Spanish opera singer Montserrat Caballe dies at 85

Montserrat Caballe has died at 85. Credit: AP/Press Association Images

Spanish opera singer Montserrat Caballe, who famously duetted with Queen star Freddie Mercury, has died aged 85.

Renowned for her bel canto technique and interpretations of the roles of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, Caballe had been in hospital since September.

Her death was confirmed early on Saturday, but the cause has not been revealed.

In her almost unlimited repertoire, Caballe starred in 90 opera roles with nearly 4,000 stage performances.

Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez said that a "great ambassador" of the country had died.

And Spanish King Felipe VI tweeted that Caballe was "the great lady of opera, legend of universal culture, the best of the best" and that "her personality and unequalled voice will accompany us forever".

Born into a working class family in Barcelona, Caballe unveiled her musical talents early, singing Bach cantatas at the age of seven.

At the age of eight, Caballe entered Liceo’s Conservatory in Barcelona with Eugenia Kenny, Conchita Badea and Napoleone Annovazzi among her first teachers.

She won the school’s Gold Medal on graduating in 1954, and went on to study opera in Milan and in 1956 joined the Basel Opera and played her first major role that year in the city’s Staatstheater as Mimi in Puccini’s La Boheme.

Four years later, she was a principal singer with the Bremen Opera.

In 1964, Caballe gave a highly praised performance of Jules Masenet’s Manon in Mexico City, but it was a year later in New York that a lucky break launched her on the road to international stardom.

On short notice, she stood in for indisposed American soprano Marilyn Horne in a concert performance in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia at New York’s Carnegie Hall and achieved a thunderous success. It opened the doors to all the major opera venues around the world.

Freddie Mercury and Monserrat Caballe perform Barcelona. Credit: AP

In a brief excursion into pop music, Caballe’s duet Barcelona, with Freddie Mercury was a hit single in 1987, accompanied by an album of the same name.

The title track later became the anthem of the 1992 Summer Olympics in the city.

Caballe performed the song live, accompanied by a recording of the late Mercury, at the 1999 Champions League football final in Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium.

Tenor Jose Carreras said opera had lost its “best soprano”, adding: “Of all the sopranos that I have heard live, I have never heard anyone like Montserrat.”

In 2015, Caballe was convicted of tax fraud and given a suspended sentence of six months in prison. She had failed to pay the Spanish treasury more than 500,000 euros in taxes on her earnings.

Caballe, who was born Maria de Montserrat Viviana Concepcion Caballe i Folch, dedicated herself to various charities and was a Unesco Goodwill Ambassador. She also established a foundation for needy children in Barcelona.

In 1964, she married Spanish tenor Bernabe Marti. They had two children, Bernabe Marti Jr and Montserrat Marti, herself a successful soprano.