“Great Singers”: where to start

I have undertaken trying to evaluate what makes a “great” singer in the classical music world, but before I can begin, I have to decide who to include under that umbrella.

This project entails evaluating careers of singers who have proven themselves capable of maintaining a high caliber of artistry across many decades of their careers; this necessitates singers who are retired or close to retired. However, I also need singers with extensive documentation of their career, which is more common with recent artists. Therefore I have chosen to take a representative sample from the generation of singers whose careers are ending or have ended within the last 30 or so years.

For the purposes of this project, I define “great” singers as those who had extremely successful solo operatic and classical careers, defined as being hired repeatedly as headliners by the foremost opera houses, being well-regarded by their peers and musical experts, and achieving national and international fame and recognition. Beyond extremely successful careers, the greatest of these have achieved international fame, name recognition and stardom. This definition of “great” narrows the population pool to a handful of singers per generation, 30-40 years provides a wide enough time-frame for a wide selection of great singers to study.

Even with these restrictions, there are a couple dozen fantastic artists I could choose from.  I have chosen to make a detailed study of the following artists, by reading biographies and listening to their recordings: Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills, Sherrill Milnes, Luciano Pavarotti, and Renée Fleming. I have also discovered two books consisting of brief interviews of dozens of opera stars, providing their techniques and opinions on the world of classical music today. These world-renowned artists will provide an in-depth look at the training and career of the great stars, which will complement other more general and theoretical sources.

The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer, autobiography of Renée Fleming
American Aria: Encore, autobiography of Sherrill Milnes
Beverly, autobiography of Beverly Sills
The King and I, by Herbert Breslin, manager of Luciano Pavarotti
A Prima Donna’s Progress, autobiography of Joan Sutherland
Three Tenors, by Marcia Lewis

Supplemental interviews:
Great Singers on Great Singing, by Jerome Hines: Interviews with 40 of the leading singers at the Met in the latter half of the 20th century about their techniques and teaching methods
Living Opera, by Joshua Jampol: Interviews with 20 “pre-eminent opera professionals” on the function and perception of opera in society today.