The death of the great Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé at the age of 85 has been announced. Caballé achieved overnight stardom in 1965 when she - then a complete unknown - replaced Marilyn Horne in a concert performance of Donizetti's LUCREZIA BORGIA at New York's Carnegie Hall.
Prior to that break-thru performance, Montserrat Caballé had been a member of the opera companies at Basel and Bremen, gaining stage experience in a variety of roles. She also sang in Mexico and at the Liceu, Barcelona. Following her Carnegie Hall triumph, she signed with RCA Records - her debut aria disc remains a treasure - and made her Metropolitan Opera debut on December 22, 1965 at the Old House as Marguerite in FAUST.
Caballé sang just over 100 performances with The Met company in New York City and on tour. I first saw her onstage as Violetta in TRAVIATA and later in three incredible performances: as Liu in TURANDOT opposite Birgit Nilsson, as Amelia in BALLO IN MASCHERA, and as Elisabetta in DON CARLO in the final full opera performance of the Bing Era. I also saw her as Mimi in BOHEME at The Bushnell in Hartford.
Mme. Caballé sang her last performances at The Met in 1985, as Tosca. She continued to perform into the 21st century. Her repertoire included such diverse roles as Semiramide, Gioconda, Sieglinde, and Salome. Throughout her career, the soprano was beset by health problems which often caused her to cancel engagements, sometimes on short notice.
Montserrat Caballé's voice is considered one of the most beautiful of all time; her prodigious breath control and ability to spin gossamer pianissimi held audiences enthralled. Here's the aria that set off the Caballé frenzy:
Souvenir: I managed to have this photo of Caballé as Contessa Almaviva in NOZZE DI FIGARO with Graziella Sciutti as Susanna and Biancamaria Casoni as Cherubino signed by all three ladies, at different times. The signatures are fading, but the memory isn't.
Above: Caballé and her husband, tenor Bernabé Martí
Above: Placido Domingo and Montserrat Caballé at the Bing Gala, 1972
Above: Montserrat Caballé after a performance of NORMA at The Met
At the performance of BALLO IN MASCHERA that I saw at The Met in October 1970, Caballé won the longest "aria-ovation" I ever experienced. The applause went on for nearly five minutes (I had stopped my tape so I could join in), and the soprano had to rise and take a bow before the performance could continue.
Earlier on that BALLO evening, during the love duet, Caballé rested her head against Placido Domingo's chest and her wig got caught on the braiding of his jacket. They continued to rhapsodize over their mutual affection whilst Placi strove to disentangle the wig. It came free just before the duet's final high-C:
In 1976, Montserrat Caballé sang three performances of my favorite opera, Strauss's ARIADNE AUF NAXOS at The Met. I was unable to attend, but one of the performances was broadcast:
Of Caballé's many commercial recordings, I have a special affection for her Sleepwalking Scene from MACBETH:
And the sheer beauty of her tone and her luminous soft high notes are on display in "Sombre forêt" from Rossini's GUILLAUME TELL:
Upon hearing the news of Mme. Caballé's death, I contacted by friend Lisette Oropesa, who has always professed a deep love for the Caballé voice. I asked Lisette if she would write something about her great predecessor in the continuum of great voices of Spanish lineage. Lisette wrote:
"Montserrat Caballé was one of the singers I listened to the most growing up. My mom, who was also a singer, adored her use of dynamics, and was proud of her heritage as the granddaughter of a Catalan. Hearing Montserrat’s voice while growing up, her sound is one that is etched forever in my memory, and I closely associate it with home, and with pride for my heritage as well. Her legacy will go on forever, and in my heart and dedication to this art form, I will do my best to honor her memory."