Montserrat Caballé obituary: Operatic diva most often associated with a bygone, golden era

Soprano’s impoverished childhood had very nearly placed world of opera out of reach

Montserrat Caballe performing at the Palais des Festivals in Cannes.   Her voice was admired for an ethereal translucence that few other voices could equal. File photograph: Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images

Montserrat Caballe performing at the Palais des Festivals in Cannes. Her voice was admired for an ethereal translucence that few other voices could equal. File photograph: Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images


Montserrat Caballé

Born: April 12, 1933.

Died: October 6th, 2018

Montserrat Caballé, the Spanish soprano widely counted among the last of the old-time prima donnas for the transcendent purity of her voice, the sweeping breadth of her repertory and the delirious adulation of her fans, died Saturday in Barcelona, Spain. She was 85.

Her death was confirmed by Sant Pau Hospital in Barcelona, where she was admitted last month, and by the city’s Gran Teatre del Liceu.

Caballé was, critics concurred, one of the sublime representatives of a type of diva most often associated with a bygone, golden era: smolderingly regal, seemingly inscrutable, a larger-than-life presence accorded godlike status by her reverential public.

“La Superba”, the world press called her, elevating her to membership in an international soprano triumvirate that also included “La Divina” (Maria Callas) and “La Stupenda” (Joan Sutherland).

For sheer vocal glory, reviewers wrote, few voices, if any, could rival Caballé’s. She was possessed of a lyric soprano that, though light and shimmering, was not without heft. It was renowned for its riverine suppleness, and for an ethereal translucence that few other voices could equal.

She was no actress, critics agreed, a consensus in which Caballé cheerfully concurred. And her ample frame, reviewers sometimes noted, cut an unpersuasive figure of the consumptive heroine — think of Mimì in Puccini’s La Bohème – that is grand opera’s stock-in-trade.

Chronic disappointment

Caballé also developed a reputation for pulling out of scheduled performances, a source of chronic irritation to reviewers and chronic disappointment to fans.

That voice, Caballé often said, had been a gift from God – one on which she had built rigorous, hard-won training that her impoverished childhood had very nearly placed out of reach.

Named for Our Lady of Montserrat, the patron saint of Catalonia, Maria de Montserrat Viviana Concepción Caballé i Folch was born in Barcelona on April 12, 1933.

Amid the Depression, and the Spanish Civil War, she was reared in poverty. (In interviews throughout her career, Caballé diplomatically expressed equal pride in her Catalan and Spanish backgrounds. She was also circumspect about whether her family had been Republicans, supporting Spain’s democratically elected government, or Nationalists, supporting military dictator Francisco Franco.)

What was plain was that during those years, her family, formerly middle class, knew great hardship. Long afterward, when she was safely swathed in the jewels and furs that are a diva’s prerogative, Caballé recalled a time when she owned only a single dress. To the sneers of her classmates, she wore it to school every day for a year.

Her parents, Carles Caballé i Borrás and Anna Folch, loved music and, listening to their collection of opera records, young Montserrat was smitten. At 8, she took it upon herself to learn Un Bel Di, Cio-Cio-San’s aria from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and so she did, by ear, singing it for her family.

Vocal exercises

It was clear that the child had a remarkable talent. Though her parents could scarcely afford it, she soon began studies at the Conservatori Superior de Música del Liceu in Barcelona, first on the piano and then, as a young teenager, in voice.

Her primary voice teacher, Eugenia Kemeny, made her pupils spend a full year doing vocal exercises and breath training before they could approach real music. That training, Caballé would say afterward, let her sustain her career as long as she did.

When Montserrat was about 16, her father fell ill and could not support the family, forcing her to withdraw from the conservatory. She worked for nearly a year in a handkerchief factory before attracting the sponsorship of wealthy Barcelona patrons, who agreed to support Montserrat and her family. In gratitude, she returned annually throughout her career to sing in Barcelona.

At 20, Caballé graduated from the conservatory with its gold medal for voice and embarked on auditions with Italian opera companies. Nervous and untried, she failed at all of them, inspiring one agent, she recalled, to suggest she forsake singing and find a husband.

Trying her luck in Switzerland, she caught on with the Basel Opera in 1956, singing small roles until she was called upon to sing Mimì in place of an ailing soprano. She spent the rest of the ‘50s and early ‘60s singing throughout Europe.

Caballé remained relatively unknown in the United States until April 20th, 1965. She had been engaged to fill in that night for an indisposed Marilyn Horne, singing Lucrezia Borgia in a concert production by the American Opera Society at Carnegie Hall.

Met debut

The performance established Caballé’s international career. She made her Met debut in December 1965, singing Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust.

Caballé’s career was not without difficulties. Over the years, she endured a series of illnesses, including phlebitis, a heart attack and a benign brain tumor, resulting in missed performances.

In a Spanish tax fraud case of 2014-15, Caballé agreed to a suspended sentence of six months and a fine of €254,000 for having falsely claimed residence in Andorra, a tax haven. (In reality, she had long maintained homes in Vienna and in the countryside near Barcelona.)

Caballé’s survivors include her husband, Spanish tenor Bernabé Martí, whom she married in 1964 after he sang Pinkerton to her Cio-Cio-San; a son, Bernabé jnr; and a daughter, Montserrat Martí, also an opera singer. – NYT Service