When Queen’s Freddie Mercury Teamed Up with Opera Superstar Montserrat Caballé in 1988: A Meeting of Two Powerful Voices

Combining pop music with opera was always the height of pretension. But where would we be without the pretentious? As Brian Eno observed in his 1995 diary, “My assumptions about culture as a place where you can take psychological risks without incurring physical penalties make me think that pretending is the most important thing we do. It’s the way we make our thought experiments, find out what it would be like to be otherwise.” And with Freddie Mercury and Queen, if it wasn’t for pretense we wouldn’t have “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Hell, we wouldn’t have Queen, period.

But in 1988 the gamble didn’t exactly pay off. To the British music press, Mercury was coasting on Live Aid fumes and the shadow of his unsuccessful solo album. And then to hear that he’d teamed up with opera singer Montserrat Caballé? Despite what any hagiographic tale of Mercury might say, this passed your average rock fan by.

Outside the whims of the charts, however, Mercury’s team up with Caballé was the fulfillment of a goal he’d had since 1981. The singer had fallen in love with Cabellé’s voice in 1981 when he’d seen her perform alongside Luciano Pavarotti.

Then began a dance between the two artists. Mercury was worried that Caballé would not take this rock star seriously. Caballé, on the other hand, was a rock music fan just like so many people. They owned each others’ albums. Finally, in early 1986, the two met: Caballé’s brother was the music director of the upcoming 1992 Barcelona Olympics and ‘Who better to do a theme song with than Freddie Mercury?’ said the singer.

According to Peter Freestone, Mercury’s personal assistant and longtime friend, meeting Caballé was the most nervous he’d ever been. Mercury was worried the opera singer would be aloof and distant. But she was as down to earth as Mercury in their offstage moments.

As Freestone recounted, “Freddie assumed they’d only make one song together. Then Montserrat said: ‘How many songs do you put on a rock album?’ When Freddie told her eight or 10, she said: ‘Fine – we will do an album.’”

Mercury had two deadlines: one based around Caballé’s schedule, and the other based around his recent AIDS virus diagnosis. Though he had composed the opening song “Barcelona” to sing alongside Caballé at the 1992 opening ceremonies, he told her that he probably wouldn’t be around for that to happen. (Caballé instead sang “Amigos para siempre (Friends forever)” with Spanish tenor José Carreras.) They did manage to perform together, singing “Barcelona” at a promotional event at Ku nightclub in Ibiza in May, 1987.

Mercury wrote the eight songs on the Barcelona album with Mike Moran, the songwriter who’d also worked with Mercury on his previous solo album and whose “Exercises in Free Love” was adapted into “Ensueño” for the album, with Caballé helping in the rewrite.

According to Freestone, watching Caballé was the most emotional he’d seen the usually reserved singer: “When Montserrat sang ‘Barcelona’, after her first take was the nearest I ever saw Freddie to tears. Freddie was emotional, but he was always in control of his emotions, because he could let them out in performing or writing songs. He grabbed my hand and said: ‘I have the greatest voice in the world, singing my music!’ He was so elated.”

In time, the album has gained in reputation, but is criticized that the label spent most of its money on the title track—full orchestration, the works, as benefits a meeting of two operatic minds—and relied on synths for the remaining songs. Fans are asking for a rerecording that brings the full orchestra to all the tracks. We’ve certainly seen odder requests granted in the last few years, like the remix of what many consider Bowie’s worst album. So who indeed can tell? Watch this space.

via Messy Nessy

Related Content:

What Made Freddie Mercury the Greatest Vocalist in Rock History? The Secrets Revealed in a Short Video Essay

Marionette Freddie Mercury Performs on the Streets of Madrid

Hear a Previously Unheard Freddie Mercury Song, “Time Waits for No One,” Unearthed After 33 Years
Meet Freddie Mercury and His Faithful Feline Friends

Freddie Mercury Reimagined as Comic Book Heroes

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (7)
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  • Annie Zikovsky says:

    Only Htiler had more annoying, more unbearable voice.

  • Mike Cannon says:

    Making the Barcelona album was a bold step, but it worked. It’s fantastic.

  • Snoogins34 says:

    Just FYI, there is a deluxe version of this album that was released a few years back (2012?) that is exactly what you asked for… same vocals with live orchestration. I’m fairly sure Roger Taylor’s son did some of the drum work.

  • Jeri Cheney says:

    You are right I have the box set that includes the newly remastered album. All of which has been fully orchestrated. It is fantastic. The author is incorrect in saying that the title track of the original album was orchestrated it is actually skilled synth work. Here is the blurb accompanying the 2012 release:

    Mercury recorded his original album almost entirely on keyboards. This 2012 special edition replaces his and co-writer and producer Mike Moran’s synthesised arrangements with a full symphonic orchestral score performed by the eighty piece FILMharmonic Orchestra, Prague, one of the most sought after recording orchestras in Central Europe, featuring leading members from Czech foremost orchestras (Czech Philharmonic, Prague Symphony).

    In addition to the orchestral score performed other live instruments have been added for the first time. Naoko Kikuchi, one of the few koto players in the western world, flew especially to London to add the ancient oriental instrument to ‘La Japonaise’. Rufus Taylor, Queen band member Roger Taylor’s son, has replaced the drum machines on The Golden Boy and How Can Go On with live percussion. The latter song also boasts a new violin solo from classical violinist David Garrett joining Queen’s John Deacon’s original bass part.

  • Pamela King says:

    If you read through your comment before posting you can pick up spelling errors that make you look silly. Rather annoying and embarrassing, hard to take anyone seriously when they can’t post without a mistake.

  • Carmen says:

    Annie Zikovsky
    Pamela King

    Si no tenéis ni idea de música es normal esos comentarios 🤐
    Aparte de cualquier gustó, estilos musicales…Queen es Música en Mayúsculas

  • C S says:

    Rude and irrelevant to his post.

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