Spanish opera singer Montserrat Caballe, also known as “La Superba”, was born 89 years ago on Tuesday.
She was widely celebrated for her distinctive bel canto vocal technique and was also recognised for taking opera into the pop charts by singing with Queen singer Freddie Mercury.
Spain’s King Felipe VI called her “the great lady of opera, legend of universal culture, the best of the best”.
In her honour, Google changed its logo in six countries. This is her story:
Depression, and the Spanish Civil War
Maria de Montserrat Viviana Concepcion Caballe was born in Barcelona on April 12, 1933.
Her formerly middle-class family struggled financially during the 1930s Depression and Spanish Civil War.
“Despite the civil war and the difficult post-war period when you never knew where the next crust of bread was coming from, [my parents] were always happy and optimistic,” Caballe later told Serafin Garcia Ibanez in the UNESCO Courier.
They also appreciated classical music. Carles Caballe i Borras and his wife, Anna Folch, often listened to their opera collection in front of young Caballe, who showed great talent in music.
At the age of 13, Caballe’s parents managed to enrol her in the Conservatorio del Liceo.
She trained with Eugenia Kemeny who taught students breath training. Due to this training, the opera singer later said she maintained a long career without deterioration in her vocal quality.
Caballe also studied under the conservatory’s musical director, Napoleone Annovazzi, and later delved into Spanish song literature.
She graduated aged 20 and started auditioning for opera productions in Italy.
#Undíacomohoy (1933) nace en Barcelona la soprano Montserrat Caballé. Tienes que verla en todo su esplendor. Aquí, en ‘María Stuarda’, una ópera que disfrutamos en 1979 👉 https://t.co/z0kFSdyfFb #FelizMartes #BuenosDías #12Abril pic.twitter.com/iAAWhLLeWa
— Archivo RTVE (@ArchivoRTVE) April 12, 2022
Translation: On a day like today, the soprano Montserrat Caballe was born in Barcelona. You have to watch in all her splendour here, in María Stuarda, an opera that we enjoyed in 1979,” Spanish agency RTVE tweeted on Tuesday.
After not landing any roles in Italy, she focused her efforts in Switzerland. There, she found a role with the Basel Opera, and in the following years, she began to perform around Europe, singing the parts of more than 40 roles from the late 1950s to the early 1960s.
In 1964, the singer married Spanish tenor Bernabe Marti. They had two children, Montserrat Marti and Bernabe Marti.
Wider international recognition came in 1965 when she performed in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia at Carnegie Hall in New York. The performance, a complete success, led to her debut that same year at the Metropolitan Opera, as Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust.
Cabelle’s natural ability to sing in multiple styles opened different doors and exposed her to a variety of audiences. Another key moment in her career came in 1987, when she and her close friend Mercury recorded Barcelona, the eventual anthem for the 1992 Olympic Games in the Spanish city.
"Barcelona"was the second solo album of Freddie released in 1987 with the opera singer Spanish Montserrat Caballé. 😍#TheGoldenBoy #Barcelona #FreddieMercury #MontserratCaballe pic.twitter.com/CRimCtf3wv
— S Ξ V (@S3V_B) July 31, 2019
Cabelle faced many health challenges throughout her career, including a benign brain tumour, a heart attack and phlebitis. Those conditions led to her cancelling her performances several times.
“I cancel when I am sick,” she told The Chicago Tribune in 1995. “I have had seven major surgeries in my life. I have had tumours. I have had two children with caesareans; you don’t just get up and sing the day after one of those. I was in an accident in 1969 in New York that required surgery and took four months for me to recover. I don’t cancel because of temperament.”
In 2015, she was convicted of tax fraud and she faced a suspended sentence of six months, and a fine of 250,000 euros ($278,000) for having claimed a residence in Andorra.
She died in Barcelona at the age of 85.
“A great ambassador of our country dies, an opera soprano recognised internationally,” Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said at the time. “Her voice and her kindness will always remain with us.”