My Memories Of Montserrat
Her name was as big and meaty as her voice and presence. I happened to be awake early this Saturday morning as the news came in. Montserrat Caballé is dead. ‘Muere Montserrat’ the headline said. And she died in the only place she could – in Barcelona.
When you live in Europe, it is easy to catch cultural obsessions which last two or three summers. A fascination with Switzerland perhaps; or a devotion to Denmark. In the early 1990s, my hobby was Spain. I wanted to pack it all into my head and heart: the customs, the language, the culture.
Spain at that time was less than 20 years after Franco, and it was a nation heady with the excitement of being free. It was at an exuberant time and I was at an exuberant age. We were meant to be.
Into this cocktail came the 1992 Olympics, the launch of Catalonia on the world stage, and the delivery of a world city with a single anthem. Barcelona.
Freddy Mercury and Montserrat Caballé presented an opera of sorts in four minutes – full of passion, tingle, wit and wonder. Mercury was the genius, but she was the miracle. The delicacy of her line, the way her vocal entry grew and grew, the way she flung her arms around Mercury and flung them open to the world. Caballé was a native of Catalonia, and she became its embodiment. Her soul was Barcelona.
That summer of 1992, I found myself with dear friends in Malaga, committing to Spanish food, beer, life and men. There is drama to life in your twenties which dissipates as we get older. Back then, each holiday was a novel written in real time.
We went to a bullfight, as we thought it was reasonable to understand a thing before you protest a thing. I recall the tortuously hot and airless bullring in the afternoon sun. A giant bull being felled before our eyes. The audience, almost exclusively Spanish, began mysteriously waving bunting and going wild. The frenzy progressed in a sort of Andalusian-Mexican wave.
As we were all looking at the same thing, I wondered what was going on. Until the wave came to where we were – and we got the sweet, dank, unmistakable smell of blood. It had travelled slowly from the neck of the bull, and was now suspended in the air all around us.
That same holiday, it so happened that Montserrat Caballé was in town. There was a full moon that night, and the concert was outdoors. I have no memorabilia from that period and, unlike Brett Kavanaugh, I did not keep calendars. But it’s easy to track down a full moon in August: Montserrat and I were last together on Thursday 13th 1992, in Malaga.
That evening we were again surrounded by Spaniards paying homage to a Spanish icon. But the crowd was not baying for blood. This was all about beauty.
I remember the evening as mesmeric – with her beautiful soprano voice wafting to our seats through the summer air. We were far from the stage, but Montserrat was a famously big lady. And her presence larger still.
I did not know much classical music at the time. I was a Freddie Mercury recruit. But she, at the time, was moving to find an audience outside of opera. She sang Hijo de la Luna, a Mecano song which had been a big favourite of mine. That locked me in. I still remember the emotions of that night, wrapped in the kind of outside temperature which is so perfectly pitched you don’t trust your skin anymore; as if you’re not sure you have clothes on, or not.
Since that time, my ears have always been pleased to hear Caballé’s music, and to discover all that she had achieved before ever I heard her name. She was such a wonderful artist.
Early this morning, news of her death come over the transom in the form of a tweet. I checked Wikipedia which had no knowledge of it. ‘Montserrat Caballé is a Spanish opera singer…’. The Anglo press made no mention of it.
But then, some minutes later, I checked again, and the Wikipedia status of Montserrat Caballé had changed. ‘Is’ had become ‘was’. News was filtering through the ether.
It is now over. The beautiful, inspiring, gifted lady of Barcelona will no longer sing. A great melody has reached its end.