The Malaga soprano who even captivated Napoleon

Lorenza Correa.
Lorenza Correa.
  • Lorenza correa

  • She was the first Spanish singer to become a ‘prima donna’ in Italian theatres and the composer Rossini wrote an opera especially for her. And it all began when she was a child, performing popular songs with her sister

She is said to have had an amazing voice, capable of reaching extremely difficult notes. They say that in France, Napoleon Bonaparte went to hear her on 17 consecutive nights, and in Italy Gioachino Rossini was fascinated by her: his opera Aureliano in Palmira was written especially for her. Stendhal, in his biography of the Italian composer, describes her as "one of the loveliest female voices to have emerged in the past 40 years". Never had a Spanish singer achieved such success.

Lorenza Correa was the first singer to receive the title 'prima donna' in the principle temples of Italian opera in the early 19th century, and one of the pioneers in France. This soprano from Malaga was part of a generation of opera singers who began to make Spanish music popular abroad, together with Manuel García and Isabel Colbran. They were two giants of this genre (he was a famous tenor; she the muse and wife of Rossini), but they have been eclipsed in history by the incredible fame of Lorenza Correa.

Lorenza was just a child when she made her stage debut. An article the El Correo de Madrid newspaper on 16 June 1787, written by 'C.M.R.' and collected by Baltasar Saldoni, a 19th century musicologist, reflects the surprise created in the Spanish capital by this 12-year-old. "It would be hard to find in a girl of this age, and I do not find this an exaggeration, equal talent and such a fine combination of circumstances, a clear voice, sweet, docile, flexible and with an extensive range, a pleasant and tender style, singing with natural feeling and actions, while remaining very modest," he wrote. The age quoted in the article, however, was an estimation by the writer because it didn't coincide with her official year of birth, 1773.

A print dedicated to Lorenza Correa and her successes in Italy.

A print dedicated to Lorenza Correa and her successes in Italy.

Correa began by singing popular songs in the main theatres in Madrid with her sister Petronila. Later, they became rivals. Musicologist and soprano Aurélia Pessarrodona also refers to her talent; she will soon be publishing an essay about Correa's beginnings in music in the Acta Musicológica magazine which is published by the International Musicology Society.

Pessarrodona says that, soon after they arrived in Madrid, the two sisters performed in the Lenten concerts with the artists from El Coliseo de Los Caños del Peral, a theatre on the site where the Teatro Real stands today. Very few voices could match them.

"Only the most famous foreign artists used to sing in those concerts, so the exception made for the Correa sisters was notable," says chronicler Narciso Díaz de Escovar in his collection of 'Curiosidades malagueñas' (1898).

Little by little, Lorenza climbed the ladder until she began to sing principle roles with the most important companies in Madrid. However, her earnings did not grow in line with her success.

"She was dissatisfied with some of the terms of her contract in Madrid, and so she began to consider a career in Europe," says Marc Heilbron, who studies the history of opera and teaches at the ESMUC (Escuela Superior de Música de Cataluña).

With her husband, the actor Manuel García Parra, she decided to try her luck abroad. This was an unusual and brave thing to do. "She must have been a strong character, but she knew what she was doing," says Aurélia Pessarrodona.

Between 1803 and 1804 Lorenza Correa performed at salons in Paris, where as well as operatic arias she would sing Spanish songs, sometimes accompanying herself on the guitar. That skill earned her high praise in the press of the time.

Lorenza Correa helped to make Rossini’s works popular in Spain.

Lorenza Correa helped to make Rossini’s works popular in Spain.

"The theatre was one of the few places where women could be professionals. Singers were the starting point for female empowerment. For a woman to have made these trips abroad and shown strength of character and professional independence, that had an important impact" says Heilbron.

1804 was the year Napoleon was crowned and there was a lot going on in Paris. It is no surprise that Correa performed at some of the events organised for the occasion. "Her fame reached the ears of the immortal Emperor Napoleón I. He wanted to hear her sing and was so enthused by her that he went to watch her on 17 consecutive nights," writes Díaz de Escovar.

From France, Lorenza went on to Italy. In the same year, 1804, she made her debut in the Teatro Grande in Brescia with Orlandi's 'Semiramide', the first time a Spanish opera singer had performed in that country. Naples, Genoa, Turin, Trieste and Venice received her with applause, but the high point of her career was in Milan, where she became a regular at La Scala between 1811 and 1816.

It was there that she played her most important role: Zenobia in Aureliano in Palmira. which Rossini composed expressly for her. The premiere was on 26 December 1813 and it included the only role that the Italian ever wrote for a 'castrato'. Heilbron says the composer's relationship with him was so bad that it resulted in the opera receiving a disappointing response from critics.

On the same stage in Milan, Correa went on to receive further acclaim: singing the role of the Queen of the Night in Mozart's Magic Flute, with two extremely complex arias which required a spectacular skill in coloratura.

Her successes in Italy enabled her to demand exceptional financial conditions when she returned to Madrid in 1818, says Heilbron. She played an important part in Rossini's work becoming popular in Spain. She knew his repertoire to perfection and became his best ambassador. As musicologist Emilio Casares Rodicio explains, Lorenza Correa premiered Rossini's second work in Madrid, Il turco in Italia. "It was after that that the composer's popularity grew in Spain, and it is believed that it was the growing demand for Rossini's works that led the city council to withdraw the ban on singing in Italian, in 1821," he says.

From then onwards Rossini "was sung in cafés and above all at salons", and when she performed, Correa included pieces from the Italian composer's works whenever she could.

It was thanks to Correa that the Spanish public began to discover operas such as 'La gazza ladra' and 'Il barbieri di seviglia', "although by then her voice was beginning to go," says Heilbron. She retired to Italy and only returned to Spain in 1831 to sort out her pension. She is believed to have died a year later, in Genoa.

There is still a great deal about Lorenza Correa which is not known. Her figure is surrounded by mysteries and blank spaces. Pessarrodona has recently discovered something that even casts doubt on her place of birth.

According to the 'Diccionario biográfico-bibliográfico de efemérides de músicos españoles' by Baltasar Saldoni (1860-1881), she was born in Malaga. Díaz de Escovar adds that "recent research" indicates that she was baptised at the San Juan church. However, her birth certificate has never been found. What Pessarrodona has found is that of her son, Francisco de Paula, and that says Lorenza was from Écija, in Seville province. This is something she plans to investigate 'in situ', when the pandemic restrictions are lifted.

One thing about which there can be no argument is that Correa was a grand diva. Saldoni describes her as being "short in stature and very stout, but her sweet and angelic voice, combined with her very special musical skill, made her one of the finest or even the very best among European singers".