When the ample Catalan sings: Callas is no more; Kiri Te Kanawa is making television commercials, but Montserrat Caballe, the 61-year-old soprano with the old-fashioned style, is still the people's diva of choice

WHAT DOES it take to be a diva? Not just some slip of a thing who can hit a top C, but a full-blown, Guinness-dark, D-I-V-A diva? I was asking myself that when I came upon a huge burgundy Bentley with the boot wide open. The courtesy car laid on for Montserrat Caballe during her stay in London was already full, and fitting in the two extra suitcases left behind in the hotel was proving to be something of a problem. The chauffeur was just taking a moment off to wipe his brow with a handkerchief.

The Catalan soprano had been on a flying visit to the capital to shop (with her husband, her daughter and her niece who doubles up as secretary), and to christen a new Channel Tunnel train that will bear her name. 'Zo zweet,' she described the ceremony in Calais. 'How wunnerful it will be fo' de two nations to hab de toon-el under de Channel]'

Caballe mixes English, Spanish, German and what I suppose must be Catalan with a complete disregard for accent or grammar. To transcribe her speech phonetically is not to mock her. It's just that without it, it's not her.

She was also in London to do a quick recce of the palace at Hampton Court, where she will be singing before the Prince of Wales on the last night of the festival next month. At 61, she may have reached an age when most of her peers have stopped singing professionally, but to many hers remains the sweetest voice of all, and the performance is virtually sold out.

Caballe is one of the last of the true divas. Callas is dead, Kiri Te Kanawa is busy making commercials for Sainsbury's, and Mirella Freni has never really risen out of the narrow confines of being an opera lover's opera-singer. Caballe, on the other hand, has always had an enormous following, and it's still with her today.

Thirty-six years after her debut, when the fashion in opera is for in-your-face reality, and when singers aren't afraid of being coarse or raucous or violent if the drama demands it, Caballe is still incapable of singing an ugly note. The essence of her appeal is a tone so sensuously warm, so beguiling, that it is just as entrancing at a pianissimo thread as when unfurled at full voice. But it is not really because of her pre-eminence as an opera star that she has become a household name. It is also due to the fact that she is generous and humorous enough, despite her devotion to bel canto, to have partnered Freddie Mercury in making an incredibly camp pop video - and really enjoyed it. 'Wid Freddie, that was an experience I never haf had before. It was a free worl' of music together.'

After the video, they recorded the song that became the Olympic anthem, Barcelona. While making the recording, four years before he died, the lead singer for Queen told her what he had never admitted publicly: that he had Aids. 'I think it was a way to show to me his frien'ship. It was a bery honourable thing to do. Yes. And bery bery brave.' Mercury died before they could perform at the opening of the Olympic Games. Caballe now sings around the world to raise funds for Aids research, for Unesco, Unicef, Amnesty International and for 'peace between de nations'.

When I asked her what it felt like to be a genuine diva - what kind of personality it took - Caballe seemed quite mystified and looked about her as if for an imaginary interpreter. 'No, I don' feel like a diva,' she said eventually in a tiny voice, trying to evade the question altogether.

She is very short - less than 5ft tall even in heels - yet also immensely broad. Her hair is dyed as black as tar, and teased into a huge helmet with a jaunty flick. She wore black chiffon, although it was mid-afternoon. Perhaps that is her secret. Or perhaps it is the diamonds, set in little trellised baskets of gold at her fingers and lobes. Or the swirling gold 'M' the size of her hand pinned to her midriff. Or is it what lay amply displayed and covered in fresh talcum powder, between the lapels of her jacket - between those apricot-coloured triangles aimed like jet fighter planes down her chest? Could it be that it is the diva's cleavage that makes the diva a diva?

I didn't ask that directly. 'I don' feel like a diva,' she repeated. 'I feel like a person who has dedicate' his whole life to the music I luff. Trying to serve the music the better I could, and to giff the public the woice that was born with me.'

The notion of the singer as slave to the music is hardly a new one, but with Caballe it's a sort of anthem. 'I am an ambassador. A sort of ambassador transmitting the news the composer wanted to tell the audience, and that is a sort of servant . . . (To bear a message) from another human being that is no more derr, and canno' tell you, you haff done wrrong or you haff done rright; is a big responsibility. Is a sort of miracle.'

MONTSERRAT CABALLE has always regarded her voice as a gift from God, and her role as that of a Messianic interpreter entrusted with a precious task. Like the archangel Gabriel, she has a job to do down here.

She was born into a strict Catholic family on 12 April 1933, and named in honour of the Black Virgin of Montserrat, patroness of Barcelona, her native city. She began singing along to her father's opera records at the age of five, but did not begin taking opera classes until she was 14. Two years later, she almost abandoned her studies after her father had to stop working because of heart trouble and she felt she should become the chief breadwinner of the family.

On the advice of the director of the Barcelona conservatory, she wrote to the Bertran family, who were known for their patronage of the arts in the city, and soon received an offer to fund all her studies and living expenses. The Bertrans paid for lessons in singing, theory of music and harmony, German and Italian. Their investment paid off and Caballe graduated at the top of her year. But she was so nervous performing that she was advised by an agent in Rome to give up, go home and find a husband instead.

