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Cecilia Bartoli: A Diva and Her Obsession

One of the items on display in Bartoli's traveling museum is an oil painting of Malibran by an anonymous artist from around 1834.
One of the items on display in Bartoli's traveling museum is an oil painting of Malibran by an anonymous artist from around 1834.
Bartoli's special mobile museum is dedicated to the art of 19th-century diva Maria Malibran.
Josh Ward for NPR /
Bartoli's special mobile museum is dedicated to the art of 19th-century diva Maria Malibran.

Two hundred years ago, before the Internet, TV or radio could help spread information, an international opera sensation was born. Crowds in European capitals stopped Spaniard Maria Malibran on the street and begged her to sing. She performed in the New York premier of Mozart's Don Giovanni.

One of today's opera stars, Cecilia Bartoli, has built a traveling shrine to Malibran and they are currently on tour together. When she's not on the concert stage, Bartoli guides visitors through the memorabilia on display in her motorized Malibran-mobile.

Cecilia, Meet Maria

Bartoli's life began to entwine with Malibran's when a producer handed her a picture of Malibran right after Bartoli's debut as Rosina in The Barber of Seville.

"Everything starts, in fact, with this Barber of Seville," Bartoli says. "Maria also did her debut as Rosina in Barber of Seville. I found some parallels between her voice, since she was a mezzo. I'm a mezzo, and I was so fascinated by this lady."

Besides singing with an extraordinary vocal range, Malibran also composed music, played several instruments and embroidered well. Malibran drew crowds on the streets of Europe and, when necessary, stood up to power. She refused to perform for the king of Naples until he ended a ban on applause in a local theater. Bartoli calls Malibran a true diva.

"She was the first pop singer. A pop mega-star without the media possibilities. Today, of course, we have radio and TV. But at that time, she only had newspapers, yet her career was huge in Europe and in America."

Malibran's father's company staged the first American performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni, with Malibran in one of the leads. Bartoli's obsession with Malibran has now birthed a new recording — called Maria. The album draws exclusively from Malibran's repertoire and her own compositions.

The Diva Collection

After 20 years of singing many of the same roles as Malibran and collecting loads of Malibran memorabilia, Bartoli is taking much of her collection on the road for the first time.

Among the items is a letter from the composer Gioacchino Rossini calling Malibran a musical genius. It's one artifact among dozens of musical scores, playbills, costumes and kitschy souvenirs that travel in a specially designed tractor-trailer truck made into a museum.

"I wanted to show this collection, but I didn't want to do it in a theater," Bartoli says. "I said, 'No, this has to be a very Maria way.' Malibran was always traveling, always in motion."

The truck parks outside the concert halls where Bartoli sings, and opens before and after her shows. Fans wandering through sometimes get lucky and find Bartoli there. In Berlin, one woman brought along a teacup embellished with a picture of Malibran that belonged to her great-great grandparents. It was wrapped in a paper towel and may soon be on display.

Among Bartoli's most prized items is a bracelet Malibran wore to play the lead role in Rossini's Cinderella. In the 19th century, the bracelet and not a glass slipper turned her into a princess since feet were considered too risqué to show on stage.

"I performed this piece many times in my career," Bartoli says, "and to have the bracelet, this was really something special. I never wear it myself. But who knows, maybe one day in a special production."

Bartoli also treasures original scores she obtained of music Malibran composed. Looking into one of the glass cases in the exhibition, Bartoli sings a bit of the score of Malibran's La Tarantella.

"I love this piece, and I think (it) shows the incredible potential 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, even too much."

Malibran died when she was 28, in a horseback-riding accident. But her memory and her music live on, through one of today's most vibrant opera stars.

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International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.