In the past, we’ve asked some of our favorite artists to choose the five minutes or so they would play to make their friends fall in love with classical music, the piano, opera, the cello, Mozart, 21st-century composers, the violin and Baroque music.
Now we want to convince those curious friends to love the soaring soprano voice. We hope you find lots here to discover and enjoy; leave your choices in the comments.
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Ann Patchett, novelist
Anyone interested in the wonders of the soprano voice should turn first to Renée Fleming, who makes the most impossible repertoire seem effortless. Listen to her sing Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise. There is no preamble from the orchestra — just two notes. You enter the piece with Ms. Fleming. Without a narrative to follow, you may want to try and name what you’re hearing; you may say, “This is hope” or “This is loss.” But a vocalise, especially this one, is about moving beyond language and into the fullness of human experience. Trust her to show you what’s possible. This is about being alive.
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Anthony Tommasini, Times chief classical music critic
For an inspiring lesson in what it means to shape and lift a winding melodic line in a Verdi aria with lustrous sound and affecting poignancy, listen to this classic Leontyne Price recording from 1970. Leonora is ready to sacrifice herself for the imprisoned, doomed Manrico, and sends him her sighing devotion on the “rosy wings of love.” Those thoughts take flight in Ms. Price’s sublime singing.
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Joshua Barone, Times editor
Sopranos have long kept composers in their thrall. Mozart couldn’t resist a levitating melody; Strauss’s work is full of affection for the female voice. Among the great torchbearers today is John Adams, one of whose recent muses is Julia Bullock. On this recording of his opera “Doctor Atomic,” Ms. Bullock sings the role of Kitty Oppenheimer with an authority that comes off as inevitability. Listen to the lyrical longing of “Am I in Your Light?” The repetition of that question — at first monotonously offhand, and eventually rising with desperation — builds a character through sound.
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Kenneth Lonergan, filmmaker and playwright
This aria is one of the most beautiful things I know. I’ve never played it for anyone who hasn’t swooned over it. If you don’t know classical music that well, or if there’s an automatic turnoff valve in your head easily triggered by certain musical combinations or genres, one way into this gorgeous landscape is through Mozart, who never wrote a bad tune in all his 36 years. This particular aria was written for, and first performed by, his wife, Constanze, shortly after they were married in August 1782. She was 20. He was 26. I don’t even know what to say about it, except to suggest listening to it not as a chore or duty, but with love, which is how it was written.
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Kira Thurman, historian
Proud to belong to a long lineage of Black sopranos dating back to Sissieretta Jones, Jessye Norman nonetheless broke from tradition in the unusual, sometimes cerebral, musical decisions she made: Why sing Mozart when she could sing Messiaen? You hear that same unrepentant commitment to making her own choices here, in Strauss’s “Beim Schlafengehen,” when Norman wills her tone to shift from sparkling champagne to the hazy soft shimmer of sunset. When she pushes through that last glorious cadence — growing it, stretching it — the sheer power of her voice is enough to make your eyes water. Norman was unapologetic about what she sang and how she sang it, and we are all the better for it.
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Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, Times writer
Sometimes I’d rather not know. Often it’s worth it to look up the text to a song in order to make sense of how the music sets and extends the words. But in a piece like this shimmering, ethereal gem by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, I like to let the song work its way through me as pure sound. The soprano voice feels like one part nature, two parts pure psychology. In this recording, Anu Komsi renders the vocal line like a cool ribbon of mist that lets through varying degrees of light.
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Renée Fleming, soprano
For five minutes that would make someone fall in love with the soprano voice, I would go directly to the recordings of Leontyne Price. Her beauty of tone, paired with such power and musicianship, make her performances of rapturous music unforgettable. And since I don’t think you can do better than Richard Strauss for rapture, Leontyne’s recording of “Zweite Brautnacht” is my choice. It is an incredibly challenging piece for a soprano, but there really wasn’t anything she couldn’t sing. I still remember discovering her transcendent recording of this music and the profound impression it made on me.
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Wayne Koestenbaum, writer
Here’s the moment — the performance — that made me fall in love with Anna Moffo’s voice. In this aria a jester’s daughter muses on her inamorato’s name, as she lets her voice travel over every inch of its range. The higher Moffo goes, the happier and more confident she seems. Listen to how creamy and velvety her voice grows when she dips into lower regions, and then listen to how aerial and azure she becomes when she ascends. Listen to her precise staccato, her easeful vibrato, her intimate timbre. Listen to how time seems to stop on the last high note, which she holds and keeps holding, managing to sound sensual yet extraterrestrial. I’ve listened to this recording at least 500 times, and each time I feel like I’m rediscovering Eden.
