Montserrat Caballé
Montserrat Caballé © Getty  /  Evening Standard

Montserrat Caballé's 5 greatest roles

With the death of the Catalan soprano Montserrat Caballé on 6 October 2018, a curtain falls on the era of legendary prima donnas. A leading voice in the bel canto revival, she left a rich legacy of recordings and unforgettable performances. This is 'La Superba' at her finest.

Few names have dominated the world of opera like that of Montserrat Caballé. An extremely versatile singer, she performed over 90 different roles throughout her long career. Crowned 'La Superba' by her fans, she excelled in the bel canto repertoire of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, remaining almost unmatched in both vocal timbre and dynamic range. The soprano was also one of the first opera stars to break with tradition by exploring her cherished Spanish folksongs as well as branching out into pop and rock. Her duet with Freddie Mercury, Bercelona, brought opera to a wider public, with . the lead singer of Queen declaring that she possessed 'the best voice in the world'. Here are 5 of her most memorable roles and performances:

Lucrezia Borgia - Donizetti (1965)

Though Montserrat Caballé had already made her operatic debut in 1956 in Basel as Mimì in Puccini's La bohème, her first great success came nine years later at New York's Carnegie Hall in the title role of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia. Replacing the indisposed Marilyn Horne barely one month before the opening, Montserrat Caballé not only fulfilled her duty but surpassed all expectations. Her jaw-dropping performance - richly expressive, brimming with character, demonstrating perfect vocal control without excessive bravura - earned her a 25-minute standing ovation and instant, worldwide renown. Caballé went on to make her debut at La Scala in the same role...

Norma - Bellini

One of the most demanding bel canto roles, Bellini's Norma is a rite of passage for any coloratura soprano, as emotionally complex as it is technically demanding. Although it was Maria Callas who popularised the role in the 1950s, with her signature aria Casta diva, La Divina encouraged the younger Caballé to take it up, too. Interestingly, not only did the Spanish soprano master this daunting role, she is also one of the few opera singers in history to have sung both Norma and the role of Adalgisa (alongside Joan Sutherland as Norma in 1984).

Aida - Verdi

One of her first major roles with the Basel Opera between 1956 and 1959, Aida is a heroine that Caballé returned to  in 1974 at the Liceau in Barcelona, and the Met in New York in 1976. A perfect example of Caballé's masterful blend of strength and infinite tonal subtleties, her performance as Aida is still remembered to this day. However, Montserrat Caballé was also prone to unfortunate fainting spells both on- and off-stage. The Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson recalls in her biography that the music director Hans Wallat nicknamed his Spanish star 'Aballé' after a fainting spell before the famous 'Nile' aria, in which she consequently missed the high C. 

Turandot - Puccini (1972)

Often considered the mark of a great singer, the messa di voce technique requires changing the volume of a note whilst maintaining the pitch, intonation, timbre, and vibrato. Renowned for her spellbinding pianissimo, Caballé was capable of singing even the softest of notes while still taming the powerful orchestra behind. A perfect example of the soprano's legendary messa di voce can be found in her performance as Liù in Puccini's Turandot:

Voice of Zarzuela

Not only a formidable force in the established opera canon, Caballé was also a champion of her native Spanish vocal music, seeking to promote the repertoire of lesser-known and oft-overlooked composers. An avid singer of zarzuela (a form of traditional Spanish musical comedy), Caballé brouught the popular music of Spain to a wider international audience. Evidently at ease in both operatic and more traditional domains, the warmth of her voice lends itself beautifully to the traditional Spanish repertoire: