The rapturous audience stood up for a 25-minute ovation. The occasion was Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia staged at Carnegie Hall in April of 1965. The relatively unknown 33-year-old Spanish soprano who performed the title role was simply filling in the shoes of an indisposed Marilyn Horne at a month’s notice in the notoriously difficult role.
As she hit the first notes of the opening aria, everyone was intoxicated, they seemed to have forgotten to breathe. A new prima donna had arrived. A combination of Callas and Tebaldi, the front page headline in The New York Times screamed. The new diva answered to the name Montserrat Caballé. She breathed her last on October 6, 2018, aged 85.
Caballé fame rested on bel canto — the vocally exacting style exemplified by the elegant, filigreed works of 19th-century Italian masters like Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. Caballé with her honeyed timbre and lightening agility spelled magic in such operas. She went much further to include Mozart, Wagner, and the Romantic French composers in her repertoire. She adored Strauss, and sang his Salome like a goddess. Her pianissimo was angelic. That sustained soft note in the upper register, she hardly seemed to draw breath at all... it stopped your heart. She would gently lift her voice onto a high note and let it float serenely, like a butterfly.
“There are many more versatile artists… incisive interpreters and… God knows… many more venturesome programmers. But when Caballé is ‘on,’ there is no more beautiful voice in the world,” critic Tim page wrote in Newsday in 1994. “Only Caballé,” stated Maria Callas on being asked about her successors. “La Superba,” the world press would anoint her, she joining the league of “La Divina” Maria Callas and “La Stupenda” Joan Sutherland in the soprano triumvirate.
I heard Caballé as she sang Barcelona with Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. Freddie’s operatic range is amply evident when he rendered singles like Made in Heaven, Somebody to Love, We are the Champions, The Show must go on and many more. He was so enamoured of her that he flew down to Barcelona to meet her. And they fell in love — with each other’s voice. They hit it off like a house on fire. “We have a certain type of humour,” recalled Freddie. “You always think opera divas are austere… but she jokes and swears… She doesn’t take herself too seriously.”
Their collaboration consummated in the searing Barcelona, which later became the official anthem of the 1992 Summer Olympics. Freddie leads the song in his natural baritone voice whereas Caballé provides a powerful background soprano. Her warbling, so controlled, so perfect whereas he had to resort to almost shouting at the crescendo to deliver his words. In the fadeout, Freddie had to step away from the microphone to decrease his voice intensity, while she didn’t move at all.
At one point, Freddie sings, “And if God willing, we will meet again someday.” Viva, the voices of Barcelona!