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One of the most famous opera divas of all times, Malibran was born in Paris, France (March 24, 1808) as María Felicitas (Francesca) García into a famous Spanish musical family. She was known for her stormy personality and dramatic intensity, becoming a legendary figure after her death at age 28 in Manchester, UK (September 23, 1836).

Contemporary accounts of her voice describe the range, power and flexibility as extraordinary. She had a strong, beautiful soprano although she also sang as a mezzo-soprano and contralto due to her outstanding talent and perfectly trained vocal.

Her father, Manuel García, was a celebrated tenor much admired by Rossini, having created the role of Count Almaviva in his The Barber of Seville. In addition to being a prolific composer, Garcia was a vocal instructor who developed a school of thought in his field that had an immense impact. (He recommended that singers stand erect and with their hands crossed behind their backs so as to "develop the chest and project their voice effectively.") Maria was the guinea pig for his experiments. He was inflexible and tyrannical, and the lessons he gave his daughter were reduced to constant quarrels between two powerful egos.

According to one anecdote, composer Ferdinando Paer and a friend happened to pass by the window of the Garcia home in Paris one day. Paer's friend was astounded to hear screams emanating from the window. The composer reassured him: "Oh, don't worry about that. Garcia is beating his daughter so that her voice will emit a trill." When she sang the role of Desdemona to her father's Otello in Rossini's opera, Malibran was so frightened when he began to choke her that she shrieked in Spanish, "Father, don't kill me." The audience thought that the scream was part of the performance.

Malibran first ascended the opera stage when she was 17, as a singer in the choir of the King's Theatre in London. When prima donna Giuditta Pasta became indisposed, García suggested that his daughter take over in the role of Rosina in The Barber of Seville. The audience loved Maria and she continued to sing this role until the end of the season. When the season closed, Garcia took his operatic troupe to New York in order to bring culture to the natives there. This was the first time that Italian opera was performed in New York.

In New York, she met and hastily married a banker, Francois Eugene Malibran, who was 43 years her senior. It is thought that her father forced Maria to marry him in return for the banker's promise to give Manuel Garcia 100,000 francs. However, according to other accounts, she married simply to escape her tyrannical father. A few months after the wedding, her husband declared bankruptcy and Maria was forced to support him through her artistic performances. On weekends, she would sing in English in Gracechurch in Manhattan. After one year of this kind of life, she left Malibran and returned to Europe. The rest of her family journeyed to Mexico to perform there. On the way back home after a successful season - by their own accounts - robbers stole all their money.

In Europe, Maria consolidated her standing as a beloved operatic star on the stages of London, Paris and Italy. In the meantime, an affair blossomed between Malibran and a handsome Belgian violinist, Charles Auguste de Bériot (February 20, 1802 - April 8, 1870), who was granted the job of chief violinist to King William I of the Netherlands. The pair lived together as a common-law couple for six years and a child was born to them in 1833. They were married in 1836 when Malibran obtained an annulment of her previous marriage to Malibran. Felix Mendelssohn wrote an aria accompanied by a solo violin especially for the couple. However, Malibran died the same year from injuries sustained in a fall from a horse.

The characteristic features of Malibran's career were a frenzied pace, hysteria and instability. Her spontaneity on stage infuriated singers who appeared alongside her and found it difficult to adjust their performance to hers. However, that spontaneity endeared her to her audiences. Illnesses and fatigue were challenges in her eyes. Even when ill, she would mount the stage and dare a friend to identify in what passages of her performance she was unable to mask her illness.

According to the critics of her day, Malibran's voice was not perfect. French essayist Ernest Wilfred Legouve once wrote that her voice was like "precious gold that must be quarried and then shaped with a hammer." Nonetheless, her range was apparently limitless: She sang alto and mezzo-soprano roles and could even reach the vocal heights of a soprano. Definitely, she got to have a unique voice along with being extremely gifted.

Gioacchino Antonio Rossini, Domenico Gaetano Donizetti, Frederic Chopin, Felix Mendelssohn and Franz Liszt thought otherwise and were among her staunchest fans. Vincenzo Bellini wrote a new version of his "I Puritani" (The Puritans of Scotland) in order to adapt it to her voice and even promised to write a new opera especially for her. Time was against him, however, and the opera was never written.

In April 1836, Malibran fell from her horse during a hunt and suffered injuries from which she never recovered. She refused to see a physician and continued to perform, appearing on crutches. She died five months after the accident. In her last performance in London, she sang a duet with Maria Caradori-Allan. The conductor, Sir George Thomas Smart, recalled the episode: "They settled the manner at rehearsal as to how it was to be sung, but when the time came, Madame Caradori-Allan made some deviations; this prompted Malibran to do the same, in which she displayed a most wonderful execution. During the demanded encore, she turned to me and said, `If I sing it again it will kill me.' `Then do not,' I replied. `Let me address the audience.' `No,' said she. `I will sing it again and annihilate her.' She was taken ill with a fainting fit after the duet and carried into her room." Maria died nine days later. Heinrich Heine wrote that her soul continued to sing through the sweet notes of her husband's violin.

After Malibran's death, de Bériot lived in Brussels, playing little in public. Four years later, however, he went on tour in Germany, where he met and married Marie Huber. In 1843 de Bériot became chief violin instructor at the Brussels Conservatory where he established the Franco-Belgian school of violin playing. On account of failing eyesight he retired in 1852, and in 1858 became totally blind. Paralysis of the left arm ended his career in 1866. Bériot wrote a great amount of violin music including ten concertos, now rarely heard, although his pedagogical compositions are still of use for violin students. His son Charles-Wilfrid was a pianist who taught Granados, Ravel and Viñes. Bériot died in Leuven at the age of 68.

Music critics frequently compared Malibran to Maria Callas, who took Malibran as a role model for her own career. Like Malibran, Callas undertook both lyrical and dramatic roles and, like Malibran, her portrayals included gestures larger than life. When Callas died suddenly in 1977, two portraits were found in her Paris apartment: The first was that of her teacher, Elvira di Hidalgo, and the second was that of Malibran.

<Thirty minutes into the performance of Puritani, you will get to experience a small glimpse of that restless, joyful spirit of Malibran when Elvira embarks into her polacca. Somewhere within those interlocked trills and upward scales, there is a built-in laugh, expressing a joy so complete and unwavering that it hovers over the other singers and orchestra. And there she lives on, like the Cheshire cat's smile, never fading, never forgotten.>
by Neekie July 11, 2006
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