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Opera in the Pop World

Posted on: July 10, 2024

Being an opera singer may seem like a daunting task, but that hasn’t stopped some of the biggest pop stars from dipping their toes into the art form. Whether it be singing covers of popular arias or implementing operatic vocals in their songs, these singers have shown that opera is still alive and well. If you’re an old or a new opera fan we’re sure you’ll find some surprises on this list.  

Freddie Mercury

What better way to start than with one of the debatably greatest lead singers of all time. The front man for Queen was never shy about his love for opera. A Night at the Opera is perhaps the band’s most popular album, and its iconic hit “Bohemian Rhapsody” is essentially a glam-rock mini-opera, including a direct reference to “Figaro,” with Mercury showing off his incredible vocal chops. “Bohemian Rhapsody” remains one of the most popular songs of all time with it having over 2 billion streams on Spotify alone.  

Freddie Mercury would dip his toes into opera again for the album Barcelona, featuring superstar Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé. The album came to be after Caballé, a Barcelona native, approached Mercury to collaborate on a theme for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. She admired Mercury’s vocals and writing talents and he was a longtime admirer of her artistry. He jumped on the opportunity to work with her, and their collaboration resulted in a fascinating album that contrasts Mercury’s distinct musical style with Caballé’s angelic voice. The leading single “Barcelona” shows this especially well with a swooning orchestra backing the powerful voices of Mercury and Caballé. It’s an album worth a listen for any Queen or opera fan.  

Billie Eilish

Here’s a fun fact: before dropping her breakthrough single “Ocean Eyes,” Billie Eilish performed with LA Opera. That’s right, for our 2013 production of Carmen, Eilish graced our very own stage as part of the LA Children’s Chorus. While her opera journey may have been short, we’re happy to see her career prosper. Here’s a picture of Billie in Carmen, she’s the one behind the sailor suit kid towards the right:

Billie Carmen

Aretha Franklin

In one of the most iconic moments in televised music history, Aretha Franklin performed the famous aria “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot at the 1998 Grammy Awards. Franklin was asked to fill in for tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who was originally meant to perform that night but had fallen ill. Franklin and Pavarotti were good friends, so she was happy to take his place. The decision was so last minute that she had no time to rehearse with the orchestra and conductor beforehand. But for a pro like Franklin, that was no issue, and she delivered a unique and powerful rendition of the beloved aria. With a full orchestra and choir backing her, it’s the inspired fusion of opera and soul that the world didn’t know it needed until that stunning moment. After an eruptive standing ovation, Franklin would then go and present the “Grammy Legend Award” to Pavarotti, stating: “There’s no one more deserving of this honor than you and the entire world is a better place because we are fortunate enough to share it with you.” 

Bebe Rexha

Before releasing hit singles and writing songs for the likes of Eminem, Rihanna and Selena Gomez, Bebe Rexha wanted to be an opera singer. She studied classical music and has shown off her opera chops on multiple occasions, including this viral Instagram video where she sings "O mio babbino" from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. If Bebe ever wants to show more of her opera vocals, our stage is open! 

Beyoncé

Let’s quickly bring up a recent example of a pop singer doing opera. In the song “Daughter” from Cowboy CarterBeyoncé sings the aria “Caro Mio Ben.” This is one of the most frequently sung of all arias from the baroque era, since it’s regularly taught to aspiring classical singers. Beyoncé’s rendition of the aria is absolutely haunting and showcases the remarkable versatility of her voice. She improvises vocal runs and extra notes, which was the norm in the baroque period. This section is both a highlight from the album and a great showcase of a style of opera that many may not have heard before.  

Rhiannon Giddens

If you’ve been keeping up with opera, it should be no surprise why Grammy Award-winning folk musician Rhiannon Giddens is on our list. Giddens was the driving force behind Omar, one of the most successful operas of our time, which we had the pleasure of having on our stage in 2022. With Omar, written in collaboration with composer Michael Abels, Giddens crafted a unique opera experience that tells a story long buried in American history while delivering a spiritually moving emotional journey. But not only can she write opera, but she can sing opera too. She teamed up with composer Francesco Turrisi to perform a gorgeous cover of Monteverdi’s “Si dolce e’l tormento” on their collab album They’re Calling Me Home. A must listen if you haven’t had the chance to hear it yet.  

Whitney Houston

To end this list, we had to include Whitney Houston, who proved time and time again why she’s regarded as one of the greatest vocalists ever. Houston performed “I Loves You, Porgy” from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess at the 1994 American Music Awards. Houston’s version of the song truly makes you feel like it’s the first time you’ve ever heard it, even if you’re quite familiar with the piece. As you’d expect from a vocalist of Houston’s caliber, her voice control is perfect, and her voice is powerful. It wouldn’t be the only time she would show her opera chops. That same year, Houston joined Pavarotti onstage at a concert at Carnegie Hall, and he invited her to sing a verse of “La donna è mobile” from Verdi’s Rigoletto. While the moment was brief, she displayed an astonishingly powerful operatic tone that we’d never heard before from the “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” singer. Truly, if Houston had wanted a career in opera, she would have dominated.  

These instances of opera in pop culture show how universal the art form can still be. With multiple of the world’s biggest stars showing their operatic chops or implementing in in exciting way to their music, it shows the world that opera is still kicking. We’re excited to hear where the art form will go from here and hope that the world keeps its eyes on opera.