What makes a classic opera song - the kind that reaches beyond the boundaries of fashion and speaks to generation after generation? Is it melody? Orchestration? Text? Something else completely?


Here are ten songs, plucked from many, many possible contenders, that continue to soar in popularity centuries after they were first heard.

Famous opera songs

Nessun Dorma

Closely associated with Luciano Pavarotti, who sang it many times in the ‘90s after performing it at the 1990 FIFA World Cup, Nessun Dorma (‘Let no one sleep’) is possibly classical music’s greatest gift to contemporary pop culture.

It actually comes from the final act of Puccini’s opera Turandot, where it is sung by the prince Calaf, who falls in love at first sight with the beautiful but frosty Princess Turandot.

But it is often performed as a standalone work, thanks to its lush orchestration, its bittersweet harmonies and, most of all, its melody, that - in its slow build to a towering climax - tugs with all its might at the heart-strings.

Voi Che Sapete

Sung by the randy teenager Cherubino, this aria from The Marriage of Figaro is about puberty, involuntary bodily functions and lust - specifically Cherubino’s lust for the Countess, on whom he has a teenage crush. Mozart’s music is elegantly simple, but beneath the swan-like surface is a tremulousness befitting the song’s subject matter.

O Soave Fanciulla

Another Puccini classic here, this one from La bohème, his 1895 opera about a group of young bohemians living in Paris. Sung as the closing number of Act One, this duet between the main lovers - Rodolfo and Mimi - is one of the most romantic in all of opera - a cocktail of ravishing orchestration and gooseflesh-inducing melody.

Flower Duet

British Airways made it their theme song in the 1980s, but this serene duet for soprano and mezzo-soprano has continued to do well since then, finding its way into films such as Meet the Parents and television shows including The Simpsons.

It comes from Lakmé, Delibes’s tragic 1883 opera set in British India, and is sung by the title character and her servant Mallika, as they go to gather flowers by a river. But you’d be forgiven for not knowing that, given how rarely the full opera gets performed nowadays.

La donna e mobile

This aria, from Verdi’s Rigoletto, claims that women are fickle and untrustworthy. That’s not surprising, as it’s sung by the Duke of Mantua, a rapist, misogynist and otherwise thoroughly reprehensible character. So while the words might be pretty unpleasant, they clearly don't represent the composer's view. As for the tune - a popular showcase for the tenor voice - it is nothing if not catchy.

O Mio Babbino Caro

This aria comes from Gianni Schicchi, Puccini’s 1918 one-act comedy about a Florentine con-man known for his powers of mimicry, who changes an old man’s will for his own gain, and that of his daughter Lauretta. ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ is sung by the young Lauretta, as she begs her father to let her marry the love of her life Rinuccio. As such, its earnest tone and heart-rending melody provide a rare moment of poignancy in what is otherwise a pretty cynical little opera.

L’amour est un oiseau rebelle

Known more commonly as the Habanera, this aria from Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen is all about the untameable nature of love and is sung by the title character, whose sultry allure it fully encapsulates. With its whistleable melody, which sidles chromatically down a descending scale, it’s one of the best-known songs in all of opera and has appeared in everything from films to adverts.

Catalogue Aria

As famous for its text as for its music, this darkly comic bass aria from Mozart’s Don Giovanni is sung by the servant Leporello to Giovanni’s jilted lover Elvira, in an attempt to encourage her to forget his master. Against a busy and light-hearted musical background, Leporello details Giovanni’s endless sexual conquests around the world (‘In Italy, six hundred and forty; In Germany two hundred and thirty-one; A hundred in France; in Turkey, ninety-one; But in Spain already one thousand and three)’. Anyone will do, he says, as long as she wears a skirt.

Queen of the Night Aria

With its rapid, stratospheric staccatos reaching up to that elusive high ‘F’, this aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, has tested the mettle of many a fine soprano. What better way to depict the white-hot fury of the Queen of the Night? ‘Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart,’ she rages as she exhorts her daughter Pamina to assassinate Sarastro, the Queen’s rival. And we have no trouble believing her.

Largo al factotum

Some of us (including myself) first came across this aria in the opening credits of Mrs Doubtfire - thanks to a hyper-exuberant Robin Williams. In fact it’s from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, and is sung by the barber himself - Figaro - as he makes his grand entrance. With its irrepressible drive and enthusiastic repetitions of ‘Figaro!’, it is one of the sunniest, most infectiously optimistic moments in opera.


Photo: Anna Siminska as Queen of the Night in the Royal Opera's production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Die Zauberflote directed by David McVicar and conducted by Cornelius Meister at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London. Credit: Getty Images.


Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.