Malibran, Maria (1808–1836)

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Malibran, Maria (1808–1836)

French-born Spanish soprano who was one of the world's first international superstars. Name variations: María Malibran; Maria Garcia or García. Born María Felicità García on March 24, 1808, in Paris, France; died on September 23, 1836, in Manchester, England; eldest daughter of Manuel del Popolo Vicente García also known as Manuel Garcia (1775–1832, the tenor); mother's name unknown; sister of Pauline Viardot (1821–1910, a mezzo-soprano); studied with her father; married François Eugène Malibran (a merchant), in 1826 (separated 1827, annulled1836); married Charles de Bériot, in 1836; children: (with de Bériot) one son Charles Wilfred de Bériot (b.1830) and a daughter (b. 1832) who died at birth.

First appeared on stage at age five in Naples in Paër's Agnese (1813); made London debut as Rosina in Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia (Barber of Seville, 1825); made Paris debut in Semiramide (1828); appeared at Teatro alla Scala debut as Bellini's Norma (1834).

Maria Malibran was the sensation of Europe and America during the 1820s and early 1830s. Liszt and George Sand were profoundly influenced by her. In the words of one of her contemporaries, "She set the world on fire." Mass hysteria existed long before the advent of the rock star, as Malibran's career proves. Wherever she sang, crowds flocked to the theater. Drawings of her were sold by the penny press; fans fainted in her presence. She once entered a theater bearing one name, only to leave and discover it had been renamed in her honor. On her arrival in Venice, traffic was stopped for hours. After her La Scala debut, crowds unhitched the horses from her carriage and pulled it through the streets.

Maria Malibran was born in 1808 in Paris, where her father had arrived only two months before. Along with her younger sister, mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot , Malibran grew up on stage; their father Manuel Garcia was a famous singer, composer, conductor, and teacher. At age three, Maria was taken to Italy; at age five, she played the child's part in Paër's Agnese at the Fiorentini in Naples. She was so precocious that, within days of the opening, she began to sing the part of Agnese in the duet in the second act, and was applauded by the audience. Whenever an opera plot called for a child, Maria often sang the role.

Two years later, she studied solfeggi with Panseron at Naples. Hérold instructed her on the piano. In 1816, the family went back to Paris, then on to London in 1817. By then, Malibran spoke fluent Spanish, Italian, and French, and she picked up a "tolerable" command of English in the two years spent in London. She would also learn German. While in England, she made such rapid progress on the piano that she was able to play J.S. Bach's clavier-works by the time she returned to Paris in 1819.

Although Malibran's voice seemed unpromising at first, her father was determined to make her a great singer, no matter the cost. At age 15, she began to study with him and with Giuditta Pasta , his onstage partner. Pasta extended the young girl's upper and lower registers, giving her voice a dramatic range uncommon in many vocalists. Maria's childhood was unhappy, as Garcia was a brutal parent with a violent temper determined to make money from his daughter. Maria later remarked that she learned to "sing through her tears." In 1824, he allowed her to appear before a musical club which he had established. She was a great sensation and her future success was predicted.

Two months later, Garcia returned to London where he was engaged as a principal tenor. On June 7, 1825, when Maria was 17, there was a casting crisis at the King's Theater in London for the part of Rosina in Il Barbiere di Seviglia. Lord Mount-Edgecumbe writes: "The great favorite Pasta arrived for a limited number of nights. About the same time Ronzi fell ill, and totally lost her voice, so that she was obliged to throw up her engagement and return to Italy. Madame Vestris having seceded, and [ Marie ] Caradori-Allan being unable for some time to perform, it became necessary to engage a young singer, the daughter of the tenor Garcia, who had sung for several seasons. She was as yet a mere girl, and had never appeared on any public stage; but from the first moment of her appearance she showed evident talents for it both as singer and actress. Her extreme youth, her prettiness, her pleasing voice, and sprightly easy action … gained her general favor." Garcia had offered his daughter's services for an absurdly high fee which was accepted, and she was engaged for the remainder of the season (about six weeks) at £500.

"But she was too highly extolled," continues Lord Mount-Edgecumbe, "and injudiciously put forward as a prima donna, when she was only a very promising debutante, who in time, by study and practice, would in all probability, under the tuition of her father, a good musician, but (to my ears at least) a most disagreeable singer, rise to eminence in her profession. But in the following year she went with her whole family (all of whom, old and young, are singers tant bons quemauvais) to establish an Italian opera in America." In November 1825, Garcia assembled a troupe consisting mainly of family members and took the first Italian opera to the United States. Malibran quickly became America's first prima donna, appearing in Otello, Romeo, Don Giovanni, Tancredi, Cenerentola, and in two operas written by her father, L'amante astuto and La Figlia dell' aria. This sojourn also allowed her to perfect her art before audiences less critical than those in Europe. During this time, on March 25, 1826, she married Eugène Malibran, a seemingly wealthy French merchant three times her age, despite her father's objection to the union. The marriage, though unhappy, allowed her to escape from her father's merciless authority.

