Caballé, Beyond Music: A Fascinating, Newly Released DVD

One of the very best and most informative DVDs on great artists is “Caballé, Beyond Music.” This is a well-documented musical biography of the Spanish soprano, Montserrat Caballé, acknowledged as one of the greatest singers of the 20th century. It was produced by Antonio Farré and is a real gem.

Monserrat Caballé narrates her story from humble beginnings to international success and worldwide acclaim. She comes across as an artist with great charisma and a wonderful sense of humor. Lurking in the background, however, one feels the steely personality of someone who was always determined to succeed. She has strong principles and has never forgotten the Bertrand family who sponsored her early music education. She admits quite candidly that without the support of her family and the Bertrands, she could never have become an international star.

She was born in Barcelona and her family suffered poverty in the aftermath of the Second World War. As a child, she learned how to overcome hardship and difficulties and never let anything keep her down. It is intriguing to join her visiting her old haunts, such as the factory where she cut handkerchiefs to earn some money. With a sweep of her hand, the prima donna grabbed a pair of scissors to demonstrate her old skill.

The DVD traces her career beginning with her first position at the Basle Opera where she remained for two years and later moved to Bremen. In Basle in addition to the repertoire, she had to master German, a language that she did not speak. Her debut was in Arabella in her hometown, at Barcelona’s famous Liceu Opera in 1962.

The DVD is replete with clips of her performances beginning with her first known live audio-visual recording, Bellini’s Il Pirata, at her Paris debut in the Salle Pleyel in 1966. Other short but notable sequences include her in inspiring performances of Adriana Lecouvreur, Roberto Devereu and Tosca and an enchanting duet with Marilyn Horn from Semiramide. Perhaps most impressive is her performance of Casta diva from Bellini’s Norma in the Théâtre antique d'Orange in 1974. Director Pierre Jourdan relates that despite the powerful wind, she overcame the adverse elements and gave an unbelievable portrayal of the Druid priestess. 

Her New York debut occurred in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia at Carnegie Hall in 1965 when she took over at the last minute from Marilyn Horn. “All hail to Caballé” was the headline in the New York Herald Tribune. She had taken New York by storm. This was one of the greatest overnight New York successes ever, relates Marilyn Horn. There is also an interview with a well-known New York opera aficionado, Lois Kirchenbaum, who enthusiastically describes her impressions of that unforgettable event from the audience’s perspective.

There are interviews, comments and touching accolades from her peers and colleagues including Marilyn Horne, Claudio Abbado, Zubin Mehta, José Carreras, Joan Sutherland, Placido Domingo, Renée Fleming, Cheryl Studer, Samuel Ramey, Maya Plisetskaya, Yelena Obratsova, Mstislav Rostropovich and Giuseppe di Stefano among many others. Many of her colleagues attest to her extraordinary pianissimo. Placido Domingo remarks that she “floats her pianissimos over 3 pages in one breadth.” According to Renée Fleming, “No pianissimo passage could match hers. They were pure magic.” Claudio Abbado said that she put her voice at the service of the composer. The former director of the Vienna Staatsoper, Ioan Holender, stated that no soprano in history possessed such a broad repertoire and she performed all roles with a high standard. She was the “most universal singer of our time.”

There are also many humorous sides. Bass Sam Ramey relates that while in a recording session with Dame Joan Sutherland, Caballé arrived and presented a bouquet of flowers to Sutherland. “Oh,” said Sutherland graciously, “flowers for the prima donna.” “No,” replied Caballé, “flowers from the prima donna.” Her British driver, Charlie Bessel, quips “The difference between a diva and a terrorist is that you can negotiate with a terrorist.”

Caballé comes from a closely knit family. Her parents and brother relocated to Basle when she took her first position. Her third operatic performance was in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. This changed her life since she married her Pinkerton, tenor Bernabé Marti. Unlike the operatic version, theirs had been a most happy union. They have two children, a son and a daughter, also named Montserrat. Initially her secretary, Monserrat is now a soprano in her own right.

Throughout Monserrat Caballé’s career, her brother Carlos gave much support. While in Bremen she was at a low point and was thinking of quitting. Carlos was instrumental in putting her back on track. He became her artistic adviser and she attributes her vocal longevity as a singer to Carlos, who restricted her in roles he believed were unsuited for her voice. Carlos also played a major role in promoting the early careers of both Jose Carreras and Juan Pons.

Caballé waxes nostalgic when she relates how she consulted with Maria Callas for advice prior to her debut performance of Tosca at London’s Royal Opera House. Caballé says that their relationship was like sisters. 
Mstislav Rostropovich, Luc Montagnier (co-discoverer of the AIDS virus) among others reveal another side to her character and relate how Caballé volunteers her services in galas and benefit concerts to promote foundations and other worthy causes.

An interesting clip features her in a touching discussion as well as a snippet from her crossover recording Barcelona with vocalist and pop star Freddie Mercury.

There are also feisty sides to her character. A famous altercation occurred with the director of the Bremen Opera early on in her career when he refused to give her permission to attend a performance of Maria Callas in Cologne. She picked up the inkwell on his desk and smashed it. 

This DVD, a worthy addition to any music lover’s collection, gives a new perspective on one of the greatest sopranos of the 20th century. “Caballé, Beyond Music,” is on the EuroArts label (Item no. NTSC 2053198) and is distributed by Naxos, the World’s Leading Classical Music Label.

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