Best Tenors: Who Are The Greatest Tenors Of All Time?

Read our Top 10 guide and listen to the best tenors that ever lived including Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and Enrico Caruso.

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Pavarotti black and white photo
Luciano Pavarotti Photo: Decca/Sacha Gusov

Who are the greatest tenors that ever lived? Trying to pin down any Top Ten list is bound to cause disagreement – and so it should – but we’ve compiled our list of the greatest tenors of all time. Read our guide and listen to the best tenors including Pavarotti, Domingo and Caruso.

Listen to the Best of Pavarotti on Apple Music and Spotify and read our guide to the best tenors below.

Best Tenors – Top 10 Greatest Tenors

Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

This Italian tenor Enrico Caruso was the first star of the gramophone, and the first recording artist to sell a million copies. It’s no surprise. His sensational voice, impressive power, and art-meets-heart artistry are still a benchmark for all subsequent tenors. He premiered roles for all the major composers of his day, including Puccini. He was also fond of practical jokes, and, as the story goes, once slipped a hot sausage into the palm of diva-ish soprano Nellie Melba during the aria ‘Che gelida manina’ (‘Your tiny hand is frozen’) in La Bohème. She didn’t find it funny.

Lauritz Melchior (1890-1973)

The Danish singer Lauritz Melchior was a tenor who began his career as a baritone, but as soon as he retrained as a tenor, he skipped over the middling-heavy roles and instantly became the most admired Heldentenor (the kind of power-blasting tenor who can sing Wagner) of the last century. His voice had a dark resonance with clarion top notes and – best of all – was unbelievably huge and tireless. His career was at its peak between the 1920s and 1940s, but he was still singing successfully until his 70th birthday. He also had a great sense of fun, and appeared in five Hollywood musicals.

Beniamino Gigli (1890-1957)

Upon the death of Enrico Caruso in 1921, Beniamino Gigli was hailed as his obvious successor and he excelled in many of the same roles at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. His beautifully sweet voice was smaller than Caruso’s, but had a similar ‘spin’ which allowed it to ring out into an auditorium with thrilling power. (He understandably disliked the term ‘Caruso Secondo’, preferring the moniker ‘Gigli Primo’). He made over 20 films, and continued to sing into his sixties.

Jussi Björling (1911-60)

Pavarotti once said that he admired the voice of Swedish tenor Jussi Björling more than any other, and modelled his performances on Björling’s recordings. It’s not hard to see why. Björling’s sound was pure and clear, and swelled out magically the higher and louder it rose. He sang mainly lyric roles (these are roles which are not too heavy, and not too fast) such as Rodolfo (La Bohème), Roméo (Roméo et Juliette), and Gounod’s Faust, and made them his own. His life was cut tragically short by alcoholism.

Nicolai Gedda (1925 – 2017)

Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda was the pre-eminent Mozart singer of the last century, famed for his beautifully polished and even sound, his exquisite phrasing, and his musical intelligence. After he auditioned for the famous record producer Walter Legge in 1948, Legge made him the unofficial ‘house tenor’ of EMI, and he recorded hundreds of discs for the company including some heavier roles that were not ideally suited to him. Fluent in Swedish, Russian, German, French, English, Italian, Spanish and Latin he sang operas and recitals comfortably in all of these tongues. He was still recording roles at the age of 78.

Jon Vickers (1926 – 2015)

The Canadian tenor Jon Vickers was blessed not only with a huge voice and thrilling sound but with great acting skills too, and his performances as Tristan have become the stuff of legend. He also became firmly associated with the difficult role of Aeneas in Berlioz’s Les Troyens (The Trojans) when the opera was finally given a full staging 1957. His Peter Grimes is still the benchmark for performers today. Because his career flourished during the golden age of stereo recording, many of his most famous roles are on disc, and they are still highly prized.

Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007)

With his instantly recognisable silvery tone, easy top notes and vocal agility, Luciano Pavarotti was an ideal candidate for lighter roles and he became the most commercially successful tenor of the 20th century. With canny management, he also became a household name outside the realms of opera, and his ‘Three Tenors’ concert with Plácido Domingo and José Carreras was one of the most significant phenomena in recent classical music history. Alas, his ongoing battle with his waistline did nothing to dispel the preconception that all opera singers are overweight.

