She was one of the few opera singers who became known beyond their genre: Not only was she an opera diva, Caballé became known to a wide audience through her duet Barcelona with Queen singer Freddie Mercury. With over 4000 performances during her career, Montserrat Caballé was one of the opera divas most frequently seen on an opera stage. Her first name Montserrat is derived from the Spanish mountain range Montserrat near Barcelona: Her full civil name is María de Montserrat Bibiana Concepción Caballé i Folch.
Caballé originally came from a wealthy Spanish family, but the family lost much of its prosperity during the Spanish Revolution in the mid-1930s.
Thus, the young Caballé’s dream of one day becoming a successful opera singer was difficult to realize: Only with the help of a wealthy family of textile manufacturers could her studies be financed.
Montserrat Caballé studied at the Liceu Conservatory in Barcelona: there she met singing teacher Eugenia Kemmeny, who taught her students a unique approach to the art of singing. Thus, in her first year at the conservatory, Caballé learned only breathing techniques; she was not taught to actually sing until much later. Kemmeny’s approach was based on the assumption that without the appropriate breathing technique, no professional singing was possible at all.
Montserrat Caballé made her debut as an opera singer in 1956 in Basel, as a last-minute replacement for the role of Mimì in La Bohème (Puccini). Between 1957 and 1959, Montserrat Caballé was part of the Basel Opera House ensemble, singing Mozart and Strauss, among other roles: at the time, it was extremely unusual for a Spanish opera singer to sing in Mozart and Strauss operas.
Vienna State Opera
She was ready to sing German-language opera repertoire, which soon led her to various opera houses in Germany, Austria and Switzerland: at the end of the fifties, Caballé gave a guest performance at the Vienna State Opera as Salome (Richard Strauss). At that time, the Vienna State Opera was one of the most prestigious European opera houses. Her guest performance persuaded those responsible at the Vienna State Opera to offer her a contract lasting several years: But Montserrat Caballé declined. For the 26-year-old soprano, this would have been her early breakthrough. Caballé came to the conclusion that the roles she was offered in Vienna did not suit her vocal disposition. She also preferred to gain further singing experience before her big breakthrough.
The Theater Bremen contracted her for three years from 1959 to 1962: at that time Caballé also performed at the theater in Saarbrücken, among others.
In the early sixties, after her contract with the Theater in Bremen had expired, Caballé returned to her conservatory in Barcelona. From the fall of 1962 to the spring of 1963, Caballé went on a tour of South America: in the course of this tour, Caballé made her debut at countless South American opera houses, and her name became a household name to many South American opera connoisseurs.
In 1965, Montserrat Caballé replaced the pregnant Marilyn Horne in the opera Lucrezia Borgia (Donizetti) at Carnegie Hall in New York and received a standing ovation for her performance that lasted 25 minutes. It was her international breakthrough: it was this replacement performance in a role she had learned in less than a month that propelled Montserrat Caballé to the top of the international opera world.
Metropolitan Opera and fame
From then on, Montserrat Caballé’s career went steeply uphill: it proved to be the right decision in the mid-sixties to have turned down a long contract with the Vienna State Opera a few years earlier. Now the soprano could celebrate her great breakthrough with roles in Bel Canto operas.
On December 22, 1965, Montserrat Caballé made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in Faust (Gounod): At the time, the Metropolitan Opera was the key to enduring international success for an opera singer. Anyone who sang at the Met was coveted around the world and was subject to public interest.
The press response was phenomenal: in the U.S., newspapers threw around headlines like “Callas + Tebaldi = Caballé.” By the mid-sixties, Montserrat Caballé had become one of the most sought-after sopranos in the world.
Debuts in Europe
It was also at this time that Montserrat Caballé received her first recording contract: RCA Records signed her for various opera recordings in the early sixties.
Despite her permanent engagements on the American continent, she remained connected to Europe: From 1971 Caballé performed regularly at the State Opera in Hamburg. She also performed regularly at the Liceu Conservatory in Barcelona, where she was trained, and thus remained in constant contact with her teachers, who had helped her to a successful career.
Caballé’s Italian debut didn’t take long: in 1969 she appeared at the Arena di Verona in Don Carlo (Verdi). Her debut at La Scala followed in 1970 in Lucrezia Borgia: Caballé celebrated her debut at Italy’s most prestigious opera house, La Scala, with the opera that had once made her an international star.
At the beginning of the seventies, a true artistic challenge awaited her that would decisively determine the further course of her career…
Simon von Ludwig
Main source: Pullen, Robert & Taylor, Stephen: “Montserrat Caballé – Casta Diva”, 1994 Victor Gollancz
Cover picture: © Simon von Ludwig