Maria Malibran entered the world in 1808 with an uncommonly interesting backstory and set of genes. Her father, the famous tenor Manuel Garcia, was probably half-Romany; her Spanish mother was a more minor opera singer. Garcia was a spectacular singer, a brilliant teacher, and a manic brute. Determined to make his daughter into one of the planet’s most brilliant vocalists, he battered and terrorized her regularly in service to this aim. Did she start life with a miraculous voice? She had one by the time she made her debut at a London concert at 16, just old enough to be a sophomore in a postmodern American high school. By that time, she already had a range from E below middle C to high C. At 17, she made her operatic debut as Rosina in The Barber of Seville to great acclaim.
1825 saw the Garcia troupe engaged at the Park Theatre in New York City. There, having made a strong start on fame, Maria began working her way toward notoriety. Her first taste of fame and her experiences with Garcia combined to make the attentions of a mild, middle-aged French businessman, Eugène Malibran, seem very acceptable. In 1826 she married him. Dissatisfaction followed soon enough.
She resumed her career in Paris in 1828, making her debut in the title role of Rossini’s Semiramide, which brought her the frantic adulation that would follow her for the rest of her flamelike life, and the sobriquet La Malibran. When not performing or rehearsing, she was partying or thrilling onlookers with her skills as a dashing equestrienne. She created many of her iconic Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti roles during this period. She was particularly effective as Rossini’s vulnerable Desdemona, a woman who meets death at the hands of a man.
La Malibran’s conduct would not qualify her as a Shady Lady but for one event: In 1829, scandalously separated from her husband, she fell in love with Charles de Bériot, a violinist. Love led to pregnancy and a son, born well before she managed to obtain an annulment and marry de Bériot in 1836. Despite the abundant publicity around these events, she did not lose her public’s love and was widely mourned when her premature death came that same year, the result of a riding accident and probable head injury.