Montserrat Caballé: Ultimate Diva

Friday, April 12, 2013 - 10:00 AM

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.


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Comments [19]

Sanford Rothenberg from Brooklyn

Caballe had a beauty of tone and was certainly a "Princess of Pianissimi".One delightful story involves this champion of soft singing bellowing "Canta piano" onstage to her tenor during a performance.

Aug. 30 2013 12:35 AM
Sarita Diaz from NY

Hi Fred,
thanks for the article. She is a favorite and brought many memories of wonderful performances a The Met

Apr. 16 2013 11:32 PM
Marc from Barcelona

Great article on Montserrat Caballe! I just read it yesterday on the day of her anniversary. I used to leave school to get tickets for her performances until my parents realised it! I'm with you on that the
> gods conspired, and the planets aligned, to create this generation of great singers.

Apr. 15 2013 07:50 PM
Claudia from Ruskin, FL

Thank you so much for this piece on my favorite singer, Montserrat Caballe. Madame's was perhaps not the "greatest" voice of the 20th century, but, for many of us, she possessed the most indescribably beautiful voice. And the phrasing! That wonderful, long-line phrasing that she could carry up and down the scale, changing dynamics along the way, and bringing new dimensions of meaning to the lyrics. Her acting: Let's remember that she was a girl of Catalunya. She knew how to use those eyes. And she knew how to use that fan! Her fans have "Montse Firsts". Mine was driving my little VW and listening to the Met on radio. That Voice came on. I was so overcome that I had to pull off the road.

Apr. 15 2013 11:12 AM
Mary Jane Hodge from Melville, NY

Oh the wonderful performances at the Met - Happy Birthday to you Madame and thank you for sharing your treasure of a voice. Love and gratitude from the second tier.

Apr. 15 2013 09:43 AM

Caballe remains beautiful and vital and it is still thrilling to hear her sing.

Apr. 14 2013 11:43 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Thanks for the article Fred. She was wonderful. I think her many cancellations were due to poor health brought on perhaps by her weight. Who knows. As for pianissimos, I also think of Milanov. Madame Caballe was also very beautiful. Happy Birthday.

Apr. 14 2013 10:18 AM
b.Weiser from New York

Thank you for your blog about Monserrat Caballe. I have felt from the first time I heard her sing live ( the 70's) that there was not enough recognition of her supreme gifts. I am glad that you stated that she acted with her voice because I cannot imagine any voice as dramatically expressive. I am so tired of people calling her pianissimo a trick, criticizing her acting or her girth. All I know is that in the many years I have followed her, listened to her music, I do not know another soprano who can evoke a deeper sense of the music and more love for the music and the audience that she spins into her lair. I am so grateful for what she has given us all and pleased to see something in print about her greatness.

Apr. 13 2013 08:14 PM
Donna Morein from Germany

I’ll always be grateful to her for making my stage debut so memorable. It was in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda at Lyric Opera of Chicago, when I jumped in for a sick colleague in the role of Anna Kennedy. Madame Caballé sang the role of Maria, and despite an acute case of sciatica, sang so incredibly beautifully. Her glorious pianissimi still ring in my ears.

Apr. 13 2013 07:04 PM
Lynda Smith from Lees Summit, Missouri

Mme Caballe is my very favorite singer. I've read every word in her biography and respect her so much, not only for her artistry and beautiful voice but also for the person that she is. She has a good sense of humor as the many funny stories in the biography show us. She speaks at least six languages. Her smile and laugh are just beautiful. Happy 80th birthday Mme Caballe and many more.

Apr. 13 2013 05:52 PM
Barry Morentz from New YOrk City

Every performance was a treasure, but my greatest memory of Mme Caballe was the Met premiere of Vespri Siciliani Jan 31, 1974. The astonishing pianissimo at the conclusion of the Dungeon Scene aria, and the length to which she held it, let alone the seamless traversal up and down the scale, elicited an ovation that compelled her to turn to the audience and hold out her hand so as to allow the performance to continue. When I met her backstage at Saratoga after a sublime Verdi Requiem and thanked her for her glorious singing, her response was one of amazing humility, gratitude, and charm. Surely a great diva in the best sense of the word. We have been blessed!

Apr. 13 2013 12:04 PM
Guille from Miami Beach

A remarkable woman,always gracious to her fans and friends alike. I was fortunate to hear her at her Old Met in Faust,and from there on followed her career to my delight. Feliz Cumpleaños Caballe!

Apr. 13 2013 11:59 AM
Víctor Moné from Sunny Florida

Hi Fred, thank you for bringing back memories. We really enjoyed the best. Regards and a big hug.

Apr. 13 2013 11:25 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

Among the many imperishable performances of Madame Caballe', I have to include her Salome' in Massenet's "He'rodiade" at the Liciu Theatre in 1983. Her colleagues were Carreras, Pons, Vejovic and Roderick Kennedy, all in their prime. Truly a grand opera that demands world-class singers (and orchestra and chorus) to do it justice, this performance is one of the most memorable I've ever heard. Many happy birthdays and returns of the day, Madame Caballe'.

Apr. 13 2013 09:40 AM
La critica from Italy

How can we forget? #Freddy + #Montserrat

Apr. 12 2013 07:39 PM
Stephen Feldman from Manila (ex-New York)

This woman's artand sound a carry-me-upwards in times of distress

Apr. 12 2013 06:34 PM
Elaine from Brooklyn, NY

Caballe? Definitely my desert island singer. Happy Birthday to a grande dame.

Apr. 12 2013 05:47 PM
Leslie from Belfast, Maine

People talk about the "non-acting" in opera. Thanks for this, Fred. This is good and the singing better, than a lot of what I see today.

Don't get me wrong, I have favorites today.

This has kept me working, though.

Apr. 12 2013 01:18 PM
Madison from Manhattan

Three of my favorite Caballe performances were a Turandot with Pavarotti in SF in the late 70's, a recital of Spanish songs in Orange County around the same time and a 1976(?) special Met gala of Boheme with Pavarotti.In that Boheme, Caballe joined the audience in their boisterous applauding for the end of "che gelida manina".The NYT review, with a headline noting "electricity at the Met", remarked that it was the first time in Met history that an onstage soprano applauded her tenor during a performance.

Apr. 12 2013 11:36 AM

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