful high voice and a singer able to execute very declamatory vocal writing with ease. The role also poses dramatic challenges: how can a soprano make this murderous princess sympathetic enough to convince us she deserves a happy ending?

Lulu – Berg’s Lulu

This near-impossible part requires a singer with a three-octave range who can shift from intense lyricism to flamboyant high coloratura to speech – sometimes within the space of one aria. The character is also dramatically deeply enigmatic, and is onstage for every scene of this four-hour opera.

Ariel – Adès’s The Tempest

Possibly the highest role ever written for soprano, Adès’s ‘airy spirit’ enters The Tempest singing 17 full-voiced Es two and a bit octaves above middle C – and continues in a similar range for most of the opera. The high notes aren’t limited to coloratura either: many of them are in slow and sustained passages, which is fiendishly challenging.

Which fiendishly difficult roles would you include?
Let us know in the comments below.

Lucia di Lammermoor runs 30 October–27 November 2017. Tickets are still available.

Read more: This article is part of the Voices of opera series

This article has 53 comments

  1. Great article! Thank you!

  2. Bogda responded on 15 September 2016 at 1:51pm Reply

    What about Zerbinetta?

  3. Diana Jeffrey responded on 15 September 2016 at 10:04pm Reply

    An absolute treat to listen to - it has given me such pleasure.
    Thank you.

  4. Definitely Zerbinetta from Strauss´s Ariadne auf Naxos, this is an absolute top of coloratura art, especially in original score.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oCQghfcDDsg

  5. Woman in Benjamin's Written on Skin. Barbara Hannigan was magnificent.

  6. Milan responded on 17 September 2016 at 12:22pm Reply

    Les Contes should not be on this list (just one aria). I agree with most of the rest. Cio Cio San should have been included, at least for her three-hour stage presence and complexity.

  7. Cristino responded on 17 September 2016 at 12:52pm Reply

    ISOLDE !!!

  8. Melody Joy Rubin responded on 17 September 2016 at 1:18pm Reply

    Olympia and Queen of the Night have NOTHING on Gounod's MIREILLE.

  9. Rafael Florido responded on 17 September 2016 at 3:34pm Reply

    Strauss' Salomé!

  10. Jérôme responded on 17 September 2016 at 3:54pm Reply

    Salomé, Armida, Esclarmonde...

  11. jonatasnetoneto responded on 17 September 2016 at 4:53pm Reply

    La regina Elisabetta (Roberto Devereux)

  12. Jack Leo responded on 17 September 2016 at 8:13pm Reply

    Two omitted roles immediately jump to mind: Violetta Valery (La Traviata), which requires both both consumate coloratura technique and broad lyricism, and Kundry (Parsifal), with its fiendishly difficult tessitura and huge interval leaps.

  13. Armin responded on 17 September 2016 at 8:13pm Reply

    Bach and Handel were almost contemporaries; why Handel composed so many outstanding operas, while Bach did not compose even one opera?

    • Bach tended to write for the voice in the same way he wrote for the orchestra (technically very tricky). I think his focus was on religious sentiment not personal dramas. Handel understood voice/drama and I think he actually prefered writing opera rather than instrumentals (his stint in Italy might have something to do with it and certainly influenced the way he wrote thereafter).

  14. Olympia and QOTN don't really have a whole lot of singing...the role everyone forgets for its difficulty (due to sheer length and amount of singing) is Mozart's Susanna!

    • Look no further than Bach's two magnificent Passions and the B minor Mass. both are very operatic in scope and dramatic effect. They are virtually (sacred) operas - minus the acting, costumes and scenery.

    • Jennifer responded on 12 August 2017 at 7:55pm

      No it's not A LOT of singing, bit the difficulty of their material makes up for that. Some roles are difficult because they're long and need stamina, others are hard, because their material is wide and varying.

  15. Danny responded on 17 September 2016 at 11:19pm Reply

    Violetta, La Traviata

  16. David Pinaffo responded on 18 September 2016 at 12:12am Reply

    For Gosh Sake ... I LOVE IT. I am able to choose one. Thanks for this awesome post.

  17. Calvin responded on 18 September 2016 at 4:48am Reply

    Elena -Vespers
    Ilogene - Pirata
    Fiordiligi - Cosi
    Giunia -Lucio Silla
    Lady M - macbeth
    Kundry - Parsifal
    Violettab- traviata

    • Therry responded on 6 August 2017 at 2:08am

      Like your list of fiendish parts, Calvin, but when you list Lady Macbeth, which one do you mean? Verdi or Shostakovich?

      And I'd also like to include both Frauen ohne Schatten, the Farberin and the Kaiserin!

  18. Jenni responded on 18 September 2016 at 11:27am Reply

    The Woman in Schönberg's monologue opera Erwartung. The role is not very long but it is dramatic, the music is horribly difficult, the orchestra is huge, text very fragmentary, and the singer has to resolve tricky questions on how to interprete this Freudian nightmare. Having sung both, I think this is even more demanding than Elektra.

  19. Roger Taylor responded on 19 September 2016 at 11:29pm Reply

    With so many great roles it is difficult to know which to leave out. However Isolde and Salome should definitely be in the top ten.

  20. Julia Dean responded on 20 September 2016 at 7:23am Reply

    This is great, thank you! What about the altos? After 15 years singing as a mezzo I've now been told I'm an alto. Looking for some inspiration.

  21. Keith Gregory responded on 13 November 2016 at 5:57pm Reply

    What about the Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten (R Strauss)?

