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Top 10 Horrifyingly Difficult Opera Arias

Flamehorse . . . Comments

This list is intended to make opera a little more exciting for those who think it is boring. If you’ve never tried to sing an opera aria, try it, and try to make your voice sound like the pros. Not easy. And here for your entertainment are the ten most insanely difficult opera arias ever written. Some you may know, some not. Great care has been exercised in selecting the best possible performances of these songs from Youtube.


The Modern Major-General
The Pirates of Penzance

This aria has been accepted into popular culture, as opposed to most opera. Gilbert and Sullivan made themselves very rich in the realm of comic opera, and their masterpieces are the quintessential English light operas: The Pirates of Penzance, H. M. S. Pinafore, The Mikado, The Yeomen of the Guard and a slew of others. They may not have invented the modern idea of a foppishly gay British Naval officer, but they hoisted him to his pinnacle. The characters aren’t actually homosexual, lest you think this lister considers them so, but they certainly act in hilariously effeminate manners, and none is more legendary than the Modern Major-General.

His famous song comes at the end of Act I, and he informs the titular pirates that he has impossibly expert knowledge on absolutely everything, except that his knowledge is strangely insignificant: Then I can write a washing bill in Babylonic Cuneiform, / And tell you every detail of Caractacus’s uniform.” You don’t write with cuneiform, because it is a pictogrammatic language. Caratacus wore nothing but a loincloth.

The difficulty of this song is not in its range, as is the case with most of these entries, but with the tongue-twisting lyrics and the breakneck speed with which they gallop to the end, and thus, this is referred to as a “patter song.”


Largo al Factotum
Il barbiere di Siviglia

The other legendary patter song, this one even more world-renowned than #10. Gioacchino Rossini had no one in particular in mind to perform the titular character, but this aria requires a fairly high baritone range, and the utmost precision in scales, arpeggi, and pronouncing Italian, especially at the end, with the allegro vivace lyrics, “Bravo bravissimo! / Fortunatissimo per verita!…Pronto prontissimo…” etc.

The phrase “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro!” comes from this aria. Every baritone opera star is expected to master this one, and it’s the measuring rod by which the popular consciousness of opera judges all baritones. [The singer in this clip is Ettore Bastianini – probably the greatest operatic baritone to have ever lived – even more so than Titta Ruffo, in my opinion. His interpretation and clarity in this song is impeccable. You can see a great live performance by Bastianini here which demonstrates his equally great understated acting; in this performance Bastianini was suffering from terminal throat cancer which would kill him two years later. –jfrater].


Großmächtige Prinzessin
Ariadne auf Naxos

Richard Strauss’s operetta is not particularly popular today, which is a real shame. Zerbinetta sings this aria, “High and Mighty Princess,” consoling Ariadne, who is stuck on the isle of Naxos, waiting for Theseus to return. Zerbinetta’s consolation lies in her admonition that Ariadne forget about Theseus and find a new beau. This aria is about 10 minutes long, a very sustained exercise in coloratura technique, but the premiere audience actually hissed after the first act, at the end of which this aria occurs.

Why? Well, the simplest answer is probably that Strauss did not compose operas with obvious arias set apart from the rest of the opera, a la the Italian composers, etc. Strauss was a follower of Richard Wagner, whose work doesn’t have many segments set apart from the rest. And like Wagner, Strauss is an acquired taste. He’s not as easy to enjoy as, say, Rossini. But as with all showpieces of skill, this aria is a highlight to be enjoyed on the edge of your seat.


Martern aller Arten
Die Entführung aus dem Serail

In this early masterpiece from Mozart, Konstanze is captured by pirates and sold into evil Pasha Selim’s harem to be a prostitute. Mozart did not name Konstanze after his wife, as some like to believe. Constanze, the German form of Constance, was a common name back then. The librettist, Christoph Bretzner, named the damsel in distress, but Mozart’s wife thought it was a hilarious honor.

