Montserrat Caballé, the Spanish soprano whose career spanned over 50 years, has died in her home city of Barcelona. She was admitted to hospital last month after a long period of illness.
‘La Superba’, as she was lovingly referred to by her fans, was one of the most exciting opera singers of the latter half of the 20th century. A leading figure in the resurgence of the bel canto technique, Caballé became a hugely revered singer in an era where the limelight was often dominated by conductors and directors.
Caballé always denied her reputation as a fierce prima donna, insisting: ‘I am not now nor have I ever been a diva… I am only Montserrat!’. Indeed, her indomitable stage presence was matched by an irresistible charm off-stage, endearing her to countless musicians and non-musicians alike, not least her close friend Freddie Mercury, with whom she recorded the Olympic anthem for the 1992 Barcelona games – Mercury, alas, died before the games began.
The daughter of an industrial chemist, Caballé was born in the 1930s in the midst of the Spanish civil war. She was not from a wealthy family, and her childhood home was bombed when she was four years old. Fortunately family friends offered to pay for her training at the Conservatori Liceu.
Here she studied under Eugenia Kemeny and the well-known Spanish soprano Conchita Badia, both of whom she would continually attribute the longevity and success of her career to. Her breakthrough came with a portrayal of Donna Elvira at the Vienna State Opera in 1960.
This was followed by a concert performance of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia for the American Opera Society, in which she sang the title role, filling in for an ailing Marilyn Horne. The performance made her an international sensation overnight, and was followed by an enormously successful 1965 season at Glyndebourne playing both Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier and Countess Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro.
Some of her most notable recordings include interpretations of rarely performed works by Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi, all of which display her impeccable technique and unparalleled ability to tap into the emotions of the characters she portrayed. As she said herself: ‘When a singer truly feels and experiences what the music is all about, the words will automatically ring true.’
Despite regular bouts of illness – in 1985 she spent three months in hospital with a brain tumour – Caballé showed a dogged determinat to return to the stage. She once professed her doctors had called her a ‘witch’, amazed at her ability to overcome illness.
Caballé found it difficult to leave her public and continued performing well into the new century, finally retiring to her husband Bernabé’s farm.