The Intriguing Beauty of Contrast
Yong Shu Hoong looks back at Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé's collaboration on Barcelona
By Yong Shu Hoong
A friend once told me, if she'd ever owned a turntable, she would probably feel compelled to play only operas on it. I blame the movies for her conviction. Is it common to find someone playing opera on a turntable in a movie scene? I can't think of many examples off the top of my head, but I do recall, in The Shawshank Redemption, that Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) spins a recording of 'Duettino Sull'aria' from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro in the warden's office and, in an act of defiance, blasts it through the main speakers across the prison.
I was never a fan of opera. Not even the Three Tenors, who appeal to listeners usually not into operas. In 2019, on a trip to Vienna, I did catch a performance of Gaetano Donizetti's Don Pasquale at Wiener Staatsoper, but my interest was more in the opera house's magnificent architecture than the music itself. Come to think of it, the closest I've got to enjoying opera would be lapping up Queen's 1975 hit song, 'Bohemian Rhapsody'.
Ever since a friend had kindly given me his used Rega Planar 3, I have started buying vinyl records again (I gave up my first turntable and stash of records decades ago). Swee Lee, the well-known music store where local rock 'n' roll heroes (and aspirants) would go to shop for their axes, has a vinyl section at its Star Vista flagship outlet, which has become my frequent haunt for browsing.
One record cover that caught my attention sported a white background. On it was an artwork in primary colours done in the style of Spanish artist Joan Miró (1893–1983), incorporating the word "Barcelona", which incidentally is Miró's birth city. This turned out to be the album, Barcelona, by Queen's lead singer Freddie Mercury and Barcelona opera star Montserrat Caballé. I have, of course, heard the album's title track before – the single was released in 1987 and reached number eight in the UK Singles Chart. This LP is the 2012 special edition of the album first released in 1988 – which explains the different cover as compared to its original cover art featuring a posed photograph of the two singers. The other difference (which for me was the main selling point): all the songs on the album now feature a full orchestra, instead of synthesisers and samplings used on the 1988 album.
The point of this essay is not my conversion to opera (I do not think it's a conversion anyway, even if I did purchase the LP to add to my record collection, since this album is still considered more as a happy marriage between pop and opera, in the same vein as 'Bohemian Rhapsody'). What I'm more interested in is the meeting of two talents from different backgrounds, who became close collaborators and – as curious as it still seems today – friends. This is the story that Bohemian Rhapsody, the 2018 biopic with Rami Malek playing Mercury, has chosen to leave out.
The seed was apparently sown way back in 1981. In an interview with NME, Mercury's friend and personal assistant, Peter Freestone, said, "I introduced Freddie to Montserrat's voice in 1981. We went to the Royal Opera House to hear Luciano Pavarotti sing (in Verdi's Un ballo in Maschera). But as soon as Montserrat started singing, Freddie ignored Pavarotti. Freddie went to a couple more of Montserrat's concerts in New York, but he never wanted to meet her. I don't think he wanted his image of this amazing diva destroyed. He imagined Montserrat would be a grand opera character, the same way everyone imagined Freddie was a rock 'n' roll animal."
But eventually in February 1987, they did arrange to meet, through the efforts of Mercury's manager Jim Beach (at Mercury's behest) and Spanish promotor Pino Sagliocco. At Barcelona's opulent Ritz hotel (which is now El Palace Barcelona), Mercury, who always made his appearance 15 minutes late, turned up for their appointment five minutes early; as Freestone recalled, Caballé was four minutes late, to Mercury's great anxiety. "She said later she was so happy because, when she took Fred's hand, it was colder than hers, which meant he was even more nervous than she was."
On udiscovermusic.com, Mercury was quoted as saying, "She jokes and she swears and she doesn't take herself too seriously, that really thrilled and surprised me, because up until then I had been labouring under the illusion that all great opera singers were stern, aloof, and quite intimidating. But Montserrat was wonderful. I told her I loved her singing and had her albums and asked if she'd heard of me. She told me she enjoyed listening to my music and had Queen albums in her collection, too."
