One of the great sopranos of the past half century, Montserrat Caballé, has died: she was 85. Though famed for her singing of bel canto and Italian Romantic opera, she had a very broad musical repertoire that embraced Wagner and Richard Strauss as well as Mozart. As Patrick O’Connor wrote in an October 2003 Gramophone ‘Reputations’ article: ‘no diva in memory has sung such an all-encompassing 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.’
Born in Barcelona, she studied at the city’s Liceu Conservatory and continued her studies in Switzerland, making her debut in Basel as Mimì in Puccini’s La bohème in 1956. Soon she was singing Richard Strauss’s Salome, a role that she continued to sing throughout her career. She joined the company in Bremen and sang there from 1959 to 1962, the year she made her return to her home city to appear at the Liceu Opera House as Strauss’s Arabella.
In 1965, she stood in for Marilyn Horne at Carnegie Hall in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, and a star was born (‘Callas + Tebaldi = Caballé’ was the headline in the New York Times). The 1960s saw her appear at Gyndebourne (as the Marschallin in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier), the Met (in Gounod’s Faust, returning to sing four Verdi roles in Il trovatore, Otello, La traviata and Luisa Miller). In 1969 she would return to New York sing Liù to Birgit Nilsson’s Turandot (she would later record both parts).
The 1970s would see her expanding her repertoire to embrace most of Verdi’s and Puccini’s heroines as well as a large number of bel canto works. In 1974, she sang a series of performances of Bellini’s Norma in three different productions – her single appearance at Orange, captured on film, enshrines perhaps her greatest stage performance of her career. As Gramophone’s voice expert John Steane wrote in 2003, 'On a wind-swept, genius-driven night in 1974, they had greatness itself... the role is sung and acted with such well-founded assurance that for once it fulfils its own legend, the embodiment of musical-dramatic sublimity in 19th-century opera.' (As with Turandot, Caballé would record both the title-role – opposite Domingo – and, later, the secondary role, that of Adalgisa, to Joan Sutherland’s Norma.)
By the mid 1980s, she was scaling back her operatic work, but in 1987 she made a recording that would introduce her to a vast new audience – ‘Barcelona’, duetting with Freddie Mercury. It would, in 1992, become the anthem for the Summer Olympics hosted by Caballé’s home town of Barcelona. No other singer ‘crossed over’ with such aplomb or so spectacularly. The single rode high in charts all over the world.
Sir Colin Davis, with whom she often performed and recorded, recalled in Gramophone that ‘My memories of working with Caballé have a sort of glow, as somebody I always really loved working with. Her voice had great range and quite considerable colour. And she wasn’t proud. Like most great artists she was basically very humble, always trying to learn. When we recorded Così together she worked with a wonderful Italian coach and the result was some of the best Mozart recitative on disc. She was always lovely and, for me, never difficult to work with. And yet she also had a passionate side to her that could reach the dramatic extremes of a Tosca (which we also recorded). She is Spanish after all!’
Caballé’s career coincided with the Golden Age of recorded opera and she left a vast discography, capturing all her major roles, including as Aida in Riccardo Muti’s classic EMI set, as Elisabeth de Valois for Giulini's Don Carlo (also EMI), on Barbirolli’s Verdi Requiem (EMI), as Fiordiligi for Sir Colin Davis in Mozart’s Così fan tutte (Philips), as Liù on Zubin Mehta’s classic Turandot (with Pavarotti and Sutherland for Decca), as Salome for Leinsdorf (RCA) and numerous bel canto and Rossini roles. She also recorded many recital albums including a very fine Puccini collection with Sir Charles Mackerras (EMI), a Strauss album with Leonard Bernstein (DG) and duets with Shirley Verrett (RCA).
Caballé was married to the Spanish tenor Bernabé Martì with whom she often performed and one of their two children, Montserrat Martì was also a soprano.
Showered with awards and honorary doctorates, Caballé was given Gramophone's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007.
(A full appreciation of Montserrat Caballé will appear in Gramophone’s November issue.)