Montserrat Caballé: last of the true divas
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Montserrat Caballé, who has died at 85, was a Spanish soprano of enormous stature, physical and vocal, who dominated the world’s opera stages in the years after Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi.
She later formed an endearing musical partnership with Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of the pop group Queen, culminating in their dramatic rendition of the song Barcelona in 1987, which five years later became the unofficial anthem of the city’s Olympics.
A prima donna in every sense of the term, Caballé sang with breathtaking majesty, and never more so than in difficult circumstances – for example, when she replaced a pregnant Marilyn Horne to make a sensational New York debut in a concert performance of Lucrezia Borgia at Carnegie Hall for the American Opera Society in 1965 – but she could also be imperious, difficult and prone to cancellation.
That US debut, unplanned and singing repertoire with which she was not familiar, prompted the front-page headline in The New York Times: “Callas+Tebaldi=Caballé.” Such a declaration might in other circumstances have led to a bitter rift, but Callas, quizzed in the days before her death in 1977 about who was her true successor, said simply: “Only Caballé.”
Similarly, in 1980 Tebaldi unequivocally declared Montserrat Caballé to be the last true prima donna. Likewise, Magda Olivero, the 1930s diva, once said: “We singers should get down on our knees and thank God for a voice like Caballé’s.”
Montserrat Caballé’s skill was in her remarkable breath control and technique, which she attributed to her teacher, Eugenia Kenny. She could take a lengthy and high-pitched passage and control the volume perfectly, causing audiences to erupt in adulation.
She reached the pinnacle of her career, she said, in a performance of Bellini’s Norma in an open-air amphitheatre in Orange, near Avignon in the South of France, in July 1974. Critics, however, preferred her extraordinary rendition of the aria Vissi d’arte from Puccini’s Tosca, in which she could hold the seemingly endless quiet line without taking a breath.
Indeed, Montserrat Caballé had to rely on her talent rather than her tact, which could sometimes be lacking, particularly around conductors, who tended to treat her badly in return. When Silvio Varviso insisted on a cut in Salomé for which the critics held her responsible, she halted the applause at the next performance to announce from the stage that the cut had been the maestro’s doing; Georg Solti sent her a three-word rejection letter after she auditioned for him in Frankfurt; John Pritchard chastised her for turning up at Glyndebourne unprepared; and Herbert von Karajan was notably absent from Vienna when she sang there.
On another occasion the financial director at Bremen Opera refused her a salary advance to pay for urgent medical treatment for her father, who had acute appendicitis. Many years later, when the same financial director was a senior executive at Deutsche Grammophon, his mere presence was sufficient for her to reject an offer from the company in favour of a lesser one from EMI.
Another time she arrived in her dressing room in Philadelphia, where she was singing Maddalena di Coigny in Giordano’s Andrea Chénier with the tenor Franco Corelli, to discover that the lace trimmings had been ripped from her crinoline and her powdered white wig cut into pieces. Suspicion fell on the tenor’s wife, Loretta, and afterwards Montserrat Caballé vowed never to sing the role again.
Extraordinary singer that she was, Montserrat Caballé responded best to the unexpected. Long runs, routine and repetition bored her. And if after a couple of nights of a season she felt that there was no connection with the local audience, she would not hesitate to cancel the remainder of her run. Challenged once over her capricious behaviour, she retorted: “I am not now, nor have I ever been, a diva Montserrat Caballé ... I am only Montserrat.”
Nurse by day, singer by night
Maria de Montserrat Vivian Concepción Caballé i Folch was born in Barcelona on April 12 1933 to a farming family. She was brought up at the height of the Spanish Civil War, but recalled a happy, if impoverished, childhood, surrounded by recordings of Miguel Fleta and with regular visits to the nearby Gran Teatro de Liceu.
Nevertheless, her father insisted on a “proper” career for his daughter, so she trained as a nurse by day and as a singer by night. Her musical studies were funded by a wealthy couple, the Bertrands, from Barcelona, on condition that when she was successful she should not forget her home town. Montserrat Caballé honoured that pledge, returning to the Liceu for many years, and often at the expense of more lucrative work elsewhere.
After graduating, she suffered a dispiriting audition tour around Italian opera houses (one agent suggesting that she should return home, marry and have babies), but was invited to join Basel Opera in Switzerland in 1956. She began her career there with a performance of Mimi in Puccini’s La Bohème, building up her repertoire over the next three years (First Lady in Die Zauberflöte, Marzelline in Fidelio, and the title roles in Aïda and Tosca) but remaining known only to the cognoscenti; similarly, an appearance as the First Flower Maiden in Wagner’s Parsifal at La Scala, Milan, in 1960 made little impact, with the Italians still basking in the glories of the old divas.
However, a performance of Salomé at about the same time brought her the Gold Laurel award (voted for by the audience) from the Vienna Staatsoper. She also made a point of experiencing the work of other singers (Birgit Nilsson singing Tosca in Zurich, Elisabeth Grümmer singing Donna Anna in Don Giovanni in Berlin), travelling around Europe by sleeper train to save money. “It was a terrible time for the body, for the mind, but for the soul it was something special,” she once recalled.
In 1962, after a miserable three years at Bremen Opera in the freezing climes of northern Europe – which included singing the title role in the German premiere of Dvorák’s last opera, Armida – she was ready to return home. She gave a sensational Spanish debut in January that year at the Liceu Barcelona singing Strauss’s Arabella. Three years later she made her triumphant New York debut replacing Marilyn Horne – although only after Joan Sutherland and Leyla Gençer had first been approached and had declined.