Like a suitor, Mercury wooed Caballé to accept his idea of performing and recording together. A PA system was set up in the Ritz's garden where they met, so that he could play her a demo of 'Exercises in Free Love', a song which eventually found its way to the B-side of the 'Barcelona' single and the Barcelona album. According to Barcelona's liner notes, penned by Rhys Thomas in 2012, Caballé's response after hearing the song was: "Could I sing it next Sunday at my recital at Covent Garden?" And so began their beautiful friendship and collaboration transcending age gap (Mercury was 13 years younger) and differences in nationality and musical genre.
Barcelona's then-mayor, Pasqual Maragall, had invited Caballé to perform at the opening ceremony of the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, and (as the Spanish daily El País reveals) "it was Caballé's own brother Carles who suggested she sing at the Olympics with Mercury". This resulted in the Games' official theme song 'Barcelona', written by Mercury and producer Mike Moran, but the collaboration between Mercury and Caballé didn't stop at that one song. Caballé proposed recording a full album, and by aligning their busy schedules, they were able to meet at Mercury's home, Garden Lodge, in Kensington, London, to work on ideas for the album together with Moran, who co-wrote all the album's tracks with Mercury. To complicate matters, Mercury was diagnosed with AIDS in April 1987, so he knew he had to work fast – well, faster than the perfectionistic refinements he was known to undertake on his compositions – as no one could forecast precisely how much time he had remaining.
In October 1987, 'Barcelona' was released as a single – in time (by 1988) to be entered as a candidate for the selection of the 1992 Olympic theme. It was first performed live in May 1987 at what was then the Ku Club, during an Ibiza festival celebrating Spain hosting the Olympic Games. Another crucial performance occurred in October 1988, at the La Nit festival in Barcelona, celebrating the arrival of the Olympic flag from Seoul. Mercury and Caballé sang three tracks from the Barcelona album: 'Barcelona', 'How Can I Go On' and 'The Golden Boy'. This turned out to be Mercury's last live performance.
In Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World, Volume 2: Performance and Production (2003), edited by John Shepherd, David Horn, Dave Laing, Paul Oliver and Peter Wicke, the voice is described as "a faculty whereby human beings (and some other creatures) produce sound (speech, music and other sounds) through use of the lungs, throat and mouth as an acoustic system. Considered as a musical instrument, the voice is structurally comparable to other instruments." The book distinguishes the "naturalistic technique" of popular singing from the "highly cultivated technique" of classical singing, adding that "when Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé duet on 'Barcelona' (1987), one hears not only the rock/classical dichotomy but also the extent to which each singer can draw on elements in his/her own tradition to approach the other."
If one speaks of opera making a crossover to pop music, there are other (sometimes, tackier) examples – like Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren's 1984 album, Fans, which blends music from famous operas, like Madama Butterfly, Turandot and Carmen, with R&B and dance. But in Barcelona we get to appreciate the intriguing contrast between Mercury's searing rock vocals and Caballé's soprano singing, where the sung lyrics are less discernible. In a way (that might seem unlikely at first), Caballé's voice is a finely tuned musical instrument that is the perfect complement to Mercury's clearly enunciated delivery, which often makes it hard for one to decide who's stealing whose spotlight on every song.
Produced by Mercury, Moran and David Richards, who has co-produced many albums by Queen, Barcelona sold over a million copies upon its release in 1988. It boasts a seamless journey through the anthemic title track, the exotica of 'La Japonaise' (with lyrics partially in Japanese), the sweeping melodrama of 'The Fallen Priest' (which also lists Tim Rice among its songwriting credits) and the dreamy meditation of 'Ensueño' – there are even gospel influences on 'The Golden Boy'.