Plácido Domingo (b.1941)

Plácido Domingo is the most versatile tenor, with the longest and most wide-ranging career in history. He started as a baritone in operetta, moved up to sing light tenor parts, then heavier roles, and then even added Wagner to his repertoire. He now sings major baritone roles again, conducts operas, and administrates an opera company. He’s also a star in lighter music and crossover. A phenomenon, and a legend in his own lifetime.

Jonas Kaufmann (b.1969)

Combining the holy trinity of brooding good looks, charismatic stage presence and a powerful and versatile voice, German tenor Jonas Kaufmann seems to be the prince-in-waiting to Domingo’s Superman. He is superb in Italian opera, the almost baritonal heft to his voice means he is also outstanding in Wagner, and has been described as “the most important, versatile tenor of his generation” by The New York Times.

Juan Diego Flórez (b.1973)

There has never been a recorded tenor with such a secure high sound, glistening timbre or fearsome talent for rat-a-tat coloratura as the Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez. These gifts have even had an effect on lyric repertoire, and now operas that were previously considered too difficult to sing have come back onto stages again. It hasn’t hurt his career that he’s slim and pleasingly photogenic.

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19 Comments

19 Comments

  1. B C Pick

    September 25, 2019 at 2:19 pm

    what about jose carreras mario lanza and many more?

    • Eamon Gaffney

      June 6, 2020 at 12:36 am

      I agree, and also John MaCormack probably the finest tenor of them all was not mentioned
      Eamon Gaffney

    • Ernest Pinto

      September 18, 2020 at 6:58 pm

      I believe Mario Lanza was the best of the best bar none

      • Verna Aslin

        October 19, 2020 at 7:30 am

        YES! And he was the inspiration for Pavarotti, Carreras and Domingo, as they freely acknowledged.

      • Tony Flores

        April 3, 2021 at 12:08 am

        Mario Lanza in my opinion and after hearing bits and pieces of many tenors Lanza sang with more feeling than the others. I have a good tenor voice at the age of 92!

    • Pjkoko

      January 9, 2021 at 10:45 pm

      There was only one great tenor and that was Caruso. The rest had faults although they were good musicians.

    • Clyde Dekle

      January 28, 2021 at 8:28 pm

      Best is of course subjective however, to approach from a little different prospective, I respectfully suggest that one can find no better tenor than Enzo de Muro Lomanto.For starters try 1929 Lucia,and also prepare to hear the “ none better” soprano and baritone, and orchestral rendition ever! Really remarkable!

    • Clyde Dekle

      March 13, 2021 at 5:27 pm

      Interesting to note top choices, pretty good, better than most. For a little different perspective rather than usual “competitive” ratings, find me a tenor better than Enzo de Muro Lomanto-start with his 1929 (34?)Lucia, and for even more interest find a better soprano or baritone than in that performance- not likely you can.While you are at it, could there be a better operatic orchestra, or conductor?Really a remarkable production with the best of the best.
      Where are they now?

  2. MAX PHILLIP LEVINE

    October 22, 2019 at 10:38 pm

    SO MANY OTHERS WERE /EQUAL – DEL MONACO OTHELLO, FRANCO CORELLI PAGLIACCI CARLO BERGONZI LYRIC ARTISTRY ALFREDO KRAUSE ELEGANT YOUR LIST ACCENTUATES BROAD CAPABILITIES SUCH AS DOMINGO AND GEDDA /BUT THERE ARE RIVETING PERFORMANCES BY OTHERS NEVER TO BE FORGOTTEN

