Freddie Mercury: “I’m going into opera, forget Rock’n Roll!”
If we didn’t all know the lyrics and notes of Bohemian Rhapsody by heart, we might have assumed that the title was referring to a work of classical music. After all, since a thorough listen is all we and those generations before us have needed to discern the wealth of layers, transitions, and tones within and to realize that this is no ordinary and traditional rock song, I would like to tell you about Rock and Opera Barcelona, the last and proudest work of a uniquely flamboyant blend of supreme musical talent and consummate showmanship, and undoubtedly one of the great creative forces of modern rock music, that is none other than Freddie Mercury himself.
A lover of opera, Freddie Mercury went to see Verdi’s A Masked Ball at Covent Garden in 1983: Montserrat Caballé was one of the greatest divas of our time. Her performances took her to the greatest opera houses of the world including La Scala Milan, Wiener Staatsoper, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Gran Teatro del Liceo Barcelona, Opera de Paris, Bolshoi Moscow, San Francisco Opera, Hamburg Staatsoper, Bayerische Staatsoper München and Teatro Colon Buenos Aires, as well as many festivals such as Salzburg, Aix en Provence, Glyndebourne and Verona. In 1966 she was given the highest honor by the Spanish government, The Order of Doña Isabel La Catolica. During the trio section of the opera, Freddie fell in love, so to speak, with Montserrat’s interpretation. Freddie’s assistant, Peter “Phoebe” Freestone, describes him as being struck speechless: “Who is this woman? I want more of her!” he also reportedly said, “Do you have any of her albums, I want to know everything about her, listen to everything she has made,” setting everything in motion. In 1986, he declared on Spanish TV that his reason for being in Barcelona was to meet Montserrat Caballé and make music with her. Caballé, naturally, heard of this and nine months later, to their first meeting at the Barcelona Ritz, Mercury flew in with composer/arranger Mike Moran and his manager Jim Beach.
Montserrat Caballé: “A very very special night I will never forget!”
Montserrat Caballé, in an interview, described the meeting as follows: “I entered the room, he was very cold in his hands and I was cold too. And I thought that’s good because this means we are nervous and both are expecting something from the other one.” They took the bench at the piano in a corner of the room and Montserrat sang for hours to the accompaniment of Freddie. When they were finished, “I knew he had conquered me!” according to Montserrat Caballé. The meeting at the Ritz Hotel was the second one after the performance at Covent Garden forever etched into Freddie’s memory. Freddie, Mike Moran, and Montserrat improvised at the piano until dawn and as Montserrat prepared to leave the hotel around 6 AM, Freddie proposed doing a duet together, telling her, “Let’s first do a duet together and see if you’ll like my music.” Montserrat asked him how many songs were on a typical rock album and when he replied, “10,” she told him that they were to make a 10-song album. They became a magnificent duo.
Montserrat Caballé surprised her audience (including Freddie Mercury) by performing one of the songs ‘Exercises in Free Love’ as the final encore at her sold-out recital in Covent Garden, London. She thus performed a song Freddie wrote for her in this hall in which he had heard her for the first time. Later, at dinner at Freddie’s home, Montserrat Caballé asked him to write a song about her hometown, Barcelona. The resulting song “Barcelona” was recorded in April 1987 and first performed at the Ku Club in Ibiza on 29th May 1987 for inclusion as the finale for the worldwide TV Show Ibiza ‘92 and it was used as the title music to the BBC’s coverage of the 1992 Summer Olympics.
I share the practically volcanic energy of the stage performance of a rockstar and operatic diva below:
The enormously emotional reception that the song received from the Spanish crowd spurred Freddie and Montserrat to push on with their project and ‘Barcelona’ fittingly became the title track for this unique album.
In the last interview she gave before she died in 2018, Montserrat describes the album as a real revolution for the opera. She depicts the time she had with Freddie Mercury as the happiest and most stupendous of her life. Freddie in turn has said of Montserrat, in the company of many friends, “I love music and she is music.”
“Lots of young people come to see me at the opera today, saying they want to see the woman who screamed along with Freddie. After Freddie, I got many offers for similar projects, but singing with Freddie was such a special experience that I never wanted to repeat such a project with anyone else afterward,” added Montserrat.
The most fascinating thing about the record is that all the songs were written by Freddie Mercury and played by him in person in the studio. Much later, the album was reissued as Freddie had wished for when he was alive, with the orchestra sections recorded by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Though the music of the Barcelona album available on Spotify (deluxe edition), for instance, is the version played by the orchestra, for me it doesn’t measure up to the organic quality of the original recordings. As such, my humble opinion is that you get your hands on the 1988 vinyl of this record, listen to it on a record player, and let this masterpiece sweep you off your feet.
I can unhesitatingly say that Barcelona is one of my favorite music albums. Ending my words, I want to share with you the live performance of How Can I Go On, which is the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard.