Montserrat Caballé: Ultimate Diva

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María de Montserrat Bibiana Concepción Caballé i Folch was born 80 years ago Friday. This magnificent singer from Barcelona inspired love from audiences that only two other living sopranos, Leontyne Price and Mirella Freni, could match. In just my fourth article for Operavore, published two years and a few days ago, I came right out and said that the greatest opera performance I ever attended starred Caballé and José Carreras, her friend and frequent colleague.

Just about every opera lover I know has a Caballé memory, an experience of hearing her that imprinted so indelibly on the mind and the soul that it became the definition of what opera is. She is also, by any estimation, a diva, that rare creature who can transport listeners through sheer artistry. 

She is also enough of a prima donna that she is not intemperate but, on occasion, can be high maintenance. She was a notorious canceler (the old line was that “Madame Caballé is available for a limited number of cancellations this season.”). You bought tickets to a Caballé performance the way you would play the lottery. The odds of success were steep, but the rewards were incalculable when you struck gold. In fact, she did not cancel that often, but it became part of her mystique.

Every fan has different memories of definitive Caballé roles. She did verismo (including a sublime Adriana Lecouvreur, phenomenal bel canto (both standards and rarities), most of Verdi and Puccini, some Wagner, and even an impressive Salome on disk. She essayed French dramatic and romantic roles, performing Massenet characters, including Manon and Cleopatra, with great distinction. She gave legendary performances as Elisabetta in Don Carlo at the Met with Franco Corelli, in Barcelona in a cast that included a phenomenal performance as Eboli by Shirley Verrett, and one in the Arena di Verona in which she famously held the last note of the opera longer than seemed possible.

Caballé’s voice was gorgeous and her technique was such that she could sing with great power and then draw all of that in to float the most famous and gossamer pianissimos in the business. She was a much better actress than she was given credit for. It might sound dismissive to say that she could “act with her voice,” but she could because she was so expressive. With her glamorous looks and proudly large body draped in beautiful fabrics, she plausibly incarnated all kinds of heroines. She had a particular way of defining sound and emotion with her eloquent hands so that she did not need to overact to hold your attention. 

I recall well her Tosca. Though she did not have the customary physique du rôle, her singing and acting made us believe everything about this iconic character. In the second act confrontation with Scarpia, she did not follow the time-worn custom of recognizing the knife she will kill him with at the moment the music indicates. Rather, her Tosca is a dignified lady who will not wear her jewels if she must submit to having sexual relations with Scarpia. As Caballé removed the jewels, she’d spot the knife and suddenly the killing of Scarpia became even more dramatic. In many performances of Tosca, she did not do the famous leap at the end but chose to sing “O Scarpia, avanti a Dio!” as she sailed into the wings with one arm behind her, indicating the moment Tosca flies off the parapet of the Castel Sant’Angelo to her death. Audiences forgave Caballé this omission because she brought so much else to her portrayal. Here is an entire performance from Nice in 1980, with her Catalan colleagues José Carreras and Juan Pons.

In watching the second act, you may have noticed that as Pons’s Scarpia tried to kiss her, Caballé’s Tosca places a bright red fan of feathers between them to prevent the kiss. That, my friends, is the definition of DIVA. 

Caballé was a good friend and colleague of Joan Sutherland, who was seven years older. They were artists at the same rarified height and, rather than be rivals, they admired one another and enjoyed the hearty sense of humor they shared. While most people who were friendly with her called her Montsy (or Montse) as an endearment, Sutherland called her Monty. I once asked the Australian soprano which Monty she was evoking (Montgomery Clift? Monty Python?) she grinned and said, “Woolley.” 

I was fortunate to be near Caballé and Luciano Pavarotti as they were rehearsing and performing Tosca at the Met. They too were quite affectionate and he liked to call her “Guapa” (beautiful). Two mezzos with whom Caballé gloriously performed were Shirley Verrett and Marilyn Horne, with whom she gave unforgettable performances in Norma and Semiramide. Here are highlights from a joint concert they did in Munich in 1990:

Caballé never minded singing a secondary role on an album with Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti, so we are blessed to have Norma with Caballé’s Adalgisa and Turandot with Caballé’s gorgeous Liù. She would go on to record the title roles in the future.

At a certain point in her career, Sutherland took on Pavarotti, a younger colleague, and they made a remarkable team onstage and in the recording studio. Caballé emulated this with José Carreras. In each case, the soprano taught the tenor about vocal style and technique and, in the case of the two Catalans, she also taught him about stage deportment.

Caballé, and we, are fortunate that her career coincided with a time when recording companies had budgets and the desire to document their artists in all kinds of repertory. The companies vied for talent and often signed the greatest performers to exclusive contracts.  While Decca/London had the team of Sutherland and Pavarotti, Philips had Caballé and Carreras appearing in an even greater variety of operas than the bel canto-centered choices of their colleagues on Decca/London. For example, they were among the first to record the early operas by Verdi, such as Aroldo, that still are not heard often. Other fine colleagues, including Samuel Ramey, often appeared with them. These are precious documents at any time but, especially, in this the bicentennial year of Verdi’s birth.

When young artists ask me which recordings to listen to, I always include Caballé on the list, even if the singer who asked is a man. There are so many lessons, but especially breath control and expressivity. When I meet young sopranos, the two models they point to are Caballé and Freni. This is how it should be.

No singer since Maria Callas attempted such a wide range of repertory and styles. While Callas had incredible charisma and instinct as well as a phenomenal use of language, she did not have the vocal gifts and technique of Caballé, who had a much longer and more successful career.

I don’t think we will ever see or hear the likes of Montserrat Caballé again. The same goes for Nilsson, Rysanek, Domingo, Sutherland, Horne, Pavarotti, Price, Freni and just a few others. The reason for this is that these artists were born with unique gifts but also performed at a time when the operatic gods conspired, and the planets aligned, to take those gifts and make glorious careers.

These artists worked with maestros who had the time and dedication to develop their gifts. Recording companies flourished and helped document all of these singers not only in their most famous role but all across the repertory. The fact that I teach early Verdi using Caballé and Carreras is because they were able to make these recordings.

All of these artists had success because their management saw to it that they built long careers. They sang in productions that were usually congenial to their skills as well as their limitations. In addition, ticket prices were affordable enough that almost anyone could pay to hear them sing. I believe that when ticket prices are ridiculously high (staging opera is never cheap, but things are out of proportion in many theaters), this has a negative effect on the burgeoning careers of singers. If we can’t afford to hear them on a regular basis, they do not develop the fan base and following they want and need.

For all of these reasons, the 80th birthday of Montserrat Caballé is an important occasion. Given the many health scares she has had, the fact that she is with us is no small blessing. She may have continued to perform just a little too long, but she did so with generosity. Surely she reveled in the affection of those who came to hear her, and she must know how deeply loved she is.