The Garcìa family and a century of great singing

Spanish tenor Manuel Garcìa was the patriarch of four generations of singers. He and his children greatly influenced opera and singing in four countries for more than a century. In fact, his son lived for more than a century!

Manuel Garcìa (1775-1832)

Manuel Garcia

Manuel Garcìa as Otello, by Langlumé

Manuel Garcìa was born in Seville, Spain and educated in music in the choir school of the cathedral. He was a well-known singer, composer, and operatic conductor in Spain before his 18th birthday. His operetta El poeta calculista(1805) was successful not only in Spain, but in other countries as well.

At the time, Spain was not a musically influential country. Garcìa realized that if he wanted to remain well known internationally, he needed to be successful in a major European cultural center. So in 1807 he moved to Paris and made a name for himself in his debut the following year. In 1811 he moved to Italy, where he met Rossini and got a big break.

First, he created the part of Norfolk in Rossini’s opera Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra in 1815. Rossini liked his voice and his acting so much that he wrote the part of Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) especially for Garcìa the following year.

Shortly after that premiere, Garcìa returned to Paris and divided his time between performing in that city and London. He presented the premiere of The Barber in both. Along the way, he became a much sought-after and successful teacher of singing.

All four of his children became singers, and the daughters of his second wife became world famous operatic singers as well. His only son quickly abandoned the stage, but became one of the most influential voice teachers of the entire nineteenth century.

After his elder daughter Maria Felicia’s sensational London operatic debut in 1825, Garcìa decided to form his own traveling opera company, built around the members of his own family. At the invitation of Lorenzo da Ponte (librettist for three of Mozart’s most outstanding operas), the Garcìa troupe visited New York in 1825.

At that time, New York audiences had heard Italian operas in English, with all the recitatives replaced by spoken dialog. They had never heard Italian opera in the original Italian and had never seen an authentic, full-length production of one.

With da Ponte’s help, the Garcìas mounted six operas by Rossini (including, of course, The Barber of Seville), two by Garcìa himself, and Mozart’s Don Giovanni (one of the operas on a da Ponte libretto). The public loved that season, and especially Maria’s sensational singing.

The Garcìas created a demand for Italian opera in New York. Unfortunately, due to incompetent management and failure to recruit good singers, three attempts at starting a permanent Italian opera company failed in quick succession.

After leaving New York, the Garcìas traveled to Mexico and produced operas there until their return to Paris in 1829. For the rest of his life, Manuel Garcìa was the leading exponent of Rossini’s music outside of Italy. His own very popular compositions exposed the rest of Europe to the Spanish idiom.

Maria Malibran (1808-1836)

Maria Garcia Malibran

Maria Malibran as Desdemona, by François Bouchot (1834)

By the time Maria Felicia Garcìa made that spectacular London debut, she was already a veteran operatic singer. She first appeared on stage in Naples in 1814, nine years earlier.

She studied voice with her father, of course. His skill as a vocal teacher can be seen in the development of what was widely regarded as the best voice in Europe. She was a natural mezzo soprano, whose range extended down to the “G” below middle C.

For those of you who read music, that note is two ledger lines below the treble staff. Garcìa enlarged the compass of her voice to almost three octaves, up to the E on the third ledger line above the treble staff. Many successful sopranos can’t sing that high. Not only did he teach her to sing over such a wide range, but her voice also had great power and flexibility.

I haven’t come across any general descriptions of his teaching methods or relationships with students, but he was notorious for his excessive harshness toward his daughter. While the family troupe was in Mexico, Maria married Eugene Malibran, as much to get away from home as anything else. The couple returned to Europe in 1827, two years before the rest of the family. The marriage soon failed and was annulled.

The emotional abuse she suffered at the hands of her father gave her a restless, undisciplined temperament. Her acting on stage never rose to the level of her singing. Her performances were always exciting, but artistically unpredictable. Dramatically and musically, she did whatever occurred to her on the spur of the moment.

