An Impetuous Opera Star and Fine Porter

The Rescue of Isoline

Beeretseq has musical interests, but it is fair to say before today “operatic” would have connoted the style of the late Freddy Mercury, The Who’s Tommy, or the singer Meatloaf.

It came to our attention though that a star of the true opera repertoire, Maria Malibran, was fond of porter, and we looked into it anon for an historical tidbit, which was certainly found.

La Malibran was a fiery, Paris-born mezzo-soprano of Spanish blood. Her three ranges of octave and impassioned performances electrified the stages of Europe in the 1830s, a career that soared to ever-new heights before she was badly hurt in a riding accident. She died not long after, in September, 1836, at only 28.

Malibran found, as many have before and since, that London porter has stimulating and reviving qualities. In fact, the brand she favoured has been handed to posterity: Barclay Perkins. London porter was often as black as the raven hair of Malibran, perhaps a reason she liked the drink so.

Two stories illustrate her fondness for the drink. One, in Frederick Crowest’s A Book Of Musical Anecdote, Vol. 2 (1878), reports that a London reviewer of the stage, Henry Berkeley (pronounced so the “Ber” sounds like “her”) was introduced to her at Drury Lane.

Berkeley had mentioned in his notices that she seemed unduly attached to London porter. This boded a chill or fiery meeting between them, not in other words of the air-kissing type common in arts and entertainment. However, as Crowest reports, Malibran both disarmed and countered the starchy writer by running to him arms extended and crying:

“Oh Monsieur Barclay”  – for that is how she pronounced his name – “I shall never drink another glass of Barclay and Perkins without thinking of you”.

One of her star turns before her untimely passing was in Michael Balfe’s and Alfred Bunn’s The Maid of Artois. In Musical Recollections of the Last Half-Century, Vol. 2 (1872), John Edmund Cox gives a detailed report of her being handed a pot of pewter at the beginning of the last act, a stratagem designed to prevent a debâcle caused by extreme fatigue. The account stresses the strenuous nature of the production and that she was taxed to the limit by the first two scenes. Another account states she unwisely performed that morning in another play to earn an extra fee, which caused the fatigue in question.

At intermission she implored for a pot of porter, and it was arranged to be handed her at a point the audience wouldn’t notice as the last act opened. She was given it in a pewter pot, no doubt her favoured Barclay and Perkins, and in short it enabled a bravura finale which brought the house down. For later performances, she arranged that one of the players, who wore a calabash (gourd) around his neck, would proffer her the gourd to refresh herself, and of course it was filled with the same London porter.

One may doubt whether Malibran took the drink simply for its restorative powers; she seems in fact to have been a porter connoisseur, as Cox states she considered the drink never so nice as when conveyed in pewter. A number of reports of the time insist on the special qualities of pewter in this regard. There is, too, her choice of Barclay Perkins, always amongst the most reputed of the London porters.

She was one of the boys, so to speak.

I have a pewter pint, purchased for a few pounds in 1990 from a Davy Wine Bar in London. Tonight, I’ll fill it with London porter – I have some – and listen to this performance of a Balfe cantata written for Malibran in 1836. (The vibrant performance is by Manuela Custer). Maybe it will summon Malibran’s shade, if so we’ll trade notes, both beer and performance. Je tiens à vous, Madame.