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James Jordan, proprietor of Parterre Box
In this ensemble ending the first act of Bellini’s “I Puritani,” Maria Callas exemplifies how a soprano is (as she described it) “the main instrument of the orchestra.” She invigorates the uncomplicated melody and harmony with a delicate rhythmic pulse, slightly rushing the beginning of each phrase, then relaxing again as it unfolds. She limits the dynamics to gentle variations on piano, suitable to the wispy mental state of a betrayed Puritan maiden. This restraint pays off gorgeously when the voice ascends to the high C’s and D of the climactic phrase. The five minutes of this piece blossom as a single elegant paragraph of music.
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Inti Figgis-Vizueta, composer
This delightful excerpt from Héloïse Werner’s opera “The Other Side of the Sea” explores a rich vocabulary of language-derived sounds, melodic fragments and self-reflective text. From the first phrase, “It is hard to be myself in English,” we’re given a glimpse into the complex process of translation for our French-born, British-based soprano, composer and heroine. Her vocal performance is full of virtuosic tone and control, with a physicality that emphasizes the body as a whole as an instrument. On repeat listenings, I find myself immersed in Héloïse’s deconstruction of language, built in real time — gradually finding a deeper sense of understanding in its urgent, compounding form.
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Zachary Woolfe, Times classical music editor
We listen as a woman thinks aloud, her voice floating through the dull pain caused by an unfaithful husband and her memories of happier times. It is a sad aria, but not a heavy one; especially as sung, with perfect poise, by Kiri Te Kanawa, the Countess hovers like a creamy cloud at a bit of distance from her feelings, considering and narrating them. Then a thought occurs to her, and builds in energy: She will try to change the man who has hurt her. Not usually a good idea, but (spoiler alert) at the very end of the opera she will achieve it — at least for the moment — in a sequence of heart-filling grace.
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Seth Colter Walls, Times writer
Teresa Stratas’s skills — both technical and dramatic — made a fan out of Lotte Lenya, Kurt Weill’s widow and his most authoritative early interpreter. Lenya gave Ms. Stratas previously unpublished song scores, some of which found their way onto the younger soprano’s albums on the Nonesuch label. “Stratas Sings Weill” opens with the tune “I’m a Stranger Here Myself.” It’s not one of the rarities, but it shows why Lenya trusted Ms. Stratas with the catalog. Ms. Stratas deploys high-flown notes while also donning cabaret guises; observe her droll timing while enunciating “murmur,” and the skin-tingling vibrato she lavishes on the word “fleshly.”
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René Jacobs, conductor
Anna Milder was only 20, but already a genuine tragedienne, when she created one of the most demanding roles ever written for an operatic soprano: Beethoven’s Leonore, who, dressed as a man, rescues her husband from prison. Her bravura aria, mirroring her brave undertaking, is excruciatingly difficult to sing, especially in this earliest of three existing versions. But she is not alone: Three natural horns and a bassoon support her. Milder’s voice must have been light, lyrical and dramatic, all at once — a soprano in the literal sense of the Italian word, the queen (“sovrana”) of voices.
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Deborah Voigt, soprano
This opening aria from Strauss’s “Die Frau Ohne Schatten” is one of the most difficult pieces I have had to sing — if not the most difficult. The Empress is only part human. She’s just awakened, and the singing must be light and ethereal, with a timbre and color that suggests her elusive nature. Then there is an outburst of joy, with leaps up to a high D — not a natural part of a dramatic soprano’s bag of tricks. The music suggests that there is something not quite right here, that a journey is ahead for her. And the part when she realizes she has lost her talisman has to be yet another color: less shimmery, with weight and questioning. All in about three and a half minutes.
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Karen Slack, soprano
Sung by the incomparable soprano Montserrat Caballé, this is one of my favorite moments in this amazing score and one of the most beautiful moments in opera. Norma gloriously pleads with her father to have mercy on her children and take them into his care. Caballé’s impeccable phrasing, melting piano high notes and voluptuous tones are a showcase of the magic of the human voice and a perfect short but sweet introduction to opera.
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David Allen, Times writer
Isolde wakes. She sees Tristan dead, but as if he were glowing, as if his heart were swelling, as if breath were wafting from his lips. “Freunde! Seht!” — “Friends! Look!” Do you not see it? she asks. She hears a song, as if she catches the surging, searching orchestra we in the audience are hearing. But she hears it coming from within Tristan — a sound drawing her in, too. Are these echoes? Are these waves? Are these scents? Should she breathe them? Should she hear them? Should she slurp them, dive beneath them? She rides them, dissolving into purest tones as the orchestra floods over her — and she drowns, sinking, transfigured, in highest joy.