In March 1836, she married the violinist Charles de Beriot and seemed to be headed for some long-deserved happiness and tranquility. Unfortunately, she had a bad riding accident that summer and died at the age of 28.

Pauline Viardot (1821-1910)

Pauline Garcia Viardot

Pauline Viardot, by P.F. Sokolov, 1840s

Also a natural mezzo soprano, Pauline was only 11 when her father died. Her mother was her principal voice teacher. Her voice never reached the perfection of her older sister’s, but she never suffered the same abuse, either. She had a more stable personality and a much better developed musical and dramatic sense.

She made her operatic debut at 17, singing Desdemona in Rossini’s Otello in 1839, first in London then that same year in Paris. Two years later she married a distinguished French writer, Louis Viardot, who was 21 years older than she.

Their house became a gathering place for musicians, writers, and artists. Pauline Viardot knew nearly every artist of any distinction in Paris and inspired some of them.

Unlike her father and sister, she never sang in Italy and never matched their success in Italian opera. On the other hand, her vocal and dramatic abilities proved critical to the success of French composers Gounod, Massenet, and Fauré.

Viardot had no peer in her performances of operas by the already established composers Meyerbeen and Halévy. In fact, Meyerbeer wrote his Le prophet especially for her in 1849.

Berlioz, who praised her as one of the greatest artists in the history of music, prepared a new edition of Gluck’s Orfeo in 1859. Over the next three years, she sang the title role some 150 times. Her acting achieved a level of tragic intensity seldom seen on the operatic stage.

In 1843 she visited Russia, where she not only sang Italian opera, but also Russian music in Russian. No foreign singer had ever done so. She returned home with a love and appreciation for Russian music and culture and a Russian poet, Turgenev, who spent much of the rest of his life living with the Viardots.

Besides opera, she made a name for herself as a recitalist. Both Schumann and Fauré dedicated sets of songs to her. She herself composed songs, many on Russian texts, and some operettas.

Two of Viardot’s children became successful musicians as well. Her daughter Louise Héritte (1841-1918) taught singing in Germany and Russia and composed songs, opera, at least one cantata and some instrumental music. Her son Paul Viardot (1857-1941) became a violinist, composer, and conductor.

Manuel Garcìa (1805-1906)

Manuel Garcia

Manuel Garcia at 100, by John Singer Sargent (1905)

The eldest son of Manuel Garcìa’s second wife, the younger Manuel Garcìa abandoned the stage as soon as the family troupe returned from Mexico in 1829. Like his sister Maria, he was his father’s student. I don’t know what their relationship was like, but the younger Garcìa devoted the rest of his long life to administrative work and teaching.

He lived in Paris until 1848, when he moved to London. His father’s teaching methods had been very successful. The younger Garcìa built on them and conducted his own scientific study of the voice. He wrote three textbooks on singing between 1840 and 1861, and delivered a scientific paper in 1855. These writings formed the foundation of scientific study of the voice.

Garcìa also invented the laryngoscope in 1854, the first instrument ever able to look at the vocal cords and study them in motion. He figured out how to use a dental mirror, another mirror, and sunlight to look directly at his own glottis and trachea. His 1855 paper described his findings to the Royal Society of London.

For Garcìa, the laryngoscope was only a means of understanding vocal production better. The science of medicine has benefitted greatly from it, and the University of Königsberg awarded him an honorary M.D.

Garcìa’s distinguished roster of students includes Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale,” whose tour of the U.S. under the sponsorship of P.T, Barnum took America by storm.

One of his sons, Gustave Garcìa (1837-1925) was an operatic baritone in England and Italy from 1862-1880. After his retirement from the stage, he taught voice at three of London’s leading educational institutions.

His son Albert Garcìa (1875-1946) studied voice with Pauline Viardot (his great aunt) and also both sang and taught. He was, of course, the grandson of the younger Manuel Garcìa and great-grandson of the elder. I know nothing of his offspring, but he represents the fourth generation of singers and voice teachers in the Garcìa family.


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