Malibran initially retired from the stage after her marriage, but in 1827 her husband suffered great business reverses. While he faced bankruptcy, she returned to Paris on her own in September 1827, so that she might earn more money. In Paris, Malibran contacted Countess Merlin whose salon ensured her entrance into the musical world. The composer Rossini helped her as well. Maria appeared as Semiramide at the Académie Royale de Musique in January 1828. Her success was immediate and enormous, and for the next eight years she followed one triumph with another. When Henriette Sontag retired from the stage in early 1830, Malibran had no rivals. She continued to sing in London, Naples, and Paris, earning unprecedented fees.

Since no recordings exist from this period, only contemporary descriptions document Malibran's voice, which was not exactly beautiful, but was considered unique. In the middle range, it was unfocused and hollow, but its range was a remarkable three octaves. When she sang in the middle range, Malibran could use either her sweet soprano register or her rich contralto. Malibran embellished passages as she sang, using arpeggios and trills which astonished her audiences, and often leapt two or three octaves to avoid the weakness of her middle register.

Maria Malibran was also a consummate actress, a quality which was somewhat rare for the period. Traditionally, opera performers used stock gestures to depict stock emotions, while Malibran, on the other hand, brought emotional realism to her roles, whether dramatic or comedic. In this respect, she owed Giuditta Pasta a great deal, as she was Malibran's only rival and had been her teacher. Malibran had an almost manic-depressive temperament, and varied her roles according to her acute mood swings. Although this technique might have produced poor results for many others, audiences flocked to see how Malibran would reinterpret roles. Noted a critic, "Few among her contemporaries could go home and sit in cool judgment upon one who, while she was before them, carried them as she pleased to the extremities of grave or gay."

Malibran lived her life at an extremely fast pace. Sometimes she performed two operas back-to-back and then rushed off to salons to perform for even more money. In 1829, she fell in love with Charles de Bériot, a violinist, and determined to divorce her first husband. Initially, she asked the Marquis de Lafayette to push a divorce law through the French Parliament; when this effort proved impossible, she asked her lawyers to annul her first marriage so that she could marry Charles. (It would be annulled by the Courts of Paris in 1836, and she would marry Charles on March 26, 1836) In the meantime, she gave birth to their son, Charles Wilfred, in 1830. Because he was born before her second marriage, Malibran suffered a great deal; society was unforgiving of such trespasses at the time. The couple built a handsome villa in a suburb of Brussels in 1831, to which they returned between engagements. In November 1832, Malibran gave birth to a daughter, but the infant did not survive.

In April 1836, while in London, Malibran was thrown from a horse and dragged some distance along the road, receiving serious head injuries from which she never fully recovered, although she continued to perform. Malibran returned to Brussels and gave two concerts at Aix-la-Chapelle with de Bériot. That September, she was to appear at the Manchester Festival in England. As described in the 1880 edition of George Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians: "She arrived, with her husband, after a rapid journey from Paris, on Sunday, September 11, 1836. On the following evening she sang in no less than 14 pieces. On Tuesday, though weak and ill, she insisted on singing both morning and evening. On Wednesday, the 14th, her state was still more critical, but she contrived to sing the last sacred music in which she ever took part, 'Sing Ye to the Lord,' with thrilling effect; but that same evening her last notes in public were heard, in the Duet, with Caradori Allan, 'Vanne se alberghi in petto,' from Andronico. This was received with immense enthusiasm, the last movement was encored, and Malibran actually accomplished the task repeating it. It was her last effort. While the concertroom still rang with applause, she was fainting in the arms of her friends; and, a few moments later, she was conveyed to her hotel. Here she died, after nine days of nervous fever, in the prostration which naturally followed upon the serious injuries her brain had received from the accident." Malibran died on Friday, September 23, 1836, and was buried in the south aisle of the collegiate church in Manchester. Her remains were re-interred in the cemetery of Lacken in Brussels soon after. She was only 28. News of her death swept the Continent, and the public mourned her passing. Wrote Alfred Bunn, the impresario: "The powerful and conflicting elements in her composition were gifts indeed, but of a very fatal nature—the mind was far too great for the body, and it did not require any wonderful gift of prophecy to foresee that, in their contention, the triumph would be short, however brilliant and decisive."


Bushnell, H. Maria Malibran: A Biography of a Singer. University Park, 1979.

Gattey, C. Queens of Song. London, 1979.

Grove, George, ed. Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Vol. II. London: Macmillan, 1889.

Uglow, Jennifer, ed. International Dictionary of Women's Biography. NY: Continuum, 1985.

Warrack, John, and Ewan West. Oxford Dictionary of Opera. Oxford University Press, 1992.

suggested reading:

Fitzlyon, A. Maria Malabran. London, 1987.

Pougin, A. Marie Malibran: histoire d'une cantatrice. 1911.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia