The Diva’s Diva: Cecilia Bartoli on Maria Malibran

François Bouchot. Maria Malibran. Louvre, Paris
François Bouchot. Maria Malibran. Louvre, Paris [Source: Wikimedia Commons]

She was a Spanish diva who was born in Paris. She debuted in London and introduced the first Italian operas performed in New York. In her brief, tempestuous life (1808 -1836), mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran achieved an international celebrity unimagined before her time. It was the very dawn of what Walter Benjamin called “the age of mechanical reproduction” — before the invention of photography or sound recordings, let alone movies, radio, and television. Maria’s image was spread around the world by newspaper engravings, and her legendary voice was known by ear alone. Wherever she went fans stopped her in the street and begged her to sing. She was the world’s first pop star, and she died tragically young when that was the romantic way to go.

Celebrities like Madonna or Brittany Spears are a are a dime a dozen now. Divas, too. Could Malibran out-diva the likes of Maria Callas or Cecilia Bartoli? Callas would have resented a rival as glamorous as Jackie O, but Cecilia has become Maria’s foremost fan.

An unrestrained collector of Malibran memorabilia, Bartoli has the wherewithal to show it off. She’s touring Europe now with a mobile museum. The truck is parked outside her concert venues, and the public is invited to have a look for free. Inside the concert hall, Cecilia sings Malibran’s repetoire, classics by Rossini and Bellini plus songs Malibran composed herself. The music is featured on a new Maria Malibran tribute CD. You can hear one of the tracks, “Casta Diva” from Bellini’s Norma, on a YouTube tribute montage. It sounds like the re-purposing of a 19th-century celebrity, but you should listen to Cecilia’s girlish excitement as she talks about her idol with NPR. No desperately deranged diva here.

Cecilia Bartoli is touring Europe with a mobile museum dedicated to the art of 19th-century diva Maria Malibran.
Cecilia Bartoli is touring Europe with a mobile museum dedicated to the art of 19th-century diva Maria Malibran. [Source: NPR]

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