Catherine of Aragon in the Liceu revival of Saint-Saëns’s Henry VIII. (She continued, though, to appear in concert for a decade thereafter: notable among such appearances were the 2004 concert performances of Massenet’s Cléopâtre mounted at Tivoli and later at the Liceu.)
As must already have become clear, it was a performer’s career ruled by the forza del destino; so were her early life—she was born on 12 April 1933 in Barcelona—and the attainment of all those performer attributes. When she was four, at the height of the Spanish Civil War, the Caballé family house was bombed to rubble, forcing its occupants to take shelter in the mountains outside Barcelona. Hard times followed their return to the city, yet the child’s intense love of music revealed itself early in response to her parents’ opera records. Likewise her musical gifts: at the very young age of eight, and in spite of limited family resources, she began musical studies at the conservatory— piano first, voice as a teenager. Her remarkable musicianship, obviously innate, became implanted during these years—including, no doubt, the sight-reading and speed-oflearning abilities later to become famous, even notorious.
But when she was 16, her father’s sudden illness and inability to continue paying fees resulted in her having to go out to work. Fortunately, funds supplied by a wealthy Barcelona family enabled her return as a student the following year. Three distinguished musicians, to whom in later years she never failed to pay tribute, came to exert particularly strong influences: the Italian conductor Napoleone Annovazzi, at the time music director of the Liceu opera house; the Spanish soprano Conchita Badía (notable first performer of Granados and Falla works, inter multa alia); and the Hungarian singer-teacher Eugenia Kemeny. As Caballé related to the late Frank Granville Barker (author of opera‘s Caballé ‘People’ profile, April 1975, pp. 342-8), it was from the last-named that she gained that particular foundation element of vocal mastery: ‘It was hard at first to grasp what she wanted, but when I finally understood her teaching I learned incredible breath control, so that I could support the voice on long notes even in pianissimo’.
In 1954, aged 21, she graduated from the conservatory. Given the formidable completeness, the unflustered assurance of the vocal and musical artistry that was to be revealed a decade or so later in that legendary New York Lucrezia Borgia, the innocent audience member that evening could have been forgiven for assuming that for this soprano performer the road from conservatory to Carnegie Hall had been speedily traversed and free of potholes. The reality was, of course, very different. Her first couple of post-student years were characterized by fits and starts, and in Italy a succession of unfruitful auditions.
Finally she was taken on by Theater Basel in 1956, spending her first year there as an unpaid apprentice singing small roles (and waitressing between times). But late that year, standing in for an ill Mimì in a Basel Bohème, she ‘tasted her first moment of stage success’ (as Granville Barker puts it). A wide range of roles fell to her in three years with the Basel company: among them Mozart (Elvira, Pamina, Fiordiligi), Tosca, Aida, all three Hoffmann sopranos, Strauss (Salome, Chrysothemis, Ariadne, Arabella), Marta in Tiefland, Borodin’s Yaroslavna. Moving to Bremen in 1959, she demonstrated further this astonishing versatility, adding Violetta, Cio-Cio-San, Tatyana and Rusalka.
Around this time her name starts to crop up in opera, each instance justifying the ‘astonishing versatility’ phrase. In November 1959 she’s announced for the Bremen revival of Ludwig Roselius’s 1933 opera Godiva; in January 1961, ditto for Lisbon’s Iphigénie en Tauride; in April 1961 she is reviewed in the title role of Bremen’s staging
Opera, December 2018