  22. Tony Boyd-Williams responded on 15 November 2016 at 5:44pm Reply

    I would include Act 4 scene I of Il Trovatore.

  23. Henning responded on 21 December 2016 at 10:38am Reply

    Definitely agreed on the Queen of the Night. The aria from the 2nd act is called 'Der Hölle Rache' in correct German, not 'Die Hölle Rache' ;)

    • Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager) responded on 21 December 2016 at 10:44am

      Hi Henning,

      Many thanks for flagging this error, which has now been corrected.

      All best,
      Rachel

  24. Jonathan Sydenham responded on 21 December 2016 at 1:30pm Reply

    A nice set of choices, and I agree with all the comments about them. Maybe one could distinguish between the parts that can be pulled off by a soprano whose voice may not be in the best condition but whose talents as an actress carry the day, and roles that simply cannot be negotiated if the voice isn't in order? For example, the Marschallin or even Lady Macbeth, and possibly Emilia Marty can be hugely successful even if the singer is practically voiceless. I once saw Hildegard Behrens practically speak her way through Isolde and she was still the best ever. (Well, OK ...) But Violetta? Elektra? Manon? The Countess? Donna Anna?

  25. james kroneman responded on 21 December 2016 at 5:49pm Reply

    Elvira of I Puritani or Angelina of La Cenerentola

  26. Michael de Navarro responded on 22 December 2016 at 1:17am Reply

    Violetta, Isolde, Elektra, Aida

  27. Michael Mott responded on 22 December 2016 at 10:52am Reply

    ESCLARMONDE!!!!!!!!! Completwly bonkers!

  28. Juliet Chaplin responded on 7 January 2017 at 5:55pm Reply

    How about the Dyer's Wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten? There are certainly plenty of demanding roles.

  29. Alcina, Vitellia - both for vocal and dramatic difficulty rather than the non-role of Olympia, where one is required to provide accurate accuti with 0 (anti?) legato and absolutely no personality. Also "Elle" in Poulenc's La voix humaine, for dramatic envolvement.

  30. John responded on 31 January 2017 at 4:41am Reply

    Lakme!

  31. LatinBassBaritone responded on 15 March 2017 at 5:56pm Reply

    One should include Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel.... The major soprano role is devilishly and extremely difficult. The soprano is required to take on an extreme of emotions of psychoism, and hysteria and has to sing at an extreme high tessitura in a chant-like rhythm fortississimo full blast in the second act. Most opera companies steer clear from the work because it is known as a vocal shredder for a soprano.

  32. Onur Aydın responded on 2 July 2017 at 11:26am Reply

    Abigaille, Odabella, Lady Macbeth, Manon (Puccini), Butterfly, Elektra, Elettra (Mozart), Alceste and maybe Leonora (Trovatore)...

  33. Lorenzo responded on 22 July 2017 at 10:50pm Reply

    Gemma in Donizetti's "Gemma di Vergy", Caballe says 1 performance is like singing 3 Normas

    Pamira in Rossini's "Le siege de Corinthe"

    Esclarmonde.....so said La Stupenda

    Parisina in Donizetti's "Parisina d'Este"

  34. Ortrud is a bit tricky!

  35. Allan Rosendo responded on 4 August 2017 at 3:51pm Reply

    Esclarmonde, The Empress (Die Frau Ohne Schatten), Elisabetta (Roberto Devereux)... This 3 is way more difficult than any other... I'm wondering who does really think that The Queen of the Night and Olympia are difficult? Where's Zerbinetta? Elena doesn't look as difficult as Semiramide or Amenaide...

  36. Mary Oswell responded on 11 August 2017 at 11:36pm Reply

    Have I missed it, or has no one really mentioned Cenerentola ("Non più mesta") for mezzos?

  37. S Owen responded on 12 August 2017 at 2:36am Reply

    Anna Nicole and Alice in Gerald Barry's Alice in Wonderland.

  38. Phil Sibbald responded on 13 August 2017 at 8:33am Reply

    Those listed are indeed great roles, however I would also include
    Semiramide
    Lakme
    Elizabeth in "Roberto Devereux"

  39. Mike Chin responded on 14 August 2017 at 1:15am Reply

    What about Amina in La Sonnambula? And the list goes on, and on, and on .........

    • Anke responded on 10 September 2017 at 10:06pm

      Yes, I also came to say Amina
      It's very long, she's got lots of arias, coloraturas, LOTS of c's. And a fiendishly difficult aria on the passagio plus cabaletta full of coloraturas and e flats right at the end of it all.

  40. Daniel Madigan responded on 5 September 2017 at 1:22am Reply

    Armida by Rossini is extremely complex and difficult. Gemma Di Vergy is for the very gifted and large- voiced sopranos..3 Normas equal one Gemma, according to Caballe, and she should know; she sang Gemma everywhere to great response. I agree on the Gemma Di Vergy as pssibly the most difficult of all soprano parts...many roles close behind of course..but none of Wagner.

  41. Luminita responded on 10 September 2017 at 3:10pm Reply

    Tatiana (Eugene Onegin) for dramatism.
    I am thinking, also, about Melisande, from Pelleas et Melisande by Debussy.

  42. Thank you.

  43. Tipsy responded on 11 September 2017 at 1:22am Reply

    I agree Esclarmonde and Isolde should be up there-- those might be the two hardest soprano roles of all.
    I would also include Madame Mao from "Nixon in China."

  44. Chuck Prazak responded on 11 September 2017 at 6:42pm Reply

    Mad scene from I Puritani

  45. Evan Dunn responded on 14 September 2017 at 3:41am Reply

    Leonora from Fidelio

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