Revered Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballe, one of the greats of 20th-century opera, is being remembered on what would have been her 89th birthday.
Nicknamed “La Superba”, the Catalan singer began her career in Switzerland, Germany and Austria before becoming a superstar on the world stage. She made her American debut in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia at Carnegie Hall in New York City on 20 April 1965, replacing the pregnant Marilyn Horne and earning a 25-minute standing ovation.
“When Caballe began her first aria, there was a perceptible change in the atmosphere,” critic John Gruen wrote of the performance in The New York Herald Tribune.
“It seemed for a moment that everyone had stopped breathing.”
“The voice is quite hauntingly beautiful, with a darkly burnished tone almost like that of a viola,” added New York Times criticized Raymond Ericson. Her fame was assured.
A Newsweek review of her performance that same year in another Donizetti opera, Robert Devereuxnoted: “Her fiery temperament so dominated the stage that the other able singers seemed made of papier-mache.”
Caballe was adored for her distinctive and precise bel canto style and interpretations of the works of Verdi, Rossini and Bellini. She gave more than 3,800 dramatic performances in over 80 roles across five continents, over the course of an extraordinary career that also saw her pick up five Grammy nominations for her recording work. She won the Grammy award for Best Classical Vocal Performance in 1968.
She made her first appearance at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden in 1972, starring as Violetta in Verdi’s The Traviate. It was just one signature role alongside countless others, from Countess Almaviva in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro to the Marshallin in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, and Marguerite in Gounod’s faust.
Summing up her career in gramophone magazine in October 2003, Robert Pullen and Stephen J Taylor wrote of Caballe: “No diva in memory has sung such an all-compassing amount of the soprano repertory, progressing through virtually the entire range of Italian light lyric, lirico-spinto and dramatic roles , including all the pinnacles of the bel canto, Verdi and verismo repertories, whilst simultaneously being a remarkable interpreter of Salome, Sieglinde and Isolde.”
Somewhat improbably, Caballe achieved even greater heights of popular stardom in 1988, when she crossed over into the pop world to record the duets album Barcelona with Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. The title track was subsequently chosen as her home city’s anthem when it hosted the Olympic Games in 1992.
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Mercury was a huge admirer of her talent and said hers was “the best voice in the world”. After her death, she always wore a red ribbon on her lapel to promote Aids research.
She is also known for establishing the Fundacio Montserrat Caballe, an organization devoted to developing young talent in Barcelona. The cause was important to her, given that she had grown up in poverty during the Spanish Civil War, as the daughter of an industrial chemist.
Her husband Bernabe Marti (1928–2022) was also a renowned tenor, whom she first met during a production of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly. Their daughter, Montserrat Marti, follows in her mother’s footsteps as an operatic soprano.
Caballe is celebrated in Tuesday’s Google Doodle, four years on from death at 85 in October 2018.