Opera singer hailed La Superba

Born: April 12 1933;

Died: October 6, 2018

THE soprano Montserrat Caballé, who has died aged 85, was a major star of international opera houses concentrating principally on the Italian repertory, especially Verdi, Donizetti and Rossini. She enthusiastically supported the music of her native Spain and especially composers from Catalonia.

In a career that lasted over half a century she sang principal roles in over 90 operas and gave 4000 performances – her fans called her La Superba. Her voice had purity and she was renowned for her ability to spin out spell-binding pianissimos with grace and ease. She had flawless technique. In her last days Maria Callas was asked who were her true successors in the bel canto repertory, she replied, “Only Caballé.”

Caballé gained world-wide stardom in 1987 when she recorded with the rock star Freddie Mercury the semi-operatic number Barcelona. It was featured at the Olympic Games in 1992 - the year after Mercury died - making it one of the Queen singer’s biggest solo hits. They were an unlikely duo but they greatly admired each other’s talents and became great friends. Caballé often wore a red Aids support ribbon after Mercury’s death.

Montserrat Caballé was born into a working class family in Barcelona. Her singing talent was recognised early and she had voice training at the city's Conservatori Liceu from which she graduated in 1953. Her career took off when, in1965 she made a triumphant debut in the United States, taking over from an indisposed Marilyn Horne the challenging title role in Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia at Carnegie Hall. After her first aria she stopped the show and the applause lasted five minutes. She was hailed as the new soprano star and was an overnight sensation.

It was her vocal range that was so amazing: from Handel through Mozart to Richard Strauss, Caballé had the vocal heft to conquer the most demanding roles. She sang all the dramatic roles in opera – Puccini’s Tosca and Mimi in La Boheme, Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata and (her favourite role - somewhat surprisingly) Richard Strauss’s Salome. Her voice was in excellent state into her fifties and despite what one critic called her “enormous girth” the public flocked to hear her in those great romantic operas. Even more surprising was her habit of smoking more than a pack of cigarettes a day.

She was a fine recital singer bringing subtle insight to the words of a song. Caballé delivered Schubert songs with unfailing beauty but loved singing the songs of Falla and Granados. Her only two Edinburgh Festival appearances were for recitals in the Usher Hall in 1989 and 1990. In the second concert she gave almost entirely Spanish songs but included some lesser known Debussy numbers.

Caballé’s first British appearance was as the Marschallin in Glyndebourne’s 1965 Der Rosenkavalier. To the conductor Sir John Prtichard’s horror, the soprano arrived in Sussex a week late and did not know one note of the score. After a few fraught weeks Caballé sang the first night. She had certainly made a memorable debut in Britain but never returned to Glyndebourne other than for a gala concert in 1992 to mark the closure of the old house.

Her Royal Opera debut was in 1972 as Violetta in a wonderful revival of La Traviata with Nicolai Gedda. That was followed in 1975 by Il trovatore with Carlo Cossuta and a new production of Aida in 1977. Finally she was at Covent Garden in 1992 in an operatic rarity: Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims conducted by Carlo Rizzi. Caballé did not endear herself to her conductor when, as a joke, she threw him three oranges to catch in the pit during the performance.

Also at Covent Garden she was singing a duet with Luciano Pavarotti in Un Ballo in Maschera when she just walked off the stage. She returned five minutes later as if nothing had happened. When La Superba was on stage the audience had to be prepared for anything.

She made many classic recordings, notably, Salome under Erich Leinsdorf, I puritani under Muti, Lucia di Lammermuir under Jesus Jespez Cobos and various lesser known early Verdi operas.

But it is that number one hit, Barcelona, which made Caballé a superstar. Mercury had long admired Caballé’s singing and in 1992 as the city was to host the Olympics an album was suggested. Their schedules were both tight, indeed some studio rehearsals were done with Mercury singing Caballé’s part falsetto.

Health issues and mismanagement of finances made her last years not easy – she was convicted of tax fraud in 2015 and narrowly escaped imprisonment. But she was one of the truly great singers of her generation and, unquestionably, ranked alongside the other great names of that era.

In 1964 Montserrat Caballé married the tenor Bernabé Marti. They had a daughter, who is also an opera singer, and a son.