In this aria, Konstanze informs her maid, Blonde, that Selim intends to make love to Konstanze, and if she refuses to consent, he will torture her in all kinds of twisted ways. Mozart was just fantastic, wasn’t he? Because the music is, as it always seems to be, effervescent, full of fun and laughter, lighthearted and supremely entertaining, no matter how many times you listen to it. In terms of difficulty, Mozart wrote the role for Catarina Cavalieri, one of the finest sopranos in history. This aria is loaded with arpeggi, scales and an extreme range for a coloratura soprano.


Di Quella Pira
Il Trovatore

This one brings the house down. Giuseppe Verdi wrote this aria with no regard as to whether tenors could manage the powerful dramatic acting required in it. Manrico’s mother, Azucena, is about to be burned at the stake. When Manrico finds out, he is immediately infuriated and calls all his soldiers together, and the aria is intended to sound more like him shouting in rage than singing. This aria “only” goes up to high C, but it may be the most immortal high C in opera, and the tenor must hit it spot-on, like ringing a bell. The length for which he holds it, and the rich timbre of his voice is what every two-bit opera fan awaits for some 2 and a half hours. The aria can’t sound pinched or thin. The tenor must sound as if he has muscle to spare when he’s finished.


Mes amis, écoutez l’histoire
Le postillon de Lonjumeau

Adolphe Adam did not write this aria for any particular star, but simply made the role one of the highest tenor roles in opera. This aria is in verse form, not the free form arias typically taken in operas. The postillon, or coachman, from Lonjumeau sings to the other guests at an inn, about the history of a coachman, who became king of a tropical island. This aria hits a high D, one full step above high C, at the end, and even superior tenors, like Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, even Caruso, have had great difficulty managing it well. They can hit the note, but can’t quite dwell richly on it as long as they’d like. Nicolai Gedda is a legend at it.


Credeasi, misera
I puritani

Vincenzo Bellini wrote the role of Arturo in this opera for a friend, Giovanni Rubini, the Enrico Caruso of his day. It requires the inordinate extreme of F above high C, and almost every tenor on record, even Luciano Pavarotti, has had to cheat by using his falsetto voice to hit it. Rubini could hit it in full chest voice, and once did so with such power that he broke his collarbone. Not to mention that it occurs in nearly the last scene, after some 2 and a half hours of singing.


Ha, wie will ich triumphieren
Die Entführung aus dem Serail

By far the lowest and most impossibly galloping romp for a basso in all of opera, Mozart wrote this aria as difficult as it is for a friend of his, Ludwig Fischer, who had an extremely expansive basso profondo range. The aria occurs near the beginning of Act 3, when Osmin captures Belmonte and Pedrillo, and intends to have them and their lady lovers tortured to death. It goes down to a low D, two octaves below middle C. The very next note, after holding this low D for several measures, is an octave jump.

The opera is so popular that it has been translated into Italian and Hungarian, among other languages, and the most unbelievable performance of the aria on record belongs to the one and only Ezio Pinza, in Italian, who never learned to read music, but memorized his roles by ear.


Der Hölle Rache
Die Zauberflöte

Possibly the most famous of all operatic arias, because of Mozart’s divine music, and equally because of its unbelievably voracious difficulty: it will swallow the coloratura soprano whole if her practice or concentration lapse for one instant. Popularly called “the Queen of the Night’s aria,” but since the character has more than one aria, it is better referred to by its first few words.

The Queen wants revenge on Sarastro, and gives her daughter, Pamina, a knife, and makes her swear to kill Sarastro on pain of her mother cursing her if she refuses. Does the aria sounds vengeful or malicious? Maybe a little. Mozart must not have had a lot of malice pent up in him. The famously difficult passages sound full of jubilation, happiness, not malice, not hatred, not even anger. But this lister’s amateur analysis of the aria does nothing to detract from its difficulty or impact. The performance in the above clip is absolutely incredible – one of the best ever recorded – the singing begins around 2:10.


Il Dolce Suono
Lucia di Lammermoor

By Gaetano Donizetti. The coloratura soprano role of Lucia has essentially to duel with a flute in the orchestra, in a scene near the end of the opera (after a great deal of coloratura singing), in which she has gone insane and stabbed her brand new husband, Arturo Bucklaw. Donizetti composed this aria with the accompaniment of a glass harmonica specifically required, but a flute is usually used, unfortunately. It is written in F Major, and ends on a high F above high C.

