Whether you are an aspiring opera diva or the next Broadway baby, there are popular songs and arias you probably already have in your bag of tricks. Gerswhin's “Summertime,” or Pucinni's “O mio babbino caro,” for instance, are always crowd-pleasers. Dear divas, one cannot live on opera alone, and there is a world of music to discover off-stage. Many opera singers are employed as staff soloists and choristers in churches around the world. Here is a brief look at ten of the most requested sacred songs and arias every soprano needs to know for weddings and special occasions during the church year.
"Alleluia" - Mozart
This virtuoso aria is a coloratura showpiece from the solo motet for soprano and orchestra: Mozart's Exsultate, jubilate K. 165. If you are a coloratura soprano and haven’t learned the entire motet, I encourage you take on this challenge. It is a stunning and rewarding piece of music that was originally composed for a castrato. The "Alleluia" is the third and final movement of the work and also the most famous. It is often requested for Easter services and wedding ceremonies, and makes a lovely opener for recitals.
"Ave Maria" - Schubert
Schubert’s “Ave Maria” is from the song cycle The Lady of the Lake op. 52. It is one of the most famous melodies ever written. The Ave Maria is a staple of the art song repertoire, and it is has been modifed as a setting of the Roman Catholic Prayer. It is often requested for weddings, memorials, and special church services like Christmas Eve. I’ve sung it in the original German for recitals, in Latin for sacred services, and even in English for Protestant services. Everyone knows and loves this song, so time spent refining it will not go unrewarded.
"Give Me Jesus" - Traditional Spiritual
If you are a working church singer you need to have a solid collection of hymns and spirituals to offer. “Give Me Jesus” was one my most requested songs as a church soloist. I have sung this particular piece during Lent, Good Friday services, and for memorial services as well. Moses Hogan has beautiful arrangements of spirituals for high and low voices. His arrangements, The Deep River Collection, is one of my treasured albums.
"The Holy City" - Stephen Adams
This song is often most associated with Palm Sunday, but it is such a beloved and requested tune, I have even been asked to sing it for memorials. Aside from the Handel oratorio arias, it is the most famous of all sacred songs in English. It was written by Michael Maybrick who composed under the pseudonym Stephen Adams. It is published in a variety of keys, and has been covered by pop crossover artists as well as legendary opera singers.
“I Know My Redeemer Liveth,” - Handel’s Messiah
This exquisite aria from Handel’s Messiah (Part III) is an obvious choice for Easter services, and it is an excellent piece to offer if you are not a coloratura. I personally think it sounds lovely in lyric voices. Its long sustained lines require excellent control, and when sung skillfully, it is one of the most beautiful moments of the oratorio.
“My heart ever faithful" (Mein glaubiges Herze) - Bach
No discussion of sacred music would be complete without Bach. J.S. Bach composed over two-hundred sacred cantatas exclusively for church use, so picking a favorite or most popular is near impossible. “Mein glaubiges Herze,” from cantata number 68 is good to know because the text lends itself well to almost year-round use. It is often requested for weddings and special celebrations. It is a good introduction to Bach’s style, and is usually one of the first Bach arias assigned to young coloratura sopranos.
"O Divine Redeemer" (Repentir) - Gounod
This is probably one of my favorite songs to sing whether in a church service or for a memorial. This sacred aria by Gounod is one of his most exquisite compositions for voice, and it is published in a variety of keys. Gounod wrote both the lyrics and the music to this piece just a few years before his death. It is a dramatic work requiring extreme breath control and dynamic range, and it is quasi-operatic in nature. It can be quite a showpiece for the lyric voice, and it is one of the most memorable and moving sacred arias to have in your repertoire.
"O Holy Night" (Cantique de Noël) - Adolph Adam
This is the most famous Christmas carol on Earth, and is almost always included on Christmas Eve services. It was orgianlly composed in French, so it is also helpful and impressive to know in French as well. If any melody has the power to stop time and bring peace, this is the one. This song has an amazing history: On Christmas Eve, during the Franco-Prussion war, it is believed that a soldier sat in the trenches singing "O Holy Night." His enemy heard him across the battle lines, and they agreed on a truce. For one night on the battlefield that Christmas Eve of 1871, all was quiet on the front. Since its premier in 1847 on a Christmas Eve Mass, this song has been the highlight of many Christmas Eve services around the world. An opera singer premiered the piece, but this beloved song has been covered by scores of popular artists as well.
"Pie jesu" - Faure
Taken from Gabriel Faure’s Requiem in D minor, this is the most famous of all the settings of the simple text: Lord Jesus, grant them eternal rest. This soprano aria is often requested for funeral and memorial services as well as All-Saint’s Day services. It is sung by a variety of fachs, from the young treble to full lyric sopranos.
"Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion" - Handel’s Messiah
I have won more work with this aria than any other in my repertoire. If you don’t know this aria, you should! This Baroque coloratura soprano aria in ABA’ form is lovely for Advent, weddings, and as an opener on recitals. Additionally, at least one church in every major city of the U.S. hosts a Messiah performance every year during in the weeks leading up to Christmas. If you are a coloratura, it is good to learn the entire role at some point. Have fun ornamenting the da capo section to really make this famous and beloved aria your own. Advent is just around the corner, so you might want to start brushing up those melismas now.