Manuel Garcia Senior (1775-1832), Patriarch of a Singing Dynasty July 23 2021
Although 18th century Spain produced many distinguished artists, only a handful of them
reached long-standing stardom and exerted significant influence over bel canto. In the 17th century - and contrarily to Italy, France, or Germany - Spain was primarily the cradle of zarzuelas. These include the baroque zarzuelas, which arguably bear reasonable resemblance to opera buffa, and later, Italian operetta.
When traditional opera gradually made its way through the main Spanish theatres and concert venues, its popularity was limited to the upper categories of society and to the intellectual elite until Italian operas gained popularity.
Such developments caused chaos, as zarzuela soloists - who were immensely popular - were frequently recruited to tackle operatic roles, and vice-versa with opera soloists with disastrous results. Harsh, intense critics divided the die-hard fans, acts of rebellion broke out at intermissions, contracts were cancelled, fees unpaid, and riots threatened both the competing artists and the public. Special police forces were on call, and ready to intervene - until at the turn of the 18th century, a resolutely charismatic newcomer, a young tenor, caused a sensation by embodying the perfect blend between all musical genres.
Manuel del Pópulo Vicente Rodriguez García
García was born on 21 January 1775. He was also known as Manuel the Senior, this tenor, baritone, oratorio soloist, conductor and singer composer (who would become a first-class singing teacher, and astute - albeit unfortunate - impresario). Was he a child prodigy, or a musical wunderkind of some sort?
The son of a lawyer, who died when he was still an infant, he sang as
a choirboy and took singing lessons, notably with maestro di capella Antonio Ripa (1721-1795). As a teenager, he could sight-read tenor and baritone keys, and could whistle in basso profundo and coloratura soprano registers, i.e. from low C2 to high E6 in today's vocal classification.
He was also gifted with an inborn acting talent, and despite his stern appearance, for his comic ability. He was known for his "voice tricks, singing, and whistling during classes", and for being an undisciplined student.
At 12, Manuel enrolled in acting classes, and by 15, he was a soloist in José Morales' theatrical troupe, who would mount parodies of zarzuelas, operas, and classical plays. He caught attention when he performed female roles in a parody of baroque castrati singers, wearing ornate costumes and feathers in a Farinelli-like parody.
As his reputation grew steadily, Garcia Manuel del Pópulo made his debut at Cadiz in a tonadilla - a short opera buffa of which he was the composer (El Majo y la maja, 1792), and in Seville in Haydn The Seasons (1794). He was complimented for his "dark voice and histrionic perfection", but he was deemed "unprepared for gracing first-class stages". These critiques encouraged him to work harder and did not prevent him from eventually creating the Madrid premiere of Le Nozze di Figaro in 1802 (which he would also present at the Teatro del Fondo, Naples, in 1814).
He pursued further training in Italy, benefitting from tenor Giovanni Ansani's (1744-1826) highly sought-after method which enabled him to sing florid roles, especially those in operas by Rossini, and also to develop a fuller sound in the middle range of the tenor compass - a vocal category described in the 19th century as bari-tenor (although by no means comparable to the French baryton-martin, i.e. a light baritone with an extended top).
Manuel Garcia signed receipt for a performance of "Athalie" 1804
Surprisingly, Garcia possessed a wide-ranging falsetto voice, which he would use as a warm-up, or on stage in female impersonations or in duets with himself! His career was established, and he sang in Paris, Naples, and London, where he performed with his family. He created dozens of roles, including Norfolk in Elisabetta, Regina d'Inghilterra at the Teatro di San Carlo, Naples (1815), Almaviva Il barbiere di Siviglia at the Teatro di Torre Argentina, Rome (1816), and also his own compositions, including Il Califfo di Bagdad, which is still occasionally staged today.
Manuel García the Senior had formed an Italian opera company consisting of eight soloists including himself, Joaquina, Maria, and Manuel Junior, and at the age of 50 he was invited to perform in New York, where they premiered popular Italian operas. They also toured several North American cities and travelled to Mexico, where they scored a resounding success although his vocal performances were marred by fatigue. However, he went on and composed interesting salon operas, allegedly to showcase the talents of his students.