When Lucia is finished, her brother, Enrico, enters and Lucia dies, apparently from grief. After this superhuman feat of bel canto singing, the audience is left wondering if Lucia dropped dead of a stroke from the effort.


As a baritone who worked professionally as an opera singer, I (Jamie Frater) wanted to add an addition to this list. We seldom hear great baritone arias, which is a shame as there are many which are truly stunning and so they often end up not appearing on lists relating to opera. Fortunately, Flamehorse has a broad enough knowledge of opera that that is not true of this list. But the aria that is probably the most difficult for a baritone doesn’t sound that way at all. The aria I am referring to is O Du Mein Holder Abendstern (Song to the Evening Star) from Wagner’s Tannhauser. The aria is difficult on many levels – the first is that it is by Wagner – all Wagner music is difficult for its long lines requiring a mastery of legato – one of the most difficult operatic skills to develop. This aria then adds a slowly creepy line in a very uncomfortable part of the baritone range. It just goes and goes. In my professional career I sang many difficult arias by Verdi but I never reached the level of being able to master any Wagner arias. Do listen to this one right to the end as it is very beautiful.

  • Love the Flamehorse lists. Aways well written & researched. Even though Opera is not my cup of tea, you make it interesting enough to check out the links & vids.

  • Thanks for showing me the “Other” side of oprea. I think I’ll stick to indie and dubstep.

    • Hey

      Make sure you stick it all the way up your ass.

      • rio de janitor

        That’s not particularly nice. Each to his own and the devil take the hindmost.

    • Hardy

      Yeah, why not stick to indie and Dubstep you thick pleb. And don’t forget how you got those scabs on your knuckles.

  • Boo

    We don’t think it’s boring just stupid

  • At work, can’t watch all these. A good read thou

  • Very cool list, Flamehorse (and Jamie). Number 6 was a neat inclusion given that it’s difficulty came from the acting accompanying it more than it’s actual technical requirements (granted, it’s still opera, so I’m not saying it was easy). And I’m glad Natalie Dessay was on here. She is definitely one of my favorite female opera singers.

    I was under the impression that Leonard Bernstein wrote a bass part that went down to a B1, but that might not technically be an operatic piece. Also, it’s surprising to me that a D2 is recognized as the lowest in opera singing, especially considering some of the great oktavists of traditional Russian choirs. Those guys are manly as all get out.

    • Speaking of Natalie Dessay, her rendition of “Air des Clochettes” from Lakme is phenomenal, and that piece may deserve a place on this list as well.

      • Agreed. I was surprised to not see it on the list.

        • FlameHorse

          I was really torn between Air des Clochettes and Modern major general. Between the two, I say they’re about on par. Modern major general jumps all over the place.

  • fliegendeholländer

    Ah, the great Tannhäuser. I watched this opera in Covent Garden last year and it was a life-changing experience. The catharsis was unbelievable.

    My favourite baritone-tenor aria would have to be Puccini’s E Lucevan le Stelle.

    I applaud this list, although I would have liked to have seen O zittre nicht mein lieber sohn. Anyone seen Natalie Dessay singing it on youtube? It has to be one of the most dramatic appearances I’ve ever seen. But I guess I can’t have everything.

    How about a top 10 tenor/bass/baritone arias, and a top 10 mez.sop/sop/alto operas?

  • circlefan

    im not a fan of opera but enjoyed some entries, though i have to admit i didnt read everything thoroughly…

  • fliegendeholländer

    Just remembered, how can anyone miss Bernstein’s Glitter and be Gay in a list like this? If Sullivan can be included so can Bernstein.

    • NeonSquid

      Definitely seconding that suggestion.

  • Nils

    Great list!

    I like how you give not only context, but also an explaination of what’s awesome about those examples, as well as very useful info on the performance/performer you chose.

    My classical playlist is very grateful.

  • Great list. Glad to see some of my favorite opera singers linked here too. :)

    Diana Damrau is indeed the best Queen of the Night! Gives me chills.

    For those who may have noticed, the song in #1 (Il Dolce Suono) was featured in the movie The Fifth Element in the Diva performance scene.

