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World of Opera Star Lingered After Biography

April 21, 1988|SYBIL BAKER | Sybil Baker is a Times copy editor. and

All she set out to do was write a book. She couldn't foresee back then that the plot would tangle her up, too.

But it happened that way. In the seven years after her book came out, Eagle Rock writer Carol Russell Law has formed a musical society to honor her heroine and has become absorbed in a kind of historical fantasy, bringing back to life the work and milieu of a woman whose evanescent flame had faded a century ago.

When this began, Law already had a few children's books to her credit, some short stories and vast quantities of advertising copy. She was just a little intimidated by the knots of plotting required for the novel she wanted to write next. So she turned to the historical romance for help.

If someone's life had been dramatic enough, romantic enough, she mused, the plot would take care of itself; the peaks and valleys would be there.

To find the real person who would become her literary heroine, Law turned to music, the other thing as important to her as writing. She had studied voice. She knew of the passions that could stir with musical genius. And she remembered in particular, the genius and passion of one singer she had admired since high school, Maria Malibran.

In 1825, at the age of 17, Malibran became an operatic superstar in London and New York. Her life featured several varieties of passionate love including illicit, a colorful family complete with tyrannical father and heady success in her profession.

Rossini Enraptured

Years after her death, Rossini recalled: "Ah, that marvelous creature! She surpassed all her imitators by her truly disconcerting musical genius, and all the women I have ever known by the superiority of her knowledge and her flashing temperament."

Ah, Law reflected in turn: a remarkably suitable subject for a book, someone obscure enough to be available, rich enough to be worthwhile.

"Well, of course I was wrong," the author said with a wry smile. Not so much about her subject's suitability, as in her notion that she was getting a story line for free.

"I still had to plot," she said, speaking carefully, with the air of someone who has overcome shyness by dint of discipline.

And then she found an unexpected burden.

"The character grew on me a lot. . . . I wanted to know the music she was singing at the time."

Gradually, Law collected it, as well as the music performed or written by Malibran's relatives and friends or those associated with them--much of it largely overlooked for more than a century.

The novel "Overture to Love" was published in 1981.

"It didn't do very well," Law said, then added, as if in loyalty to her heroine, "Marilyn Horne wrote me and she said she liked it."

But by then, its success or failure seemed less important.

Creative people are used to the feeling that their creations start creating them; the author recounts how she felt increasingly impelled to bring the music to a larger audience. "I thought, 'I just don't want to sit home and read it."

Other people had to hear the music, she thought.

The next year, she started the Malibran Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the performance of 19th Century music.

She established a board of directors--"I called up my friends"--wrote the bylaws, and filed the official papers. Conductor and instrumentalist Walter Unterberg became the young society's music director, and pianist John Danke its resident accompanist.

The Malibran Society's first concert was in 1983. Since then, it has performed three or four concerts each year. Its next will be April 30 at the Philosophical Research Society, 3910 Los Feliz Ave., at 3 p.m.

At $8 a ticket, it's an opportunity to hear a little Mozart and Rossini, and some arias from a few composers who aren't so commonly known today. There's Crescentini, for example, Benedict and Meyerbeer.

And there's Michael Balfe, who wrote the opera "Maid of Artois" for Malibran in 1836; it was the Drury Lane theater's biggest moneymaker.

Mezzo-soprano Elin Carlson will sing one of its arias Saturday. "It's killer stuff, but it's fun," she says.

It was also the last role played by a prima donna whose music and life were both as brief as they were extravagant.

Malibran, a mezzo-soprano, developed her soprano register and achieved a range of three octaves, Law says. "She was famous for elaborate ornamentation, leaps of two octaves, and long trills on high C."

Malibran also had lustrous black eyes and raven hair framing a lovely pale face that was a perfect oval, presumably designed to be cupped in the hands of a handsome man. Or two.

Her domineering father, Manuel Garcia, was a famous tenor--Rossini wrote the role of Count Almaviva in "Barber of Seville" with him in mind. Garcia also wrote numerous operas himself and, as an impresario, operatically conquered the New World by giving 79 performances at the Park and Bowery theaters in New York between Nov. 29, 1825, and Sept. 30, 1826.

And Malibran, who starred in many of these, made her own conquests.

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