Marriage and family
Garcia Manuel married soprano and bolero dancer Manuela Morales (1777-1836), whose daughter Josefa Ruiz-Garcia (1803-1850) became a respected soprano. Later, he met Joaquina Briones (1780-1864), a comedian and singer with whom he fell in love, and had a clandestine affair which gave rise to considerable criticism.
Briones was the mother of their three musical prodigies: Manuel Garcia Junior (1805-1906), Maria Felicia Malibran (1808-1836), and Pauline Viardot (1821-1910).
Manuel Garcia Jr.
Baritone Manuel Junior established himself as an illustrious artistic figure, and a musical fixture; however not as a singer (possibly in retaliation against his father's autocratic demeanor). He was an esteemed vocal pedagogue and music scholar, and the inventor of a laryngoscope which became one of his trademarks.
While strolling in a Paris arcade on a sunny day, he stopped and looked in the glazed display window of a shop, saw his own reflection and yawned. As a result, he caught a live glimpse of the inside of his mouth: palate, glottis, and vocal cords. This paved the way for further anatomical exploration, and convinced him to register his laryngoscope with the French patent office in Paris. As it turned out, it was often referred to in his teaching method and vocal treatises as a reference model.
Garcia Junior became the most revered musical figure of his time, and after teaching in Paris, he held a long-standing chair at the Royal Academy of Music, London. His musical salons were highly sought-after, and countless young and seasoned singers benefitted from his precious insight and advice. The severe Mathilde Marchesi (1821-1913) said of him: "When music fails to please him, why should he bother? He is music!" (source: Les Annales, 1889).
Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot
Maria was a mezzo-soprano and one of the most legendary romantic
figures of all time until her premature and tragic death. Her sister, Pauline, who was sometimes hailed as "The Inspiration", was a music genius and a prolific artistic personality of the 19th century. She was admired by composers, writers, poets and leading personalities from all walks of life. Her voice encompassed the contralto, mezzo soprano and spinto soprano compass; it wasn't reputed for its utter tonal beauty, but it was very agile and extended (as was Maria's), ranging approximately from C3 to F5/F6. She sang the title role of Norma, but could also vocalize on her father's roulades in the light soprano range.
Garcia's late career
On stage, he could be unaccommodating. The Italian diva Angelica Catalani (1780-1849) wrote about a performance of Rossini's Otello in Naples (1817): "Garcia the Elder was frightening, his voice had somewhat faded, but his magnetic presence mesmerized the audience, even when he slapped Desdemona in the face as she absent-mindedly turned her back to him!" (source: private correspondence).
In the above vintage lithograph, Garcia is shown as Otello, in Rossini's opera.
Manuel Garcia Senior was said to be irascible and domineering, exerting on his wife and siblings a tyrannical and cruel artistic autocratic discipline. But it did pay off and he established himself as an extraordinarily gifted singer, epitomizing the essence of bel canto, especially in the opera serie of Rossini, such as Elisabetta, Otello, Mosé in Egitto, Zelmira and Semiramide.
As a pioneering and indomitable figure of the family, Manuel Garcia Senior has ruled over the world of opera in many ways, particularly by promoting the quintessential technical schooling needed for Rossini tenor roles - which he also applied to opera seria, such as Gluck.
A charismatic and entrancing musical figure, he set in motion a revisited singing tradition, particularly for tenors, a tradition which was carried on by Manuel Junior, Maria, and Pauline years later. French musicologist and critic Castil-Blaze (1784-1857) wrote about the singer:
"Garcia embodies to perfection all [musical] genres: comedian, singer, conductor, stage director, and composer. His voice is not of supreme tonal beauty, but its vivid and emotionally charged power makes it unique. Every nuance is distilled and rendered with a communicative pathos, and his acting abilities are simply mesmerizing." (source: Journal des Débats, Paris, 1821).
When did Manuel Garcia die?
After having his last stage appearance in August 1831, he died the following year, on June 10th, 1832 and was buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
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