Cecilia Bartoli: A Diva and Her Obsession The opera star is known for her musical obsessions, her latest being the music and repertoire of 19th-century diva Maria Malibran. Bartoli has built a traveling shrine to Malibran, and they're currently on tour together.
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Cecilia Bartoli: A Diva and Her Obsession

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Cecilia Bartoli: A Diva and Her Obsession

Cecilia Bartoli: A Diva and Her Obsession

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

Two hundred years ago, way before divas were made by the Internet, by TV or radio, there was an international singing sensation named Maria Malibran. She was from Spain. And all over Europe, crowds stopped her on the street and begged her to sing.

She performed in Opera houses around the world and start in the New York premiere of Mozart's "Don Giovanni." Today, mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli has built a traveling shrine to Malibran. They're sort of on tour together.

NPR's Emily Harris caught up with the show in Berlin.

EMILY HARRIS: Cecilia Bartoli's obsession began when a producer handed her a picture of Maria Malibran. It was right after her debut, singing Rosina in "The Barber of Seville" in Rome in 1986.

Ms. Cecilia Bartoli (Singer): And I was so fascinated by this lady, especially by the family, because she was starting music with her family. And then I also start singing with my family. I mean, I start - my mother was my teacher and the father of Malibran, also Garcia, Manuel Garcia, was the great tenor of 19th century and teacher of Malibran. So I found some parallels between her voice since she was a mezzo, I'm a mezzo, and her family and my family.

(Soundbite of music)

HARRIS: Besides singing with an extraordinary vocal range, Malibran also composed music and played several instruments. She defied royalty, refusing to perform for the king of Naples until he ended a ban on applause in a local theater. Bartoli calls Malibran a true diva, a goddess, as the word means in Italian, and a smash hit on Earth.

Ms. BARTOLI: She was the first pop singer, you know, pop megastar in 19th century, without the media possibilities. I mean, today, of course, with radio, we have TV, you know? But at that time, she only had newspapers, you know? But her career was huge in Europe and in America.

HARRIS: Bartoli's passion for Malibran inspired her new recording called "Maria." It's an album drawn exclusively for Malibran's repertoire and her own composition, including this, "Rataplan."

(Soundbite of song "Rataplan")

Ms. BARTOLI: (Singing in foreign language)

HARRIS: Bartoli doesn't really know, though, how Malibran rolled her hours because there are no recordings of the 19th-century star. Bartoli has only the scores.

Ms. BARTOLI: There hasn't been a recording of what you can clear, listen to the way of phrasing, to the way of making colors and things like that. We have to recreate this. You cannot talk about imitation, but at least to follow Elizabeth, these colors that you have in the music and to try to translate it into the vocality, into the voice.

(Soundbite of music)

HARRIS: After 20 years of singing many of the same roles as Malibran and collecting her scores, playbills and costumes anywhere she could, Bartoli is now taking a Malibran show on the road. The memorabilia travels in a specially designed tractor trailer truck. It parks outside the theaters where Bartoli performs, and is free and open to the public.

Ms. BARTOLI: I wanted to show this collection, but I didn't want to do it in a theater. I said, no, this has to be a very Malibran way, you know? And Malibran was traveling. Malibran was always in movement.

HARRIS: One of Bartoli's most prized items was a gift from a collector. It's the bracelet Malibran wore to play "Cinderella" in Gioachino Rossini's version of the fairytale. 200 years ago, that's what turned the poor stepdaughter into a princess, since showing feet trying on glass slippers would have been far too risque.

Ms. BARTOLI: I performed this piece many, many times in my career. And to have the bracelet, you know? This is, was really something special. I never wear it myself. But who knows? One day in a special production maybe.

HARRIS: Bartoli also treasures original scores of music that Malibran composed. She's a good sport. On request, she leans over, pears through a glass case and sight-reads Malibran's "La Tarantella."

Ms. BARTOLI: You have the piano part.

(Soundbite of piano tune)

Ms. BARTOLI: It's a little bit like, like that - I love this piece, and I think it shows the incredible potentiality that Maria had as a composer. You can also learn the personality of Malibran. She was a very extrovert character, really. She wanted to live 100 percent, you know, even too much.

HARRIS: Malibran died when she was 28-years-old in a horseback-riding accident. Just before leaving, I accidentally called opera megastar Cecilia Bartoli the wrong name.

I just called you Maria.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BARTOLI: Don't worry. You're not the first one. No, no. This has happened already.

(Soundbite of music)

HARRIS: Emily Harris, NPR News, Berlin.

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