Continued from part one
At the beginning of the seventies, Montserrat Caballé was faced with probably the greatest artistic challenge of her career: opera connoisseurs had been waiting for it for years – now the time had come: Montserrat Caballé would make her debut in the role of Norma in Puccini’s opera of the same name. It was rumored that Montserrat Caballé would succeed Maria Callas in the role of Norma: Maria Callas had launched her international career with Norma and ended it in 1965 with her last appearance in an opera house in this role as well. Caballé had once said that Callas had been her greatest model for the role of Norma – but the world-famous Greek soprano advised Caballé not to copy her Norma, but to create her own interpretation.
The field was open for Montserrat Caballé: after Maria Callas, hardly any soprano had dared to take on the role of Norma. Callas was considered a standard that seemed unreachable. When Montserrat Caballé stood backstage at the Gran Teatro del Liceo in Barcelona on the evening of January 8, 1970, and in a few minutes she would give her performance of Norma, one thing was clear: it was not her goal to surpass Maria Callas or to knock her off her “throne”. With her interpretation of Norma, Montserrat Caballé created an alternative interpretation of Norma that would stand alone, independent of other interpretations.
Shortly after her debut in the role of Norma, Caballé received a special gift from Maria Callas: that pair of earrings that Callas had worn on the occasion of her Norma performances at La Scala in 1955. In an interview a few days before her death, Maria Callas answered the following when asked if she had a successor in the opera world: “Only Montserrat Caballé.“
Caballé decided not to wear the legendary earrings: “There was only one Maria,” Caballé explained her decision.
In addition to the role of Norma, Caballé and Callas had another thing in common: both worked with the influential theater and opera director Luchino Visconti, who was in charge of numerous opera productions.
In the seventies, Montserrat Caballé made numerous recordings: Her work for various recording studios took her to numerous European cities. With the recordings Caballé immortalized herself.
In 1973, Montserrat Caballé made her debut at Covent Garden in London and at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, both times in the role of Violetta in Traviata (Verdi).
Return to Vienna
Montserrat Caballé returned to the Vienna State Opera for the opening night of the 1976-77 opera season: almost twenty years ago – when she was far less well known – the Vienna State Opera had offered her a contract after a guest performance, which she turned down. Now she returned to the opera as the drawing card in a production of Don Carlos. The evening resembled a gala performance and was attended by Elizabeth Taylor, among others. The performance extended by an hour as the standing ovation came to no end.
On December 26, 1982, Montserrat Caballé made her debut in the opera La vestale (Gaspare Spontini): The opera was a rarity at the time. Originally, the opera from 1807 was intended as a gift to the wife of Emperor Napoleon, Joséphine. The opera was hardly performed in the 20th century: The only famous production of the opera was a 1954 Scala production with Maria Callas in the title role. La vestale was another opera in which Montserrat Caballé succeeded Maria Callas.
In 1985, the British rock band Queen toured Europe: on the occasion of this tour, the band played in the Barcelona soccer stadium. The founder and lead singer of the group Freddie Mercury announced on Spanish television that of all Spanish institutions he admired Montserrat Caballé the most and that he wished nothing more than to meet her.
The press hype surrounding Mercury’s statement was so great that Caballé got word of it: At first, there was no possibility for them to meet. In the mid-eighties, Caballé had a strict tour schedule that she had to follow.
On June 22, 1985, her tour schedule took her to the Royal Opera House in London, where she gave a song recital. At the end of the song recital, a meeting was arranged between Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé. The meeting was arranged by Mike Moran, who had been a répétiteur at Covent Garden in the seventies and was now part of Queen’s entourage.
Freddie Mercury wrote the piece Barcelona as a sign of his admiration for the Spanish soprano. Furthermore, Freddie Mercury had been commissioned to write a song for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.
At the end of the eighties, it was part of Caballé’s annual routine to perform once at the Royal Opera House in London: At one of those performances, the audience wouldn’t stop shouting for encores. As one of those encores, Caballé sang that night a song called Exercise in Free Love, which Freddie Mercury had written for her. Mercury sat in the audience that night and took a bow – the public didn’t realize the collaboration between a rock star and an opera diva until the next day, when all the newspapers reported it.
The collaboration with Freddie Mercury was to make Montserrat Caballé famous far beyond the opera world: Between January 1987 and 1988, the duet Barcelona took firm shape and was recorded.
Fame beyond the world of opera
The record Barcelona, which included other duets by the two, climbed to the top of the charts in a very short time. It was rare at the time for an opera diva to reach the top of the charts: to this day, many pop lovers around the world know Montserrat Caballé only because of her collaboration with Freddie Mercury. Caballé is thus one of the very few opera stars whose fame transcends the boundaries of the opera world.
During the nineties, Montserrat Caballé was repeatedly touted as the last living opera diva: Opera singing was her passion, which she pursued until the last years of her life. Until her death in 2018, Caballé regularly appeared on an opera stage and gave concert recitals: She let nothing and no one deter her from pursuing her great passion until the very end.
Main source: Pullen, Robert & Taylor, Stephen: “Montserrat Caballé – Casta Diva”, 1994 Victor Gollancz
Cover picture: © Simon von Ludwig