  • MarcelF

    Diana Damrau rocks! What a magnificent evil presence!

  • Florence Foster Jenkins

    Pssssh. I sang all of these perfectly.

    • Cosme McMoon

      Yes you did, ma’am.

  • manuel

    Something I’m not really in to but greatlist not boring to read at all! Well done!

  • HJRO

    Number 10 is only showing the site address not the actually video

  • Rex
    • Rex
      • OMG That’s just incredibly mind-blowing!

    • Kelli

      Son qual nave is truly fantastic, however I agree with Rex – you can’t really count “Il Castrato” the film for it, since that was a mix of 2000 studio edits to mix a tenor and a soprano to create a castrato.

  • Sjoera

    Diana Damrau is the best Queen of the Night ever, her performance gives me shivers every time.

  • oouchan

    I like opera, but not all of it. Most of these I’ve not heard of before and I liked them, surprisingly. Wondering if Jamie has performed any of these?

    Cool list.

  • Johan

    Not that hard of one, but still felt I needed to share it…
    Deh Vieni Alla Finestra

    • FlameHorse

      Ramey is the freakin man! Thanks for this.

  • mehmeh

    wow. great to see something out of the ordinary on Listverse. thumbs up!

  • FlameHorse

    I totally forgot that Jamie is a pro opera singer when I wrote this. Put my head in the lion’s mouth, as it were. Anyway, I’m glad I didn’t make a complete doofus of myself in his presence. I didn’t include Song of the Evening Star because I made the same mistake Jafe mentioned in the entry: it sounds easy! I’m a basso, so I don’t even bother with it. It goes too high.

    Entry 3 was the inspiration for this list.

    I’d never even heard of Bastianini, and I spent an hour on YT perusing all the recordings of #9 that I could find. I expected Ruffo would be the best, but Bastianini is outstanding!

  • dotmatrix

    I really doubt that G & S were referring to OCR programming when writing “Pirates.” Cuneiform is an early heiroglyphic-type system of writing; five seconds with Google would have told you that.

  • noomnoom

    Where’s the bonus of Jamie singing? I want to hear it!

  • Emily

    Fantastic! Thank you!

  • Chad

    Your comment is both boring and stupid.

  • qarstala

    As a child I had this weird need to become an opera singer. I had the voice for it but when I turned 7, I had to have surgery that affected my lungs quite a bit. Opera is one of the most underrated forms of art out there. It certainly isn’t boring, and will always be beautiful. It is also extremely challenging which should always be remembered when listening to it.

  • bigski

    not much on opera but these were kinda cool mr horse….

  • Mathilda

    Great list! I love opera, but cannot sing at all so I had no idea which arias were more difficult than others. Very interesting…

  • MOR

    How can you post an unbelievable performance like number 2 without the singer[s name? Who? Who? Who? Who? This is the firsst time I’ve ever heard this aria with no audible mistakes in intonation.

  • Gully

    A wonderful informative list. The wonder of the human voice always amazes me. I have always felt that Mozart’s Seraglio included the most complex arias of all, but enjoyed listening to all the others on the list as well.

  • fendabenda

    Very interesting list, although I’m not an expert on classical music or opera in general, I’m more into rock’n’roll and blues. But I loved especially #3 and #2. I also remember #9 (Largo al Factotum) from a hilarious cartoon where the Big Bad Wolf gets hold of a magical wand and keeps changing the appearance of an opera singer into various ridiculous shapes during a live concert. I’m sorry, I don’t remember what it was called, but I think it was one of Tex Avery’s cartoons on MGM.
    Oh, wait a sec, I found it online: Magical Maestro (I hope this link works):

  • bloomfever2002

    Wasn’t number 1 sang in The Fifth Element? But to a different “beat”. LOL

    • Cierra

      Yeah, it was, but it was technically altered. It’s awesome though, I have it on my iPod.

  • MattU

    Where is “Por mon ame” from La Fille du Regiment? Such an incredible difficult tenor aria completely left off of the list. Otherwise, great list sir!!

    • Caitlin

      I agree!!

