One of the greatest sopranos of her time, Montserrat Caballe made her professional debut in 1956. In 1990, she had released more than 80 recordings. By 1995, she had given around 3,800 performance of 88 different roles. She was especially known for her roles in operas by Mozart, Richard Strauss, and Wagner, and in Italian romantic operas. She filled her career with performances in a wide variety of operas from Bellini to Verdi and from Puccini to Wagner. As Stephen Wilier wrote in the International Dictionary of Opera, "Montserrat Caballe is one of a handful of the greatest prima donnas of the twentieth century."
Montserrat Caballe was born during the Spanish Civil War in Barcelona, Spain. She grew up with parents who loved classical music and sang often. "Despite the Civil War and the difficult post-war period when you never knew where the next crust of bread was coming from, [my parents] were always happy and optimistic," Caballe told Serafin Garcia Ibanez in the UNESCO Courier. When she was a child, she would often listen to recordings of Miguel Fleta with her father. When she heard how Fleta could sing high notes extremely softly, she decided that she could learn to do it, too.
Caballe wanted to study music, but her parents could not afford to send her to school. They made an agreement with the Bertrands, a wealthy family in Barcelona, to help finance her studies. In return, Montserrat Caballe agreed to appear at the Barcelona opera house every season. She enrolled in the Conservatorio del Liceo at the age of 13. Her mother lied about her age, saying she was 15 (the minimum age for students) to get her in sooner. She studied breath control with Eugenia Kemeny, and learned her first operatic roles from the conservatory's musical director Napoleone Annovazi. Later, she studied Spanish song literature with Cochita Badia. Because of her strong training, she maintained a long career without much deterioration in her vocal quality.
In 1954, Montserrat Caballe received the Liceo Gold Medal for Singing, and decided to leave Spain to audition in Italy. She did not receive any roles there but did get cast in Basel, Switzerland. On November 17, 1956, Caballe made her debut singing Mimi in Puccini's La Boheme. She stayed in Basel for three more years, performing a variety of roles. She went on to sing in Germany, where she performed Violetta in La Traviata, Ariadne, Tatiana, Armida, and Rosina in II Barbiere di Siviglia. During this time, Caballe would save her money to travel to other cities to see other opera singers perform. "I was sleeping in the trains," Caballe recalled to Robert Jacobson in Opera News. "It was a terrible time for the body, for the mindut for the soul, it was something special."
In the late 1950s, she debuted in Vienna, Austria with her performance of Salome, her "very favorite" role. She won a prize from the Vienna Staatsoper for that production. From the late 1950s to the early 1960s, Caballe sang over 40 roles in seven years. She made her Teatro alla Scalla debut in 1960 as the First Flower Maiden in Wagner's Parsifal. The following year, she returned to Spain.
Her homecoming was realized in 1962 when she sang her first performance at the Teatro del Liceo in Barcelona. Not only was she able to perform in her hometown opera, it was then that she met her future husband, tenor Bernabe Marti. In 1965, Montserrat Caballe went on to gain worldwide recognition. She received an offer to fill in for the pregnant Marilyn Home in Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgiaat New York's Carnegie Hall. On April 20, 1965, she sang on an American stage for the first time, and her career skyrocketed. She received overwhelming praise and recognition. Later that year, she made her debut at New York's famed Metropolitan Opera as Marguerite in Gounod's Faust.
Caballe continued to perform all over the world, and during that time, she married and had two children. When she received an offer from the Metropolitan Opera for a 10-year contract in 1971, she turned it down because she would have to move her entire family, including her parents, to the United States.
Rumors Circulated of Career Demise
In the mid-1980s, Caballe began to develop a reputation as unreliable. She canceled several performances due to illness, and rumors circulated that she was not ill. "Caballe has become such a high-risk gamble that most major organizations are no longer willing to take a chance on her," Peter G. Davis reported in New York. Caballe responded to the criticism with the grace of a primadonna. "You never hear about the great success," she told Robert Jacobson in Opera News. "You always hear about my cancellationsecause of big operations, on my knee in '69, for cancer in '74, my kidney operations in '76 and '82. I've had seven operations." In December of 1983, Caballe also had a minor heart attack. By January, she was back on her feet singing Herodiade and then Ariadne. In 1985, she had yet another surgery to remove a tumor.
In 1984, Caballe performed the title role in La Gioconda at the San Francisco Opera. Two years later, she debuted the role of Queen Isabella with Jose Carreras as Christopher Columbus in Cristobal Colon. Composer Leonardo Balada was commissioned by the Spanish government to write the opera about the explorer's voyage in recognition of its 500th anniversary. The cast performed the opera for five years as part of the celebration of the discovery of America.
In 1992, Hollywood Records released Barcelona an album of duets with Caballe and rock singer Freddie Mercury of Queen. Originally recorded in 1987, the album was not released until after Mercury's death. "All of the material (cowritten by Mercury) is penned in a style meant to snub rock in favor of "real opera" Jim Farber wrote in Entertainment Weekly, "but likable pop hooks keep peeping through." William Livingstone wrote in Stereo Review, "Uninhibited, almost campy combinations of rock and opera, the eight songs draw flat-out enthusiastic performances from both stars."
