News came down last week that the great Spanish soprano Monserrat Caballé has died. There’s a nicely done obit in the New York Times with some wonderful excerpts of her singing (check out the pianissimi in the Granados bit from YouTube).
And she is the focus of the beginning of the Gramophone Podcast . It’s from there that the Callas + Tebaldi equation comes. James Jolly of Gramohphone reports that this was the Times’ headline on Caballe’s history making debut in New York City in 1965, substituting for Marilyn Horne in a performance of Donizetti’s Lucretia Borgia at Carnegie Hall. I will have to look up the clipping to confirm, but the general idea seemed to be that Caballé combined the beautiful sound of Renata Tebaldi, the Italian soprano beloved for her creamy middle register and warmth in Puccini and Verdi, as well as the dramatic fire of Maria Callas, whose roles ranged further than Tebaldi’s, particularly to the orate bel canto operas which she helped revive, and Caballé went on to triumph in. (In truth Callas could make beautiful sounds and Tebaldi had dramatic power to spare in the right roles, but the analogy still rings true.)
There is also about all three–and many singers before and since–that x factor of vocal charisma, a sound that seems to saying something personal to you and always catches your attention. Caballé has it and is one that set a template for a life time of loving opera for me. Perhaps something to attribute at least in part to first encountering her singing as a 13 year old (during my age inappropriate introduction to opera). Everything about her sound, the distinctive vocal color, the the odd glottal stop sound you could hear in her pronunciation, and most of all the ability to spin out soft high notes that that seemed like she was breathing for you. Soft enveloping sound is not what comes to mind first in opera, but those moments are many and she excelled in them.
So in love with her voice was I that I did what any teen does. Played her records over and over and made anybody I could listen to her. My go to introduction “Signore Ascolta” from Turandot which ends with with one of those magical high notes. Here it is from a concert.
And here is something I’ve always loved, and should be in the dictionary under “soft high singing: perfection,” “Dupuis le jour” from Louise. (Not sure of the source: maybe from a gala performance for Rudolph Bing.)
It seems like the music you hear as a teen sets a template for what “music is” and for me at least Caballé’s sound will always be a big part of what “opera is.” I’m grateful for that.