  • Trish

    Great list!!! No.2 was…..amazing, my jaw dropped! I wonder if a list of insanely hard music theatre songs is called for! (probably will get a few annoyed people for that :) ) Noticed the mezzo’s were missing tho – being one myself, i would have loved to have seen one.

  • kokopelli1000

    Oh my god.
    I just found out today that next year’s school musical (opera, I suppose) is Pirates of Penzance. SO EXCITED, and so glad “Modern Major-General” is on this list. I can’t wait. Quite a change from, this year’s: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

  • Liz

    Since there are no mezzo arias on the list, may I suggest “Parto, parto” from Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito:”

    And “Una voce poco fa” from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia:

    Both sung by Cecilia Bartoli, naturally.

    • l’enfant méchant


  • Sardondi

    This is what the internet wishes it was. Excellent.

  • Isabel

    You’re a professional Opera Singer, Jamie? That startled me way more than you could possibly imagine. Haha. But it’s actually really cool. I’m working towards being a professional (Dramatic) Soprano myself.

    Anyway, love this list. It’d be cool to see a list focusing just on Pre-Aria Recitatives. :)

  • l’enfant méchant

    This is definitely one of my favourite lists!! Could have easily made it twice as long, haha. Thank you, Falmehorse!!

  • Gabriel

    Beautiful. A great way to end my day!

  • Interesting post and keep it up

  • Cornelia

    Awesome list. Kind of surprising to see any Gilbert and Sullivan on here, but it totally makes sense now that I think about it. :P

  • Meg

    I think my vocal cords broke just by listening to these XD. Very informative list!

  • No. 2 was phenominal. I would gladly pay to hear that sort of performance live.

  • Name

    Enter your comment here.

  • Name

    Not really interested in opera but this list was quite interesting

  • CreamK

    I have to say, as a music enthusiast, i still find opera more closely related to sports than music. It has the same kind of commitment to accomplish huge feats and records just because they are hard, not because they are a performance of arts. It just sounds horrible but i appreciate it’s contribution to music. Not every form of music is intented to be listen rather than to hone specific skills or to represent radical ideas. I mean, who really loves John Gages stuff? As a theory it’s great but as a performance they really suck. The same goes here, the range and volume which these singers can do for hours on end is amazing but 99% of opera is total bs..

  • CSVT

    When I read ‘opera list’, I thought I will be bored to death. Then, I checked number 2. WOW. Thank you listverse for making me appreciate opera a bit more. haha

  • The Other Darren

    I remember #1 from the fifth element…lol not into opera but i respect the human voice as the most difficult instrument to master

  • Carra 23

    No ‘Nessun Dorma’? Probably not difficult in complexity or length – but amazingly difficult in regard to “getting it right”
    Another good list ‘horse

  • PR

    It was beautiful. I wish I was familiar with opera as much as I like to stop and listen to it.

  • Hans

    The jump from the Low D in “Ha wie will ich triumphiren” is two octaves actually! It’s a BEAST.

  • Roxanne

    The Modern Major-General always makes me think this the after-credits gem from ReBoot:

    You won’t regret watching that XD

  • Kelli

    Speaking as a coloratura (professional) who sings at least four of the roles on this list (Zerbinetta, Lucia, the Queen, and Konstanze), fantastic list. The only difference for me would probably be the inclusion of Air des Clochettes (the Bell Song). I agree highly with JFrater on the O du Mein Holder Abendstern, and would like to humbly submit to him, as a baritone, the entire role of Don Giovanni. :P

  • RAt

    in Der Hölle Rache are is the lady playing the mother from England or something?

  • Kelli

    Also for flamehorse….brilliant list, thanks a mill…however…I would like to humbly suggest that for Zerbinetta (#8) you should have used Riry Grist or Rita Streich. Obviously much less well know than Dessay, but their interpretations have been heralded as two of the greatest ever.

  • Great list. The piece in #2 gave me chills. Thanks!

  • Absintheus

    I still think “Agitata da due venti” sung by Cecilia Bartoli deserves a place here. The

  • Absintheus

    I still think “Agitata da due venti” sung by Cecilia Bartoli deserves a place here. The mezzo coloratura technique here is hard to capture and master. I’m a counter tenor and baroque music for us is VERY challenging.

