As a rule, rock and opera getting together is a worse meeting than Trump and Johnson. But Freddie Mercury was one of the greatest rock singers of all time– and Montserrat Caballe, who died last year, was one of the finest opera voices of any generation too. Released in 1988, their joint album ‘Barcelona’ remains the only great classical crossover moment. But it nearly never happened, even though Spanish opera giant Montserrat was the only singer Freddie Mercury was in awe of (she was the only person ever to make Queen‘s legendary showman cry).
The new boxset ‘Never Boring’, a compilation of Freddie Mercury’s solo material, is revisiting ‘Barcelona’. NME met Freddie’s longtime PA and best friend Peter Freestone, along with the biggest video director of the ’80s, David Mallet – who made the video for the album’s eponymous lead single ‘Barcelona’ – to learn that Montserrat was as big a “rock & roll maniac” as anyone. We heard about their drunken antics, the majesty of their voices and how ‘Barcelona’ was a tragic race against time after Freddie learned of his Aids diagnosis while making the album.
How did the duet between Freddie and originally come about?
Peter Freestone: “I introduced Freddie to Montserrat’s voice in 1981. We went to the Royal Opera House to hear Luciano Pavarotti singing. 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 & roll animal.”
David Mallet: “I think Freddie was frightened of being snubbed, too. He had a fear Montserrat would ignore him and he wouldn’t know how to come back from that.”
What was their first meeting like?
Peter Freestone: “Montserrat’s brother was in charge of the entertainment for the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. When they became the host city in 1986, she said, ‘Who better to do a theme song with than Freddie Mercury?’ That was at Christmas, and in February they met at the Ritz in Barcelona. In all my life, I never saw Freddie so nervous.”
David Mallet: “Even later, he’d be hopping from one foot to the other with nerves before meeting Montserrat. I never saw him like that in 20 years of working with Freddie.”
Peter Freestone: “They’d arranged to have lunch at 1pm. In his suite, Freddie was chain-smoking and pacing. For the first time ever, he actually turned up for an appointment five minutes early – Freddie always made an appearance 15 minutes late. In the lobby, by four minutes past, Freddie said, ‘She’s not going to come, she’s not interested’, because she was all of four minutes late. Then this crowded lobby parted like the red sea and Montserrat walked through. 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. She’d been shaking at the thought of meeting this amazing rock star.”
How did the album come about?
Peter Freestone: “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.'”
David Mallet: “Freddie said to me the next day: ‘Darling, I’ve woken up and I’m doing a fucking album!'”
Peter Freestone: “Montserrat had three days in September, four in January and two or three in April to come over and record her vocals. The tracks would be basically completed, just needing her vocal.”
There are stories that suggest they were as wild as each other…
Peter Freestone: “When Montserrat stayed at Freddie’s home, Garden Lodge, to try ideas for the album, the two of them and Mike Moran the producer were up at 4am. Montserrat picked up Freddie’s cigarette packet, took one out and started smoking. Freddie’s face, my God! He was agonising at her: ‘How can you do this? You’ll destroy your voice! What are you doing?’ I mean, she’d already drunk two bottles of champagne…”
David Mallet: “She was as big a maniac as Freddie. One doesn’t think that of opera singers and Fred didn’t think that, but Montserrat was an original rock’n’roll maniac. My favourite memory of them was at 3am in a hotel somewhere. They’d both drunk God knows what and they were just falling over each other, adoring each other.”
After being initially nervous, did Freddie get used to being around his idol?
Peter Freestone: “Every single time Freddie met Montserrat, he was nervous. It was almost like he had amnesia since their last time together. Every meeting was like a first meeting.”
David Mallet: “I remember having to adjust his clothes, check his hair and check his moustache looked fine before he met her once. When we filmed ‘Barcelona’, he was actually nervous before going on the stage. He was nervous between each take – we did about 10 in all. It was something I’d never seen in Fred.”
It must have been very emotional for him to hear her singing his music
Peter Freestone: “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.”
Freddie received his diagnosis just before recording started. How did that affect the tone of the sessions?
