My Father’s an Opera Singer, and So Am I

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If your father is famous or accomplished in his field of endeavor, it creates particular difficulties in forging your own path in the same profession. While it is hard enough if you work in relative anonymity, if your surname is, say, Fonda or Bush, the challenges are even greater. In opera, though, a couple of versions of “all in the family” have turned out more favorably. Let me tell you about the Garcias and the Serafins.

Manuel Garcia (Seville 1775-Paris 1832) was a great singer and composer who was perhaps even more famous as a teacher. His voice, described by contemporaries as both sonorous and agile, was flexible enough that he could sing both tenor and baritone roles, including Don Giovanni and Rossini’s Otello. He was a friend of Rossini and the first Almaviva in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. After that success in Rome, he moved to Paris to become the leading tenor at the Théâtre Italien.

Garcia was the paterfamilias of an important line of singers that stretched to the middle of the 20th century. They included three of his children, Maria Garcia Malibran, Pauline Viardot-Garcia and his son Manuel (1805-1906), a baritone who became one of the most important singing teachers of all time. The younger Manuel published manuals of vocal exercises in 1847 that are still used by many of the best singers. For Marilyn Horne it is like a holy book. Garcia also invented a medical implement used for examining the larynx, though it has been replaced by more modern technology. Manuel Jr. had two sons, Gustavo (1837-1925) and Albert (1875-1946), who were also singers and teachers. 

In 1825 and 1826, Garcia went with his wife and children to New York City, where they performed to great acclaim at the Park Theater, run by none other than Lorenzo da Ponte (1749-1838), Mozart’s librettist and by then the manager of that theater. Many of Rossini’s and Mozart’s works got their American premieres during the Garcias’s residency. 

Maria (1808-1836) did not live long but had a momentous life that included huge successes in Paris, London, New York and Italy. She was a favorite of Rossini, being his first Semiramide, and also sang many leading roles by Bellini, including Giulietta in I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Norma, and Amina in La Sonnambula as well as Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda. She had a couple of marriages, had a son in 1836 and died six months later. Though most famous as a singer, Maria also composed music.

Pauline Viardot-Garcia (1821-1910) was not only a great singer and teacher but a renowned composer of songs and operettas. Like her father and sister, Pauline inspired composers to write for roles her. Gounod wrote the opera Sapho, from which Horne sings “O ma lyre immortelle.” Given Horne’s regard for the Garcia manuals, this audio will give you some idea of how Viardot might have sung. 

Cecilia Bartoli has spent a lot of time researching and performing the music and styles of all the Garcia singers, particularly Maria and Pauline. While the Garcias are the most famous historic family of singers, right now there are the Serafins of Vienna, including father Harald and his children Martina (a soprano) and Daniel (a baritone). Last March I saw Harald, at the age of 81, perform the role of Mirko Zeta in Die Lustige Witwe at the Paris Opera with Susan Graham. The performance also featured the wondrous Franz Mazura, age 88, as Njegus.

Harald Serafin is a legendary figure in Austria, beloved for his humor and his key role as the artistic director of the Mörbisch am See Operetta Festival, close to the Hungarian border, from 1992 to 2012. This is the largest operetta festival in the world and is presented on a lakeside stage for an audience of 6000 persons a night.

Recently I had the chance to discuss with Martina and Daniel what it means to have this famous father while also blazing their own career paths. Harald was born in 1931 in Lithuania to an Austrian mother and an Italian father. His early performances were in small theaters in German-speaking countries. A major step forward came when he was invited to perform at the Zurich Opera, where he met the Viennese actor and director Otto Schenk, who directed him as Eisenstein in Die Fledermaus. Schenk later directed Serafin as Danilo opposite the Merry Widow of Anja Silja. During his career, he was a famous Danilo, the male lead in Die Lustige Witwe, having played the role some 1,700 times.

Serafin then began a long association with the Vienna State Opera, specializing in operetta. Ginger Rogers referred to him as a Viennese Maurice Chevalier while the New York Times called him “the Walter Matthau of Viennese Operetta.”

His daughter Martina was born to Mirjana Irosch, a singer with the Vienna Volksoper. Daniel was born to Serafin’s second wife, Inge, who worked in fashion. Daniel told me, “We all get along very well with one another.” Both children are making important New York appearances this season, with Daniel doing a concert program on November 5 at the Austrian Cultural Forum called "Forbidden and Banned" with works by Jewish composers such as Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Zemlinsky, Zeisl, Berg, Schoenberg and Mahler. Martina, who has a major career as a dramatic soprano, makes her Metropolitan Opera debut as Siegliende in Die Walküre on April 13, 2013.

I asked Harald’s children how having a parent who is a famous performer affected their decisions about approaching a singing career.

Daniel: "At first, I did not want to become a singer, so I studied management, and later on, finished with a master’s degree in Cultural Management. At the age of 19, I started my vocal studies (I always sang with coaches but never wanted to do it professionally). I worked with numerous famous vocal coaches (including Peter Seiffert, Wiccus Slabbert and Bill Schuman). I believe that diversity—in terms of operatic education—is a key element. Nowadays, people specialize so much that they miss the whole picture. You have to have an overview in arts, music and culture to develop. I constantly learn new things, in terms of singing, acting and music."

Daniel’s first stage roles, at the age of 23, were in 2005 at the Mörbisch Festival, followed by more operetta, classic Broadway musicals and Papageno in Die Zauberflöte and the Count in Le Nozze di Figaro.

Martina: “I wanted to become a pop singer, when I was 17, but after a year, I switched to classical music. I studied in Vienna at the Conservatory of Music and with Hilde Zadek and Gerhard Kahry. My father never pushed me to sing, nor did my mother, who had a beautiful soprano voice.” Her first roles, in 1994, were in operettas at the Mörbisch Festival. She later had a four-year contract at the opera house in Graz, where she specialized in Mozart roles. “My parents, both singers, told me the risks and the advantages of the job. It's an athlete’s job, that's for sure. Especially now as I sing very demanding roles: Tosca, Turandot, Elsa, Elisabeth, Sieglinde, the Marschallin. Last year I still sang Mozart, the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro at the L.A. Opera with Plácido Domingo conducting.”

While Martina never performed with her father, Daniel shared the stage with him in five different operettas. Here, as Dr. Falke, he sings “Brüderlein und Schwesterlein” from Die Fledermaus in a July 2012 performance that was part of the gala honoring Harald’s retirement (Harald is singing with the blonde).

For Martina, the prospect of being compared with her parents was a challenge. "I never sang the roles which my mother was best known for: Rosalinde, Micaela and Merry Widow (I did sing 2 performances of that role, but never touched it again). I found my personal development. My roles. Children from famous opera singers are always measured by the achievements of their parents, so either do it better or do a different repertory.”

For Daniel, “It's somewhat of a burden but, as my sister said, if you can have your own success in the repertoire that you favor and find your own way, it's the best. Every voice is different, especially in families. I sing differently than my father sang. Martina's voice is also different than her mother’s voice. I believe one should never try to copy something, but try doing something yourself. New footprints. That's what I'm trying to do.”