  • Maelini

    I’m a trained Opera singer..Couple years ago I was in La fille du regiment.Il dolce suono is one of my all time favorites to sing.Love it SO much.

  • Maelini

    Oh and also..I think “Ah Mes Amis!” at least deserves an honorable mention.Those high C’s!

  • Luisa

    Another Cecilia bartoli perfect performance, from Vivaldi’s La Griselda:

  • Snowflake

    I’ve enjoyed many diverse lists on listverse, but none has made me cry! Thank-you, Flamehorse, and Jamie.

    Ezio Pinzo at number 3 was delicious. Just…lovely!

  • admonfr

    Some superb singing but is seems to me there are some missing items
    for example

    “Voi che sapete” (Cherubino, Nozze de Figaro”
    “Una Voce poco fa” (Rosina (Il Barbieri di Seviglia)

  • I don’t know the title of the Aria, but the tenor Aria from “La Fille Du Regiment” with the High C’s goes No.1 on my list. Rossini’s “Facto al Factotum” gets honorable mention from me.

  • I would have mentioned the Immolation Scene from Wagner’s “Gotterdammerung” (which is the fourth opera of “The Ring Of The Nibelung”), just based on its length. A prescribed score of that Aria is between 15-20 minutes

  • Great list Flamehorse. My Grandfather was an opera basso and was very close friends with the great Canadian tenor Raoul Jobin. My Grandfather specialized in Wagner (particularly “The Flying Dutchman) and sang Beethoven as well (9th symphony, “Ode To Joy). He would always tell me as to how great the bass voice of Feodor Chaliapin was and that he goes down in history as The Greatest “Boris Godunov” ever !! As far as bass or baritone, I do enjoy the baritone, tenor duet “La Fond du Temple Saint” from Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” also Boris Godunov and the “Mad scene” and the suicide scene from the opera “L’Arlesiana”

  • Emma

    “The Pirates of Penzance” is not an opera, it is an operetta because of all the speaking in it. I am very glad you included both Martern aller Artern and Der Holle Rache in this list though.

  • Le Roi Philippe

    The mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor (“Il dolce suono”) actually ends in Eb Major, not F Major, thus making the final note an Eb6, not an F6. That’s not to say that it’s not deserving of its place on this list–it’s only to correct the factual mistake in the narrative.

  • Emma

    Modern Major General is not an aria. It’s a patter song. From an operetta.

  • Absolutely love this list. I don’t think it’s fair, though, to say that some of the greatest singers ever didn’t quite manage them, or had to cheat, as it just means some of this music wasn’t in their vocal range. Just because they were phenomenal performers and singers, doesn’t mean they can hit every note in every fach!

    That said, great shout-outs to Osmin and Wolfram, as they get easily forgotten in all the crowd of ridiculous tenor and soprano roles!


  • May I also add that many people have mentioned ‘Ah, Mes amis’ from La Fille du Regiment as a difficult aria, but people seem to forget that it’s not ACTUALLY a difficult piece of music if a tenor has an easy top C. Tonio’s other aria is far more difficult musically!

  • dysfunctional-harmony

    Here’s another aria so difficult as to be prohibitive, this one from Stravinsky’s gorgeous Cantata:

  • Andy

    God love her, but Maria sounds swallowed on Il Dolce Suono. She tended to sound like there was cotton in her mouth at the beginning of her career.

  • Alice

    Thank you for making this list! I’ve been a fan of opera for quite a while, though I’ve never been aware of these being the hardest songs…

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  • ngh

    Great list, I wish there were some contraltos on there. But I don’t blame anyone if they can’t find an aria that really shows off a contralto’s range.

  • Katherine

    What about Qual guerriero in campo armato? I’ve only seen YouTube videos of three people singing it, and only one who doesn’t do a terrible job. It’s got huge jumps, endless coloratura, and it’s about 9 minutes long. There’s your mezzo aria!

  • Tom Sowell

    Very good list. One aria I have always considered challenging and beautiful is from Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Le Coq d’Or”. It is Queen Shemakha’s “Hymn to the Sun”.