Olympic Performance Began Resurgence
That same year, Caballe appeared with five other Spanish singers at the Barcelona Olympic Games Opening Ceremonyncluding Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras, Giacomo Aragall, Teresa Berganza, and Juan Pons. The performance was so well received that the group went into the studio to record a commemorative album, Domingo, Carreras, Caballe with Aragall, Berganza, Pons, on RCA Records. William Livingstone wrote in Stereo Review, "Which champion gets the gold medal? Montserrat Caballe! Again, she demonstrates that she possesses one of the most beautiful voices ever to issue from a human throat."
The 1990s also brought a number of reissued recordings of Montserrat Caballe's many performances. Some of the later releases included: Eternal Caballe: Arias, Scenes, Songs, which featured her operatic performances and Spanish songs from 1965 to 1991 ; Montserrat Caballe: Casta Diva, with Caballe singing Schubert, Strauss, and Spanish songs by Falla and Mompou; and Montserrat Caballe (Arias), a cross-section of the singer's career.
Her popularity surged again in 1995 with the publication of her biography, Montserrat Caballe: Prima Donna, written by Robert Pullen and Stephen Taylor. Stephanie Von Buchau wrote in Opera News that the authors' "critical acuity adds conviction to their conclusion that Montserrat Caballe may be the last authentic prima donna."
In 1996, Montserrat Caballe released a recording with her mother, Montserrat Marti. The RCA album, Arias and Duets (Montserrat Caballe & Montserrat Marti), was the first recording for Montserrat Marti. It included solo recordings from both singers, as well as duets.
Another significant release came in 1997 with Massenet: Manon on VAI. Caballe had only performed Manon four times in her entire career. First, for two shows in New Orleans and one in Madrid in 1967, then in Bilbao in 1975. The CD included a composite of the two New Orleans performances, and became a treasure for collectors of her work. "Montserrat Caballe sings resplendency and gives the title role considerable sex appeal, with clear, idiomatic diction," wrote Bill Zakariasen in Opera News.
In looking back on her extensive career and many successes, Montserrat Caballe explained that soprano opera singers have a slight advantage. "A soprano's voice is a little like a mother's cry, which is why it attracts all human beings," Caballe told Serafin Garcia Ibanez in the UNESCO Courier. "The sound of a mother's voice expresses a feeling of intimacy, which has a truly magical effect on the listener." Caballe said the most grueling opera she'd ever sang was Bellini's II Pirata. And one of her proudest moments came when she received the Paris Grand Prix for a recital of Spanish operetta known as zarzuela. " I 've received many awards, but I'm most proud of the ones for my country's music," Caballe told Judy Cantor in Harper's Bazaar. "Those really filled me with joy."
Although her career in music provided great happiness in her life, Caballe never forgot her humble beginnings. She and her husband created a foundation that took in 500 to 600 orphans on a farm at the foot of the Pyrenees, as well as several other charitable actions. When she wasn't performing, she continued to live in Barcelona and performed there almost every year. She lived her life with grace and dedication, and proved herself in her glorious career as one of the greatest sopranos of the century.
Montserrat Caballe (with pianist Alexis Weissenberg), Angel, 1980.
Montserrat Caballe: Wagner, RCA Records, 1980.
Arie Antiche, London Records, 1980.
Montserrat Caballe Sings Wagner, CBS Records, 1983.
Montserrat Caballe, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Moss Music Group, 1985.
Montserrat Caballe Sings Romanzas de Zarzuelas, Moss Music Group, 1986.
Barcelona (with Freddie Mercury), Hollywood Records, 1992.
Montserrat Caballe, Shirley Verrett, RCA Records, 1992.
Jose Carreras, Montserrat Caballe: Souvenirs, Sony Music, 1992.
Montserrat Caballe: Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi Rarities, RCA Records, 1992.
Domingo, Carreras, Caballe, with Aragall, Berganza, Pons, RCA Records, 1992.
Montserrat Caballe (Carlo Felice Cillario), RCA Records, 1993.
Eternal Caballe: Arias, Scenes, Songs, RCA Records, 1994.
Montserrat Caballe: Casta Diva, RCA Records, 1995.
Montserrat Caballe (Arias), EMI Records, 1996.
Arias and Duets (Montserrat Caballe & Montserrat Marti), RCA Records, 1996.
Meyerbeer: L'Africane, Legato, 1997.
Puccini: Madama Butterfly, Legato, 1997.
Massenet: Manon, VAI, 1997.
Verdi: Luisa Miller, Myto, 1997.
Puccini: Turandot, Gala, 1997.
LaRue, C. Steven, ed. International Dictionary of Opera, St. James Press, Detroit, 1993.
American Record Guide, May/June 1992, November/December 1992, July/August 1993, January/February 1994, March/April 1995, September/October 1995, January/February 1996, September/October 1997.
Consumer's Research, February 1986.
Entertainment Weekly, August 7, 1992.
Harper's Bazaar, August 1990.
High Fidelity, March 1984.
New York, January 31, 1983.
New Yorker, March 23, 1981.
Opera News, April 5, 1980; September 1980; August 1983; March 2, 1985; March 30, 1985; September 1987; December 10, 1994; July 1995; September 1996; January 25, 1997; March 8, 1997; September/October 1997; November 1997; December 6, 1997; January 17, 1998.
Stereo Review, February 1980, September 1980, May 1981, September 1992, December 1992.
UNESCO Courier, January 1995.
Wilson Library Bulletin, November 1993.
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