Sunday 18 March 2018

Barcelona's jewels hit the high notes

A week spent in the beautiful city of Barcelona watching athletics on top of Montjuic, its Olympic hill, led the mind in search of other jewels the Catalan capital has bestowed on the world.

Of course, there's the mad magnificence of Gaudi's architecture. There's a football team that provided most of the players who won the World Cup for Spain. And right on the Ramblas, the city's signature boulevard, there's the thriving opera house -- the Liceu -- that points to Barcelona's impressive cultural pedigree. Three of the great voices of opera were born in the city -- Victoria de los Ángeles, Montserrat Caballé, and José Carreras.

Victoria de los Ángeles was the first of these stars to shine. She was only 18 when she graduated from the Barcelona Conservatory, the same year she trod the boards of the Liceu for the first time.

Over a lengthy career, she attracted a huge international fan base. On her death in 2005 at the age of 81, The Times declared her "among the greatest singers of the second half of the 20th century".

Montserrat Caballé was 10 years her junior. She too got her musical education at the city's Conservatory, but her career was more of a slow burner. She was a week past her 32nd birthday when her professional life changed forever.

The American mezzo Marilyn Horne was due to sing in a concert performance of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia in Carnegie Hall. She had to cry off, Caballé stood in and so overwhelmed the audience that they her gave a 25-minute ovation.

At the time of the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, she was involved in an unlikely collaboration. The late Freddie Mercury, front man of the rock band Queen, was a keen opera fan, and name-checked Caballé during an interview on Spanish television. She got to hear about it, a meeting was arranged, and they became friends.

When the city of Barcelona was looking for an anthem to commemorate the Olympics, they approached her, and she immediately thought of Freddie. He came to see her at Covent Garden, they ended up jamming, and their song 'Barcelona' was the result.

José Carreras has a sporting link as well, of course. He was one of the original Three Tenors who performed at a World Cup concert in Rome in 1990. He was a chemistry student in Barcelona who took music on the side. He got a minor part in a production of Bellini's Norma, which had Caballé in the title role. She took him under her wing, included him on a bill in London, and science was quickly forgotten as Carreras was launched into one of the great tenor careers of recent times.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning.

Irish Independent

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