I have to say, up front, that any attempt at objectivity on my part, when writing of Monserrat Caballé, would be futile. We are dealing with a realm of greatness here that is rare, and—as in the case of Zinka Milanov, it is hard to know where to begin. Probably with at least a little background.
Monserrat Caballé was born in Barcelona, in 1933, and studied at the Liceu Conservatory, graduating with honors in 1954. Her professional debut was in Basel, Switzerland, as Mimi in 1956. She spent the next two years at the Basel Opera—with some outside appearances in Germany—doing mainly lyric roles, appropriate for her age. She was only 23 at the time of her debut. Returning to Barcelona in 1962, she began to expand her repertoire a bit, taking on the somewhat bigger role of Arabella, having done a Salomé earlier in Germany. A tour a Mexico followed, but Caballé was to wait until 1965 before her first international breakthrough in New York’s Carnegie Hall, where she substituted for Marilyn Horne in a concertized version of Lucrezia Borgia. She was a great success, and the rise from that point on was near-meteoric. After a Glyndebourne Rosenkavalier, it was only a short while before her Met debut in 1965, in Faust, and then to the Philadelphia Lyric in Andrea Chenier, then to the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Trovatore and Bellini’s Il Pirata.
From then on, her fame was considerable, and it was on to the big roles. Her repertoire came to include Otello, Norma, Un Ballo, Don Carlo, and a good number of older operas form the period of High Romanticism, in which she was particularly successful. The career from that point on was huge, and can be consulted in any of a series of on line biographies. Suffice it say that it has been a career so illustrious that few can match it! She has received many awards and honors, from many countries.That Caballé possessed one of the greatest of voices is simply beyond question. What can be discussed, however, are the quality and development of that voice. I have had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of a gentleman whose knowledge of opera in general, and of great singers in particular (many of whom he has known personally) is truly extraordinary. I mentioned to him recently that I was going to write about Caballé, and he offered to research for me the critical comments that greeted her in America, first at her Met debut, and then in later performances. What he found was most interesting and pertinent. Caballe’s voice was not immediately seen, nor was it particularly ever seen, as simply a huge voice. It is not really a huge voice. It is certainly big enough, but it is more a question of quality, production, and exemplary technique, all joined to give that impression.
Her first roles were lyric roles, as I mentioned at the beginning. At her Met debut, she received a good enough review for her work in Faust, but the critics said it was not her best role. However, they praised her “gleaming” high notes which could easily be heard in the house. In 1967 she did an Otello, but the critic felt that her voice was too small for the role. It could of course simply be the case that she was developing slowly and carefully, an opinion to which I personally hold. She certainly is a very intelligent and well trained singer, who, in a word, has always known exactly what she was doing. Later, in 1972, at a Met Gala, she got a really fine review for her Manon Lescaut duet with Plácido Domingo. Later, she finally found the extraordinary reviews which have become fairly commonplace, starting with a terrific review for Norma. This critical glance back at reviews is united by a common thread, and that is development! I would say this is very important, even crucial to the understanding of the Caballé voice. Many thanks to my friend for this research! Let us take a look at a role that goes back to the very beginning of her career; Mimí:
This is, of course, simply beautiful, and even though this particular performance comes at a later moment in her career, the lovely young and lyric voice is very much in evidence. It is not in any way “huge.” That is an illusion, primarily, based on perfect placement, ringing clarity, and a remarkable ease of production. No stress, no strain, as easy as speaking, and it can be heard everywhere.
The voice did of course develop somewhat in color and intensity over time, and she soon was being heard in big, big roles, and the impression of size and power was always there, but again, there is more of perfect placement and superb technique to thank than any Nilsson-type size. Caballé began to take on some old and unusual operas which contained showpiece arias that proved perfect vehicles for her particular voice. Here is a spectacular “Non fu sogno,” from Verdi’s I Lombardi:
Now, isn’t that something! Again, the impression is huge, but it’s not that the voice per se has changed so much from what it was at the beginning of the career. This is the Caballé of the huge impression, the extraordinary voice, the very operatic sound of the High Romanticism of the mid-19th century. What is truly amazing, at least to me, however, is that this wonderful soprano, at the very peak of her fame and full vocal maturity (to say the least, at age 63, when the following concert took place) can hold a huge audience spell-bound with some of the most beautiful, lyrical, sustained, elegant, dream-like music ever written, the astonishing “Willow, Willow,” from Otello:
The Great Monserrat Caballé! I can hardly add more.