Legendary Spanish Soprano Montserrat Caballé has Died
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6 October 2018

Legendary Spanish Soprano Montserrat Caballé has Died

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FEW OPERA SINGERS rocketed to fame more swiftly than Montserrat Caballé. When the soprano substituted for Marilyn Horne in the title role in a concert performance of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia at Carnegie Hall on April 20, 1965, she was virtually unknown beyond a few provincial European opera houses. After the performance—and a twenty-five-minute ovation—all that would change. Rival record companies dashed to Caballé’s dressing room to get her signature while the audience was still swooning in the aisles. (RCA won.) One new fan was heard shouting ecstatically to his companion, “Callas plus Tebaldi equals Caballé!” And of course invitations to sing all over the world poured in. The hyperbole did calm down after a while, but Caballé’s storybook career was securely launched. Before 1965 was over, the new diva had appeared as Strauss’s Marschallin and Mozart’s Countess Almaviva at Glyndebourne, made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Marguerite in Faust, and returned to Carnegie Hall as Queen Elizabeth in another (at the time) seldom-performed Donizetti bel canto vehicle, Roberto Devereux. After a mere six months of stardom, Caballé was being mentioned in the same breath with Joan Sutherland and the virtually legendary Maria Callas. Caballé never officially retired, typically adding offbeat new roles to her repertory as late as 2007 (Massenet’s Cléopâtre and Saint-Saëns’s Catherine in Henry VIII), even embarking on extensive concert tours after her opera activities seemed to be over. She sang more than eighty roles in all, a huge and varied repertory hardly suggested by the rather conventional assignments she accepted during her twenty-year Metropolitan Opera career—103 appearances, mostly in familiar operas by Verdi and Puccini, ending with one final Tosca in 1985. Elsewhere, in opera houses large and small the world over, she sang Strauss’s Salome, Chrysothemis and Arabella in addition to the Marschallin and Ariadne; Wagner’s Sieglinde, Elsa, Eva and Elisabeth; rarities ranging from Salieri’s Danaïdes and Spontini’s Agnese di Hohenstaufen to Respighi’s Fiamma and Pacini’s Saffo, as well as many seldom-heard operas from the Rossini–Bellini–Donizetti bel canto repertory. In some quarters, Caballé was thought of as a lazy, even capricious singer and a too-frequent canceler, but her vocal versatility, wide-ranging musical interests and ability to adapt her voice to such a diversity of musical styles belie that reputation. 

In the soprano’s prime years, it was the sheer tonal beauty of Caballé’s voice that immediately captivated the opera public—a ravishing, sensuous sound that retained its quality, flexibility, seamlessness and dramatic heft (when needed) over a two-octave-plus range. Despite its plush nature, this deluxe instrument was firmly centered and under control, giving Caballé access to the many florid bel canto vehicles that were most closely associated with her. While she could never quite compete with Sutherland’s virtuoso technique, Caballé was more than prepared to articulate all the coloratura of Norma, Semiramide and Lucia, even though she was often criticized for sacrificing the words to vocalize on vowel sounds. At times she seemed simply to be showing off her voice—and who could blame her, especially when she was floating those long, limpid pianissimos that became her specialty? Despite her grand baptismal name of Maria de Montserrat Bibiana Concepción Caballé i Folch, the singer was born in Barcelona to parents of limited means. According to her own account, Caballé was devastated at age seven by a performance of Madama Butterfly at the Liceu with Mercedes Capsir; thereafter, dreams of a singing career never left the young girl, even when she was sent to work in a Barcelona handkerchief factory. Wealthy patrons eventually materialized, enabling her to attend the Liceu Conservatory, where she studied voice with Napoleone Annovazzi, Eugenia Kemény and Conchita Badía. These teachers clearly instilled good vocal habits in their young pupil, who was sent to Italy for auditions after graduation. It must have been a depressing trip: the Italian maestros who heard her in Milan and Florence advised the already buxom young soprano to return to Spain, get married and raise a family. 

