Montserrat Caballe (1933 – ) lacked the absolute vocal richness and beauty of Rosa Ponselle and Leontyne Price or the magnetic intensity of Maria Callas, and she never mastered a trill for her Bel Canto roles, but her luscious creamy tones, her perfect legato, and an almost unbelievable pianissimo – often described as a “floating” Pianissimo” – made her unequaled in her time as a master of Bel Canto and Verdi roles.
She was equally at home in German lieder, operas by Mozart, Strauss, and the Romantic French composers.
Montserrat Concepción Bibiana Caballé i Folch was born in Barcelona, Spain, during the Spanish Civil War. Her parents loved classical music and singing was part of her daily home life but there was no money for music training. Her parents found a wealthy family in Barcelona to help finance her studies and she entered the Conservatorio del Liceo at the age of 13 (her mother lied about her age) and graduated with a gold medal.
Moving to Switzerland, she made her operatic debut in 1956 as Mimi in La Boheme with the Basel Opera company
but it was in Vienna, in a performance of Strauss’ Salome that made her famous. She made her La Scala debut in 1960 and developed a reputation throughout Europe as an outstanding in Verdi and Donizetti singer.
In 1965, she rocketed to fame after substituting on very short notice for a pregnant Marilyn Horne at Carnegie Hall in New York and super-stardom followed her performance as Margurite in Gounod’s Faust at the Metropolitan Opera that same year. One critic wrote: “Her pianissimo was angelic. It didn’t just enchant your ear — it stopped your heart. Her technique was so unobtrusive that she hardly seemed to draw breath at all. She’d gently lift her voice onto a high note and let it float serenely, like a sailboat on a quiet lake.”
Caballe married in 1964 and had two children, turning down an offer from the Metropolitan Opera for a 10-year contract because she wanted to continue living in Spain with her family. Her weight and high blood pressure had always been a problem and she suffered a minor heart attack. She also required operations for her knee and her kidney, as well as surgery to remove a large tumor from her abdomen, all of which helps explain why by the 1980s she had developed a reputation for last-minute cancellations.
In 1985 Caballe was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Doctors gave her three years to live unless she had an operation but she refused. “If I cannot sing, it’s like being dead . . . In a way this tumor keeps me company, I am not hostile to it even if it gives me some headaches, for sure it has changed the way I look at life,” she said. “The tumor is still there but we have become friends.” After nearly thirty years, that friendship remains.
As her voice lost some it’s brilliance and purity, she learned to use more drama and expressivity adding Tosca and Norma to her repertoire.
She continued to perform through the 1980’s and recording into the 1990’s, even recording an album of duets with rock singer Freddie Mercury of Queen
Caballe has never officially retired from opera. She made occasional appearances in 2002, 2004, and 2007. She continues to live with her husband of 48 years, tenor Bernabe Marti, in Barcelona and gives annual recitals to benefit charities and institutions she supports. The voice is fragile now, as is the singer, but she continues to conduct Master Classes for aspiring singers without a fee and remains a woman of great warmth and humor.