Her international breakthrough came in 1965. She was asked at short notice to learn the title role in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia which was to be given a concert performance in Carnegie Hall. She was utterly unknown, but after her first aria the astounded New York audience gave her an ovation that lasted twenty minutes. As the New York Herald Tribune reported the following day: “No amount of advance publicity could have foretold the extraordinary impact that this stately Goya-esque woman would have on an audience already spoiled by the likes of Callas and Sutherland. When Caballé began her first aria, there was a perceptible change in the atmosphere. It seemed for a moment that everyone had stopped breathing”. Representatives of the major operatic and recording companies were in the audience that evening, and overnight her international career was launched. Since then, she has sung in all the great opera houses and concert halls throughout the world: Scala Milan, New York Metropolitan, Vienna State Opera, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Paris Opera, Gran Teatro del Liceo Barcelona, Moscow Bolshoi, Saint Petersburg Maryinski, Teatro Colón Buenos Aires, San Francisco Opera, Hamburg Opera, Munich Opera, Salzburg Festival, Aix en Provence, Orange, Glyndebourne, Pesaro, Verona, London Royal Festival Hall, Carnegie Hall and Avery Fisher Hall New York, Palau de la Música Catalana Barcelona, Teatro Real Madrid, NHK Hall Tokyo, Salle Pleyel, Salle Gaveau and Thëâtre Champs Elysées Paris, Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Vienna Konzerthaus, etc. She has also sung under with the most prestigious orchestras and under the baton of Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein, Zubin Mehta, Claudio Abbado, James Levine, Seiji Ozawa, Sir Georg Solti, Sir Colin Davis, Riccardo Muti, Carlo Maria Giulini, among others.
Montserrat Caballé’s repertoire is enormous -her stage roles number nearly 90- and is probably unrivalled by any other singer this century. She can also lay fair claim to being one of the most commercially recorded, with over 80 titles to her credit, half of which are of complete operas. She has sung all the great roles of the standard repertory, from Luisa Miller to Salome, from Pamina to Isolde. But she is perhaps best known -and most admired for- her bel canto assumptions: the great queens of Donizetti’s tragedies found in her an ideal interpreter, capable of investing what in most hands can sound diffuse and generic music with a depth of emotional and dramatic power way beyond the range of mere coloraturas. Small wonder, then, that she became the only meaningful successor to Maria Callas in the role of Norma, an opera in which she dominated the world’s stages throughout the 1970’s. Additionally, she has also shown a remarkable enthusiasm for tackling forgotten works. In this, she has of course continued the examples set by Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, but has in fact gone considerably further than either. Over the last ten years, at a stage of the career when most sopranos content themselves with a progressive reduction in their activities, preserving only a handful of manageable roles, Montserrat has instead embarked upon an astonishing exploration of unfamiliar repertory. This includes Gluck’s Armide, Salieri’s Les Danaïdes, Paccini’s Saffo, Spontini’s La Vestale and Agnese di Hohenstaufen, Massenet’s Herodiade, Cherubini’s Medea and Démophon, Rossini’s Ermione and Il Viaggio a Reims, Donizetti’s Sancia di Castiglia and Respighi’s La Fiamma.
Additionally, she has become known to a different and even wider audience through her collaboration with the late Freddie Mercury on the album Barcelona, a state of affairs which seems set fair to be extended as a result of a new collaboration with Vangelis.
Following her rediscoveries of forgotten master works, which she is known for throughout her career, she has recently sang the role of Catherine d’Aragon in Saint- Saëns’ Henry VIII, Massenet’s Marie-Magdeleine , Cléôpatre and La Fille du Regiment “Duchesse de Crakentorp” at the Vienna State Opera.
Montserrat is the holder of numerous international honours and awards including the Order of Doña Isabel la Católica, the Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres. From 1974 she is Honorary Ambassadorship to the United Nations and from 1991 Peace Ambassador. Since 1994 she is Goodwill Ambassador to the Unesco. Recently she has been awarded the Doctor Honoris Causa by the Universidad Politécnica of Valencia and by the Mendeleyev University of Chemical Technology of Russia, as well as the Russian Friendship Order and recently she has been awarded with the Doctor Honoris Causa by the internationals University Menéndez Pelayo and by the University of Barcelona. The MIDEM in Cannes has awarded her with a special prize, for her outstanding support to young talents. Also at the Palais des Festivals in Cannes took place the world première of the musical film “Caballé beyond music”. Recently she has been awarded with the Generalitat de Catalunya National Prize of Culture and the Grosses Verdienstkreuz des Verdienstordens of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Honour Prize of the Academia de las Artes y Ciencias de la Música, as well as the Gold Medal of the Gran Teatro del Liceo Barcelona, she has been nominated chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur and she has received the Titel of Kammersängerin from the Vienna Staatsoper and most recently she has received the highest codecoration of the Italian Republic “Dama de la gran croce” Her greatness as an artist has primarily been founded on her vocal qualities: one of the most beautiful and versatile voices in recorded history allied to a virtually flawless technique. But there is also the charismatic power and warmth of her personality, which reaches out and captivates audiences the world over. In an age when the term has been debased by indiscriminate use, Caballé remains the authentic embodiment of what is to be a DIVA.
© Robert Pullen & Stephen Taylor.