Peter Freestone: “Nobody knew how much time he had. At the very beginning, the idea was to perform ‘Barcelona’ together at the Olympics. Freddie told Montserrat of his diagnosis, to let her know that he didn’t think he’d be there to perform it with her.”
David Mallet: “I had no idea there was anything wrong with Freddie. The first time I sensed something was wrong was editing the ‘Barcelona’ video. It was 2am, there was a bottle of vodka, and it was the first time I’d ever seen Freddie so different. He was only like it for maybe an hour, but there was something tortured about him.”
And what impact did the illness have on Freddie’s songwriting?
Peter Freestone: “Freddie could write a tune in 10 minutes, then spend a month agonising over the lyrics. Freddie knew he couldn’t afford to spend time agonising over the lyrics after he had his diagnosis. Also, they had to get the recordings done, with sheet music, to send to Montserrat so she knew what she’d be recording when she came for her vocal takes.”
David Mallet: “Freddie worked best when there was a time limit. If there was unlimited time, he’d dither and change things, sometimes too much. He’d change something 10 times, only to go back to the original.”
What was Montserrat’s reaction to the music they were making?
Peter Freestone: “‘How Can I Go On’ was the last track they recorded. Freddie had the idea to speak Montserrat’s words after she sung them. Montserrat was in the studio control room, tears streaming down her face, saying, ‘Why do I have to be there screaming? Him talking is so much more meaningful!’ Freddie was in awe on ‘Ensueno’, the only song they sang together at the microphone, after Montserrat wrote its lyrics. The only way Freddie’s voice could get quieter was to walk away from the microphone. Montserrat’s control meant her voice just got quieter and quieter. Freddie never had a vocal teacher, he couldn’t do that, but listening to the control in other singers’ voices was how he taught himself.”
The ‘Barcelona’ video is one of the great diva-off performances of all-time…
David Mallet: “If you’ve got two incredible performers, let them rip. I wanted a performance video, not the normal music video of the time, which was clever tricks and silly storylines. I said to Fred: ‘We’ll have millions of candles and make it the grandest of operas.’ We all agreed to do something of great grandeur.”
Peter Freestone: “At the beginning of filming, Freddie was stiff. He didn’t move much, as he didn’t want to do his grand rock & roll moves with an opera singer next to him. But then he realised Montserrat was doing much more than he was.”
David Mallet: “Montserrat’s arms were flying everywhere. It took Freddie two or three takes to cotton on to that. I debated telling him, but decided to let him find out for himself. I could see his eyes register that he wasn’t doing it right at all next to Montserrat. It became a competition; they were virtually arm-wrestling.”
Peter Freestone: “It was ‘Anything you can do, I can do better…'”
David Mallet: “Montserrat had been nervous. She was fretting, ‘Darling, what do I do?’ I said: ‘Just be yourself. Imagine you’re on at the Metropolitan Opera. Close your eyes to the madness going on around you. Be what we all love, no changes.’ She was terrific to direct.”
Peter Freestone: “The outfit Montserrat wears in the video is the same one she wore when she starred in Ariadne Auf Naxos at the Met.”
Ultimately, The ‘Barcelona’ album sounds like two superheroes in action
David Mallet: “‘Barcelona’ was not two averagely successful rock singers coming together. Freddie was the best ever in rock & roll, and Montserrat was the best in opera. Call it Clash Of The Titans or whatever.”
Peter Freestone: “Also, it was the first real meeting of rock and opera. [Producer] Mike Moran was 100% right in saying to Freddie, ‘You’re a rock singer, sing rock’, and saying to Montserrat, ‘Don’t try to sing anything other than how you would.’ He told them ‘Sing like you and we’ll work it out.’ Nobody was trying to be what they weren’t.”
David Mallet: “That’s why ‘Barcelona’ works. It’s the greatest singers in their field, staying in their field.”
Peter Freestone: “Look at any of the rock singers at that time and what Freddie was putting at risk, performing with an opera singer. Who else would have dared do anything like it?”