Undiscouraged, Caballé forged ahead and eventually succeeded in winning a contract with Basel Opera in Switzerland, where she made her opera debut in 1956 as Mimì in La Bohème. For the next two years, the singer took on the extraordinary range of roles that all young sopranos were expected to tackle when just starting out in small mid-European opera houses at the time—Pamina, Tosca, Marta (Tiefland), Arabella, Donna Elvira, Salome. After two years, she moved north to the German harbor town of Bremen, where she remained until 1962, adding more roles, among them Dvořák's Armida and Rusalka, Tchaikovsky’s Tatiana and Verdi’s Violetta. Obviously Caballé’s versatility and vocal security were valued even then. 

The soprano’s reputation as a quick study must have been circulating when the American Opera Society suddenly found itself without a prima donna for an upcoming concert presentation of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia. Caballé was contacted a little more than two weeks before the performance, learned the part in ten days and arrived in time for a week of rehearsals that gave little indication of the furor that was about to erupt. Although it took very little time for Caballé to establish herself as an international celebrity in the world’s major opera houses, it was still an era when recordings played a vital role in spreading the word and cementing a singer’s reputation. And as long as they could hold the soprano to an exclusive contract, RCA did not stint, plunging in immediately with a complete star-studded recording of Lucrezia Borgia. That was followed by a series of recital discs exploring rarities by Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti and Verdi, establishing Caballé’s fame as a bel canto specialist. RCA initially balked at recording Salome, a role that Caballé had performed with some frequency in her earliest days, but the diva insisted and surprised everyone once again with her convincingly pouty, girlish interpretation of the spoiled Judaean princess, as well as her easy ability to ride over the most volcanic orchestral climaxes. Perhaps Caballé’s most beguiling solo RCA record is a recital of zarzuela arias, in which she sounds vocally luscious and stylistically at home in the music of her own country. As her career progressed, Caballé could often seem to be coasting on her natural endowment and reputation, giving performances that were casual to say the least. The texts sometimes vanished altogether, even if the notes generally came in the right place at the right time, and her sense of diva prerogative never seemed to leave her. This amply proportioned Tosca, at the Met at least, never risked leaping from a parapet to her death but simply struck a tragic pose and walked grandly offstage. When recording Elisabetta in Don Carlo, conductor Carlo Maria Giulini forbade Caballé to hold on to the final high B as long as she would have liked, but at a live 1969 performance of the opera at the Verona Arena, she had her way and was still clinging to the note after the orchestra had played the final chord. The audience, of course, went wild. 

Adding to the excitement of that Verona Don Carlo was the sight of Caballé performing the entire role on crutches—the soprano had recently injured her feet and aggravated her chronic phlebitis. Those of us fortunate to be there that evening were astonished to see an interpretation of unusual, even poignant dramatic involvement. Another legendary evening also took place outdoors—Norma at the Orange Festival in 1974, opposite tenor Jon Vickers, a white-hot performance captured on video, and one that Caballé herself regarded as a major highlight of her career. The singer did disappoint her fans with frequent cancellations, but the reasons were not always sheer caprice. Health problems continually pursued her, resulting in several major operations, from which she always seemed to bounce back. Perhaps that partially explains the many Caballé performances that did seem absent-minded or running on automatic pilot. 

Even when her attention seemed to stray, Caballé could still produce a gorgeous sound that seldom failed to excite audiences everywhere. One of the soprano’s most unlikely fans was the rock singer Freddie Mercury, who adored her voice and eventually convinced Caballé to collaborate with him in a duet he had written expressly with her in mind—“Barcelona,” which became a surprise hit pop single in 1988. The affection and respect between these two singers from opposite ends of the music world seemed quite genuine, and Caballé mourned Mercury’s death from AIDS in 1991. 

After that tragedy, Caballé gave much attention to numerous charitable causes, most notably as a UNESCO amabassador and by establishing her own foundation for needy children in Barcelona. She also bravely supported the careers of her husband, tenor Bernabé Marti, and their daughter, soprano Montserrat (Montsita) Marti, although even the magic of the Caballé name could do little to promote two such limited vocal talents. 

Whether acting the grand diva, gracious lady bountiful or even a naughty little girl, Caballé invariably projected a simplicity and childlike naïveté that made her all the more irresistible. No one could stay angry with her for long, especially when she decided to float one of those magical pianissimos or cap the finale of another bel-canto rarity with such commanding coloratura flourishes. In the end she will be remembered primarily as a vocal phenomenon, one of the most imposing and lavishly endowed sopranos of her generation. —Peter G. Davis 

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