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Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

The Garcia Family, Part II: Maria Malibran

Bushnell, Howard. Maria Malibran: A Biography of the Singer. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1979

Fitzlyon, April. Maria Malibran: Diva of the Romantic Age. London: Souvenir Press, 1987.

Last week while discussing Hillary Poriss’s excellent book on the trunk aria, a name came up that will likely show up many times on this blog: Maria Malibran. This would be a good time to continue looking at the Garcia family with the older sister Maria Malibran. As she did not leave behind any writings of her own other than correspondence and some romances, we will look at two English-language biographies of this legendary singer. 

Maria Malibran was opera’s first international superstar. Many opera singers before her had won fame and a few even fortune but most were attached to one city or region, or at least one at a time. Malibran’s fame not only spanned countries, but also continents. Many would follow, but she was the first. When reading the biographies for Maria Malibran, of the artistic triumphs, controversies, scandals and mythology that sprouted around her, one cannot help but be reminded of Maria Callas. 

Like Callas she modernized operatic acting. Malibran entered an operatic world of stylized physical gestures that Giuditta Pasta had mastered. Pasta was “the perfection of classical style” with “the noble gestures, her every movement accomplished with the full awareness that she was acting for an audience.” Her performances were perfectly executed but there were no surprises. “She had carefully memorized on musical and dramatic interpretation.” Malibran’s style was new for her own time. She was more spontaneous in her movements and expressions. She was the embodiment of the new Romantic style in almost every sense of that term. 

Bushnell’s biography gives a detailed look at her life and work. Fitzlyon’s book is more controversial than Bushnell’s. Both recount the abuse all three children suffered at the hands of their father whose methods of discipline were considered harsh even by the standards of their time, but Fitzlyon also claims that there is sufficient reason to believe that Maria was sexually abused by her father. Her argument is based on Maria’s behavior, especially during visits from her father, that is consistent with that of sexual abuse victims. Radomski disputes that in his biography of Garcia (see my previous blog post about that excellent biography) pointing out that there is no record of Malibran ever confiding about any such abuse to any of her confidants, of which she had many. I will take no side here, but all of this makes for interesting reading. 

It was a fascinating, though tragically brief, life and one that had a profound impact on the 19th century opera world. Both biographies are recommended. There is a lot to unpack here and given how long it has been since the last English language book on Malibran, I would say we are due for another, fresh look at her life and work. 

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