The 2012 special edition celebrates the 25th anniversary of the release of the 'Barcelona' single by replacing the original album's instrumentation with the fuller sounds of a symphonic orchestra, namely Prague's FILMharmonic Orchestra. Stuart Morley, the musical director of the stage musical, We Will Rock You, came up with the orchestrations based on Moran and Mercury's original arrangements. Naoko Kikuchi recorded koto (Japanese zither) instrumentation to add to 'La Japonaise', while Queen drummer Roger Taylor's son, Rufus, substituted the drum machines on the singles, 'The Golden Boy' and 'How Can I Go On', with his live percussion. The latter track also features a new solo by German violinist David Garrett. 'Ensueño', with the vocals of Mercury and Caballé accompanied by Moran's piano, was left unchanged.
Perhaps this is the version in which the album is best enjoyed. The 1988 version of the 'Barcelona' single can be easily found on YouTube, but over in Spotify, only the 2012 special-edition album can be streamed (although, through some digging around in Spotify, original and single versions of selected songs from 1988's Barcelona can be found on Mercury's 2016 compilation album, Messenger of the Gods: The Singles).
As the pandemic drags on, aside from the obvious devastation it wrecks in terms of loss of lives and the burden imposed on healthcare systems around the world, one impact it wields is on event management. The Tokyo 2020 summer Olympics was pushed to a year later, such that both last year and this are Olympic years. China, as the host of the 2022 Winter Olympics, is certainly wishing that its Games would proceed without any more unpleasant surprises. The nation is hoping to move past the embarrassment of a #metoo complaint involving one of its top female tennis stars and a retired Communist Party leader.
Speaking of unpleasantries and embarrassment, I read that in the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, after peace doves were released, a number of them landed on the caldron that was subsequently lit to signify the start of the Games. For some reason, a few did not fly away as the fire spread, and were roasted alive (as one witty online commentator articulated) "on the world's brightest stage".
By comparison, the Barcelona Games in 1992 suffered a far less awkward setback from the absence of Mercury. Right from the very beginning, the idea was for the two singers to perform 'Barcelona' together at the opening ceremony that year. When Mercury told Caballé of his AIDS diagnosis, he wanted to let her know that he didn't think he would be able to perform it with her. "It was very hard for me to take everything in, though nothing like as hard as what he must have been feeling," she was quoted as saying in an online article I found, credited to Spencer Bright with no information on its publication source. "I was just so pleased that he felt able to confide in me. It meant he must have really valued our friendship."
After Mercury died in November 1991, eight months before the Barcelona Games, Caballé declined to perform the song without him, so the recording of the song was played instead, over a travelogue of the city at the start of the international broadcast of the opening ceremony.
In the same article by Bright, it was mentioned that Caballé last saw Mercury about a year before he died. She had, upon his request, gifted him her costume from Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, which shot her to fame in 1965 at New York's Carnegie Hall; he duly displayed the costume in a glass cabinet at his home. Having borrowed the crown and veil for a performance, and promising she would return them, she didn't get the chance to, as Mercury had passed away; the Lucrezia Borgia dress was subsequently returned to her. (Caballé died in October 2018 at the age of 85, after she was admitted to a Barcelona hospital for a gall bladder problem.)
Barcelona is the only studio album Mercury recorded and released in his lifetime as a solo artist outside of Queen after Mr Bad Guy (1985). He continued to record songs with Queen, with Innuendo (1991) being the band's last album released while he was alive.
Listening to Barcelona now, I continue to marvel at the intrigue and beauty of contrast, but I also feel a sense of regret that it, alongside Mercury's other non-Queen recordings, might be swept aside into a forgotten corner of history, in the face of the continuing popularity of Queen classics like 'Another One Bites the Dust', 'Under Pressure' and, of course, 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. Another thing that was stirred within me was the speculation over what thoughts went through his mind as he strove to complete Barcelona under the shadow of his impending death. 'How Can I Go On', which comes across most as a popular song, due to its pop-ballad sentimentality and a consistent rhythm aided by gentle drumming, does address the issue of mortality:
When all the salt is taken from the sea
Then on another poignant track 'Guide Me Home': "Who will find me / Take care and side with me / Guide me back / Safely to my home / Where I belong… / Once more."QLRS Vol. 21 No. 1 Jan 2022