The incomparable Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé has died at the age of 85 in a hospital in Barcelona. She was known to have had persistent health problems, and was admitted to hospital last month because of a gall bladder problem. Beloved for her remarkable pianissimi and unfailing vocal glamour, like Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland she was a famous exponent of the bel canto repertoire, helping to revive interest in works that had lain dormant on world stages and in recording studios for many years. The soprano was also highly regarded for her interpretations of the operas of Verdi, excelling as Violetta, Luisa Miller and Elisabetta in particular, as well as Puccini, where her vocal gifts made her uniquely suitable for the role of Liù.

Montserrat Caballé

Born in Barcelona on April 12, 1933, Caballé showed musical promise early on, treating her family to renditions of Bach cantatas from the age of seven. She was only nine years old when she was accepted into the city’s Conservatori Liceu, studying first the piano and then the voice as a teenager. At 20, she graduated from the Conservatori, having won its coveted gold medal for voice, and began auditions for Italian opera companies in earnest.

After a number of rejections, the soprano continued study in Milan, subsequently moving to Switzerland where she made her professional opera debut in 1965 as Mimì with Basel Opera. She became a company singer between 1957 and 1959, singing a repertoire that encompassed both Mozart’s First Lady and Strauss’s Salome, the latter of which she would consider one of her favourite roles.

In time-honoured tradition, the soprano became an international star after stepping in for an indisposed Marilyn Horne in a concert performance of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia at Carnegie Hall in 1965. She earned a 25-minute standing ovation for her efforts, with audiences quick to designate the thrilling newcomer Callas’ true heir. Not only was it her first excursion into the bel canto, she had also learnt the highly challenging role in less than a month. Theatres around the world began engaging her quickly thereafter – Caballé made her Glyndebourne debut that same year, appearing as both the Marschallin and the Countess Almaviva.

She returned to Carnegie Hall in December of  ’65 for her second bel canto assumption, that of Elisabetta in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. It was soon followed by her Metropolitan Opera debut on December 22, where she appeared as Gounod’s Marguerite opposite the Valentin of another debuting artist, American baritone Sherrill Milnes. Both singers became house regulars, with Caballé returning in 1967 to sing three Verdi heroines: Il Trovatore’s Leonora, Desdemona and Violetta.

A string of house debuts soon followed, with her La Scala debut seeing her reprise the auspicious role of Lucrezia Borgia. Her portrayal of Verdi’s tragic courtesan was seemingly another talisman for the soprano, the occasion of both her Covent Garden and Lyric Opera of Chicago debuts in 1972. Caballé continued her foray into the byways of the bel canto, with her magisterial interpretation of Bellini’s Norma particularly celebrated. Her 1974 ‘Orange Norma’, a windswept, outdoor performance in France which has since been committed to DVD, captures the soprano at her peak. She would later describe it as “the greatest single performance of her career.” The seemingly endless reserves of breath, the velvety plushness of her instrument, and those ravishing pianissimi that she was so lauded for are all on ample display in this astonishing document.

The soprano sang well into her 60s and was a frequent recitalist throughout her career, including in Australia where she appeared in concert in 1979 with the pianist Nina Walker. She leaves behind a substantial discography, many of them unimpeachable object lessons in the bel canto – her recording of Lucrezia Borgia under Jonel Perlea is one such example, as is her Adalgisa opposite Sutherland’s Norma in a 1984 Decca recording. She will also be remembered for the beauty of her recorded Salome under Erich Leinsdorf, a particular treasure.

Testament to her adventurous spirit, the soprano’s fame also extended outside the opera world, thanks to her duet with Freddie Mercury on the hit 1987 single Barcelona, which later became the city’s anthem during the 1992 Summer Olympics. Mercury described her voice as “the best in the world.”

Her life was not without controversy – in December 2015, the soprano was given a six-month suspended prison sentence and fined more than €250,000 for tax evasion.

Caballé is survived by her husband, the Spanish tenor Bernabé Martí, and two children, one of whom is the soprano Montserrat Martí.