According to legend, Montserrat Caballé gave such a remarkable performance in the first half that seats that had been empty before the interval mysteriously filled up for the second half: the general manager of RCA Records summoned his A&R manager, and Rudolf Bing’s assistant telephoned him and urged him to cross the city to hear her. Bing immediately engaged her at the Metropolitan Opera but, despite the overnight stardom, she refused a 10-year contract there because it would have meant uprooting her entire family – husband, children and parents – and moving them to the US.
Montserrat Caballé’s first British appearance was as the Marschallin in Glyndebourne Opera’s Der Rosenkavalier of 1965. To the conductor John Pritchard’s great irritation she arrived a week late and not knowing a single note of her part. However, the reviews were generous, unlike those for her better-prepared Countess in The Marriage of Figaro at the Sussex opera house later in the season, when she was afflicted by hay fever.
Because of its summer season she never returned to Glyndebourne other than for a gala concert in 1992 to mark the closure of the old house. Her Royal Opera debut was in 1972 when she sang Violetta in La Traviata, and she appeared regularly at Covent Garden over the next two decades, bowing out in 1992 as Madama Cortese (in Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims) directed by John Cox and conducted by Carlo Rizzo. Yet even this ended in controversy when the company’s management chastised her for endangering health and safety by jokingly throwing an apple at the conductor.
Although Montserrat Caballé was regarded in the 1970s and 1980s as something of an unreliable diva, this was not entirely of her own doing: she had operations on her knee in 1969, for cancer in 1974, for kidney disease in 1976 and 1982, and in 1983 she suffered a heart attack. She also had a glandular disorder which meant that from being a slender teenager she ballooned to a statuesque figure. Always, however, she was back on stage as soon as her surgeons would permit.
As well as the traditional roles, she was willing to explore newer repertoire, notably appearing as Queen Isabella in the premiere of the Spanish-American composer Leonardo Balada’s Cristóbal Colón in 1986, marking the 500th anniversary of Christopher Colombus’s voyage of discovery to the New World.
As she approached her sixties Montserrat Caballé’s appeal began to extend beyond the opera stage. In 1985 the pop star Freddie Mercury confounded a Spanish television interviewer after a Queen concert in Barcelona by declaring that the diva was the person whom he most longed to meet; two years later she dedicated an encore at the end of a recital at Covent Garden to the flamboyant pop singer, who promptly stood up and took a bow. By this time, unknown to the outside world, the two had been collaborating in the recording studio. The end result was the now-famous album Barcelona. But by the time of the 1992 Olympic Games in the city Mercury was dead: for many years thereafter Montserrat Caballé wore a red Aids support ribbon during her performances.
She sang to a television audience of about 400 million people at the opening of the those Games, for which she was joined by the tenors Plácido Domingo and José Carreras; four years later, back in Britain, she sang to a somewhat lesser number at the opening of the European Youth Olympics in Bath and for the fourth year running at the Hampton Court Festival.
Only rarely did Montserrat Caballé give lessons or public masterclasses, and when she did she would start with a diagram of the human anatomy and a biology lecture. Once the students began to sing she was relentless in her criticism, reducing more than one hitherto promising starlet to tears in public.
Some critics felt that there was something of a disagreeable side to her relationship with the Gran Teatro del Liceu in Barcelona. While on the one hand she was generous with her time there, on the other hand the power of the Caballé family in the 1980s (her brother had become a hugely influential impresario in the city on the back of her reputation) was considered by many non-favoured singers to be damaging to their prospects.
The situation erupted in an unseemly and very public row and, at the end of 1989, Montserrat Caballé withdrew from any future involvement there. However, all such bitterness was put aside on January 31 1994, when the Liceu was consumed by fire. United in grief with her former adversaries, Montserrat Caballé went the next day to the smouldering shell of the venue – it was where she had spent her formative years in the audience and had later given many of her greatest performances. From the twisted ruins of a gutted box she sang the melancholic Catalan folk song El Cant dels Ocells (“Song of the Birds”).
On one occasion her nursing training came into use on a flight from the US to Paris when a call came over the public address system for medical help after a passenger had collapsed. She was able to stabilise his condition and speak to a doctor on the ground. The following day she received a large bouquet in her dressing room at the Paris Opera from the patient who, as she recalled, was “very touched to discover that his ‘nurse’ was in fact a prima donna”.
The publication of an exhaustive biography, Montserrat Caballé: Prima Donna, in 1995, by Robert Pullen and Stephen Taylor, embellished the great diva’s reputation, playing down her tantrums and seeking to explain her unpredictable behaviour.
For Montserrat Caballé home was always in Catalonia; she lived in the mountains a few kilometres from Barcelona, where she was also an accomplished painter. She established a foundation for impoverished children from the city and gave generously of her time and services in Spain. She also served as a Unesco goodwill ambassador.
In 2012 misfortune stuck again when she suffered a stroke and broke an arm while preparing for a charity concert in Ekaterinburg and was airlifted home.
In 1964 Montserrat Caballé married Bernabé Marti, a goatherd-turned-tenor whom she had met the previous year when they sang Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton respectively in Madame Butterfly in Barcelona. They had a daughter, who is also an opera singer, and a son.
Montserrat Caballé, born April 12 1933, died October 6 2018.
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