By Pilar Suarez
BARCELONA (Reuters) - Montserrat Caballe, who took opera into the pop charts by singing "Barcelona" with Freddie Mercury three decades ago, died aged 85 on Saturday.
The Spanish soprano, who was born in the Catalan capital, had been in ill health for a number of years and was admitted to hospital in mid-September, a hospital official said. She died in Sant Pau hospital in Barcelona.
The Gran Teatre del Liceu opera house in Barcelona, where Caballe performed more than 200 times, described her as "one of the most important sopranos in history".
Spanish tenor Jose Carreras said she possessed a voice of great range, combined with a flawless technique.
"Of all the sopranos I've heard live in the theatre, I've never heard anyone singing like Caballe," Carreras said in an interview with Catalunya Radio.
Spain's royal family called her "the great lady of the opera, a legend of universal culture, the best among the best".
"Her personality and her unique voice will always be with us," the royals said in a tweet.
Caballe released the song "Barcelona" with the Queen frontman Mercury in 1987 and it was used again during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, a year after Mercury's death.
"She went beyond opera and classical music showing that opera singers are not just limited to the opera houses but go way beyond that," Christina Sheppelmann, the Liceu's artistic director, told reporters on Saturday in Barcelona.
Renowed for her performances of Italian opera, she also worked with the late tenor Luciano Pavarotti.
The Royal Opera House in London, where Caballe sang on a number of occasions between 1972 and 1992, also expressed its condolences, saying she had "inspired millions".
FUNERAL ON MONDAY
Among other reactions, Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez tweeted: "Sad news. A great ambassador of our country dies, an opera soprano recognised internationally. Her voice and her kindness will always remain with us."
A government source said Sanchez would attend Caballe's funeral, which will be held in Les Corts morgue, in Barcelona, at midday on Monday.
Caballe was considered one of the finest modern exponents of the 'bel canto repertoire', Spain's Culture Minister Jose Guirao said on Saturday.
"Her loss leaves a huge void," he said.
Caballe's almost 60-year international career took her from Basel to New York and beyond.
She began in the Swiss city in 1956, as Mimi in La Bohème, then joined the Bremen Opera, where she sang from 1959 to 1962, in a wide variety of roles.
Wider international recognition came in 1965, when she appeared in a performance of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia at Carnegie Hall in New York.
The performance won her great acclaim from the public and made her an overnight sensation.
Her success led to her debut that same year at the Metropolitan Opera, as Marguerite in Gounod's Faust.
Her last performance took place in the Catalan town of Cambrills in August of 2014.
However, despite a glittering and successful career, it was not without controversy.
In 2015, at a time when Spain was cracking down on tax evasion as it attempted to rein in a large public deficit during a prolonged economic crisis, Caballe agreed to a fine of 250,000 euros and a symbolic six-month jail term.
(Reporting by Emma Pinedo and Jesús Aguado in Madrid; additional reporting by Belen Carreno; Writing by Jesus Aguado; Editing by Andrew Bolton)