When she finally married, at 29, it was to a fellow Catalan and singer, the tenor Bernabe Marti. During a performance of Madama Butterfly, Marti kissed her full on the lips during the love duet in the first act. She had never been kissed before. 'Dat was it,' she said. They married soon after.

She is still a strong, rather than strict, Catholic, and says she prays in the theatre or in hotel rooms more often than in church. The Martis eventually had two children, a son named Bernabe Junior and another Montserrat, a daughter, but Caballe never stopped singing. She ignored the Rome agent's miserable advice and made her professional debut as Mimi in La Boheme in 1957. She became one of the most sought-after sopranos in Europe, and later in the US when, one evening in 1965, she stepped in for an ailing mezzo-soprano at Carnegie Hall and took New York by storm as Lucrezia Borgia.

In an age when performers, artists and writers are often created by marketeers in search of a commodity, there is a simple, central truth about Montserrat Caballe: she possesses a soprano voice that, if we are lucky, comes once in a generation. It is true that her size and age inhibit her movements on stage, and that she often resembles a fine singing cupboard. But what a cupboard. What a voice. If you want a taste of what is so special about Caballe's singing, listen to her in the principal aria of Bellini's Norma, 'Casta diva'. It was the first thing I ever heard her sing, in a concert performance of the opera, and I have never forgotten it.

Most great singers feel themselves to be part of some great mystery in which they have been chosen, quite arbitrarily, to receive a startling gift. Caballe, whose gifts are more prodigious than most, is no exception. 'Everyone of us has a special thing when we are born. So in me this soun' was born with me. To develop that, first I loved the music, second I was devote' to the music. It's a way to say thank you fo' that wunnerful gift. Because not everyone has this chance.'

A gift it surely is, but it is also enormously hard work. Caballe lives in Vienna, but is rarely in any one place for more than a month. Her husband runs the family farm in Catalonia, and commutes between Vienna and Barcelona. She gets up at 3.30am. 'Is ahlways been so.'

She studies from 4am until 9am, rehearses through the morning and works on her correspondence in the afternoon. One of her abiding interests is new music - not contemporary so much as new discoveries from old composers - and in the evening this is what she will work on with her pianist. She travels with her niece Monty, who acts as her secretary and, occasionally, with her husband. If she is not performing, they will eat lightly and sometimes go to a concert. 'Otherwise, we remain in the hotels, watch the television and go to the bed.'

It isn't how one imagines a diva lives, but Caballe's dedication has, at least, fuelled a successful search for new roles. Too many opera stars stick to the repertoire they learnt at an early age, but find as they grow older that it suits them less and less well. Caballe has sung 132 roles on stage, and she is still learning new ones. Her old favourites include Strauss's Salome, which she sang for the first time in 1959 and still performs in concert.

'Richard Strauss, he is the las' o' de romanticos. I always say that. This Salome, she is so complex. Musically, it is so well described: the child woman, the bad child, the bad woman, the killing one, the malicious one. Dis is one of my favourites.' So are Norma, Rossini's Semiramide, and Isolde, which she embarked on only in 1989.

Caballe knows the value of learning new roles, and marshals her arguments briskly when it is suggested she may be past her best. 'Of course, from 25 to 40 are the bes' years for a singer. But there are the roles which I coul' not sung in these years. Like Medea. I was not the voice o' Medea in that time. Medea needs darker sound, brighter sound. Medea don' need the high soun'of a Traviata or a Norma, but needs a major workin' soun'.'

She will be touring Greece this summer to sing Cherubini's Medea in its true cities - in Corinth, in Delphi, at the Acropolis in Athens, and perhaps also at Epidaurus. And for next season she is learning Donizetti's Rosamunda d'Inghilterra. 'Rosamunda is a 50-year-old woman. You need a differen' kind of soun'. I will never sing in these days what belongs to young people. I will always do my repertoire with my age, because I think otherwise I will have betrayed myself, betrayed the composer, betrayed the audience. And this we cannot do.'

Drive, determination, discipline. They too are all part of Caballe's repertoire. And so we came to the element she feels most vehemently about: the importance of technik]

Any discussion of technique turns Caballe from a joyful romantic into a veritable matron. She wags her finger as she extols the virtues of a fine technical training, and the lazy way in which singers today try to do without the discipline it entails.

Sitting up suddenly erect in her chair, she became quite agitated. Her hands fluttered about her chest as she dissected the architecture of sound and explained the importance of supporting the diaphragm ('de deea-pragma'). She recalled taking a masterclass of 500 young singers in Madrid.

'I say to them. Firs' of all you have to have the soun'. Small, big, beautiful, not so beautiful. This you have to have if you wanna become a singer. Second, you have to learn your body. Larynx, trachea, thorax, deeapragma . . . ' Her hands travelled down over her ample bosom. 'Then you have to have the control, like the car. Because making a high speed in the car, is (Photograph omitted)

the easies' thing. The voice is the same. To make a big soun' this is the easies'. But to control the car, goin' slowly to a bigga speed, with no one noticin'. This is how you have to sing. Den you mus' practise.'

And do they? 'No. No. They don' . . ' Caballe insisted. The interview was rapidly escalating into a performance. And in her zeal, the sweat had turned the talcum powder on her bosom into a high-water mark above her cleavage.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth


Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee