Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark.
This week? The birthday of Montserrat Caballé gives opera a new heroine. But the Spanish diva didn’t stop at the stages of international opera houses — her voice filled recording studios and stadiums alike.
“I remember my dad used to say: One day we’ll cross this sea, this ocean, and we’ll go to America.” The legendary soprano Montserrat Caballé reminisced in later years about her childhood trips to the beach in Barcelona, the city in which she was born on April 12, 1933.
Life wasn’t easy for her family while she was growing up. Spain endured a devastating civil war from 1936 to 1939, after which the country was ruled by the Fascist dictator Franco. Caballé’s family was impoverished by the war, and their home was destroyed by bombs when she was four years old. The future opera star worked for a while in a handkerchief factory, having been forced to abandon her musical studies.
But then came a stroke of luck. Her parents managed to secure financial support from a generous local family, allowing Montserrat to return to the Liceu Conservatory in her home city and complete her training. The family also took her to the opera at the Liceu, where she saw such stars as Mario del Monaco and Renata Tebaldi in action.
Her studies were followed by spells at the opera houses in Basel, Switzerland, and Bremen, Germany, and it fast became apparent just how versatile a singer she was, and just how magnificent her voice was. Her international breakthrough came in 1965, when she stepped in at short notice to replace Marilyn Horne as the title character in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia in Carnegie Hall, New York. The performance was a huge success, and she instantly became a star.
Caballé had finally crossed that ocean, as she and her father had dreamed of doing. Her success proved lasting: she became one of the leading singers of her generation, equally revered in both the opera house and the recording studio. And she achieved huge popular celebrity thanks to her collaboration with Freddie Mercury of Queen, who said that her voice was “the best in the world:” they sang together on the album Barcelona (1988), and opened the Olympic Games in her home city in 1992.
But despite her “crossover” success, “La Superba”—as opposed to “La Divina” (Maria Callas) or “La Stupenda” (Joan Sutherland)—is still also cherished as a classical artist, in a remarkably broad range of roles. As with so many great sopranos, one role stands out especially: Bellini’s Norma—listen to an extract below. Caballé passed away in October 2018, survived by her husband Bernabéa and their two children.