  3. steve galantiere

    November 17, 2019 at 3:58 pm

    Not accurate– all this is just opinion surely, even mine is but there are some mistakes above here— Pav’s fav. Voice was not Jussi Bjorling’s, ( I met and asked PAV. THAT IN 1981) . yes he liked JB’s technique, perhaps best but his fav. “voice” was Young Di Stefano not Bjorling’s he was his favorite tenor– yes he was diplomatic when in Sweden and said about JB I’m only human but read Pav’s book about his fav. voice, Di Stefano, also other great singers and voices among them Tucker, Del Monaco and and Corelli should be here, Gedda great but limited too more lyric roles as was Florez of course. Tucker the really great spinto in his time, MDM the greatest dramatic, Corelli a king of spinto’s in his time and Di Stefano early –a grat lyric Italian voice that was beautiful, his and Gigli’s of course– but Jussi also and the great Swedish artist of perfection of course. BTW —Alfredo Kraus is spelled this way, no E . Yes Max I agree, also in opera Otello is spelled with no H . Bjorling was basically lyric or later lyric spinto, it was

  4. Amos

    April 1, 2020 at 3:30 am

    you kidding me? Jonas Kaufmann? He is a great baritone. has no business singing tenor; sorry his tenor voice ( which he doesn’t have) is disgusting

  5. Jonathan

    April 20, 2020 at 1:10 pm

    Corelli was always my favourite until I discovered Giuseppe Giacomini on YouTube. Completely blown away, like discovering Birgit Nilsson for the first time, except I was in my late 40s not 20s. Can’t understand how I hadn’t heard of him before but clearly I’m not alone!!

  6. Claus

    April 22, 2020 at 9:55 pm

    Simply no, by far the best and natural tenor voice is Fritz Wunderlich; if there is something like perfection it is Wunderlich singing Mahler song of the earth; why is Kaufmann on that list? More a baritone and I think overrated.

    • Joan

      October 10, 2020 at 11:23 pm

      Totally agreed!! Thanks.

  7. Nelie Lebron-Robles

    June 28, 2020 at 6:57 pm

    You misses Antonio Paoli, the Tenor of Kins and the King of Tenors.

  8. Phil Monty

    August 8, 2020 at 10:32 am

    How could you not mention a Mario Lanza? His voice was perfection.

  9. Geoffrey Riggs

    September 10, 2020 at 1:59 am

    I would say the longest and most wide-ranging tenor career extant on disc would arguably be Jacques Urlus, even though Placido Domingo is plainly a formidable competitor for that title. But Urlus, with a recorded repertoire that encompassed everything from Mozart and Rossini to the French Grand Opera heroes like Jean and Raoul to the Verdi Otello to Tristan and both Siegfrieds to oratorio and Mahler, and with a resiliency that facilitated his continued mastery of heroic parts like Tristan into his 60s, established benchmarks that may be unique.

    Of course, this breadth of achievement is not confined only to Urlus. But Urlus arguably sustained this staggering breadth in repertoire at a combined level of vocal consistency, longevity and continued versatility unmatched in any other career. In this respect, his closest competitors certainly include Domingo, but they also include Jean De Reszke, Francesco Vignas, Ivan Yershov and Leo Slezak. A highly select and ambitious group! I feel respect is owed Vignas, Slezak and Domingo. But on a personal level, the touching humanity I hear especially in De Reszke, Yershov and Urlus moves me more than in the other three.

    So, eccentric as it may seem, I would put aside three undoubtedly versatile artists in this list like Gedda, Domingo, and Kaufmann for De Reszke, Yershov and Urlus instead. As for Italians beyond Caruso and Pavarotti (who both have to be in there), there are times when both Aureliano Pertile and Franco Corelli, despite their inconsistencies, attain a depth of musical expression that surpasses Gigli, in my view. Since Corelli had the more charismatic sound of the two, I would probably retain Corelli and put aside Gigli and Pertile. For lighter rep, much as I admire Florez, the finest lyric tenor for me is also my favorite of all, Richard Tauber. I have no problem with the other five already chosen.

  10. Leon Howard

    May 14, 2021 at 8:46 am

    For me it is Franco Corelli who must be included. But then surely it is the particular repertoire various tenors excel at that may have significant bearing on this short list. And do not forget the audio tech which can be so influential.

  11. Donna Marie

    June 2, 2021 at 4:38 am

    Mario Lanza played Caruso. He was perfection! He was such a awesome tenor. He had a sweetness to his voice. It’s was a darn shame he got sucked into that horrible Hollywood scene! Ruined everything. Sad

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