As a new version of their classic album Barcelona is released, soprano Montserrat Caball remembers the Queen legend
17:28 GMT, 4 November 2012
When Freddie Mercury announced he wanted to record with the Spanish soprano Montserrat Caball, everyone, including the other members of Queen, thought he’d gone mad.
But he refused to be talked out of it and their first collaboration, on the single Barcelona, reached the Top 10 in October 1987.
Caball so enjoyed the experience she suggested they make a joint album of the same name. For 18 months they met regularly to record together. Then, one day, Mercury recoiled as she opened her arms to embrace him.
When Freddie Mercury announced he wanted to record with the Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballe, everyone thought he'd gone mad
‘He said, “No, no, I have to talk to you. I’m HIV positive,”’ Montserrat recalls. ‘I looked at him and said, “What does that mean” I knew many people with HIV and they were well, so I didn’t think it was a problem. He said, “Well, in my case I’ve developed Aids and I don’t want you to catch anything.”
‘At the time nobody knew how it was transmitted and there was a chance it could be through the skin or saliva. I said, “But you’re so strong, and your voice…” He said, “Yes, I am strong. I can do it. I can still record this album.”
‘It was very hard for me to take everything in, though nothing like as hard as what he must have been feeling,’ says Caball. ‘I was just so pleased he felt able to confide in me. It meant he must have really valued our friendship.
‘Our voices fitted well together and I liked him, respected him and loved his music. It was a special relationship. He said, “You like music in the same way I do.” I said, “Yes, that’s very true.”’
When they sang together to welcome the Olympic flag to Barcelona in October 1988 they performed three songs, including the poignant How Can I Go On, which addresses the theme of mortality. Ironically, it was to be Mercury’s final live performance.
Says Caball, ‘While he was singing I noticed his eyes were shiny with tears. I gave him my hand. He clasped it and kissed it. It was clear he was aware of his own fate. It was his goodbye, at least to the stage.’
When Freddie Mercury announced he wanted to record with the Spanish soprano Montserrat Caball, everyone, including the other members of Queen, thought he'd gone mad
She last spoke to him a few months before he died in 1991. She was recording in London and phoned him. ‘He was ill but I wanted to see him. He said, “No, no. Don’t come, I’m not presentable.” I told him I had just recorded for him an aria we both loved from Phantom Of The Opera, Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again.
The studio played it over the speakers to him and afterwards he said, “That was wonderful. That’s just like I wanted you to do it. Can you send it to me” And that was our last conversation.’ The song ends with the refrain, ‘Help me say goodbye.’
With no Freddie to duet with, she declined to sing Barcelona at the opening ceremony of the 1992 Olympics. ‘Freddie could not be replaced by anybody,’ she says firmly and with great sadness. She has never performed the song again.
A newly orchestrated version of the album Barcelona, called Barcelona: Special Edition, is out now.