Pauline Viardot


1821-1910. The woman with the golden throat, connoisseur of the menage a trois.


Pauline García was already one of the most famous opera singers in Europe when she beguiled Russian audiences in The Barber of Seville in 1843. At the time, foreign operas had just been allowed to be shown again after being banned; her mezzo-soprano voice had enchanted audiences the world over already.

She was born to a famous musical family, and had traveled to the United States and Mexico by the time she was six, at which point she already was fluent in four languages (Russian would come later). She wanted to be a concert pianist, but was encouraged by her family to sing instead after the death of her older sister, who was an established opera diva.

Pauline Viardot’s life is littered with legendary names of music history and beyond. She was taught the piano by Franz Lizst and was known to play with her friend, Frederic Chopin; the protagonist of George Sand’s Consuelo was inspired by her. She had a close working relationship with Johannes Brahms. But it is the trip to Russia that changed everything.

In 1840, García had married her love, Louis Viardot, who was twenty-one years older than her, and taken his name. Theirs was a love that was “profound, lasting, unselfish, and generous.” It was also unconventional, because it included another man.

She inspired characters in almost every novel he wrote — almost always as femmes fatales who charm men with their wit.

The “turning point” of Ivan Turgenev’s life, according to him, was that night in 1843. At that moment, he fell so passionately and madly in love with Pauline Viardot that he packed up and left Russia in 1845 to live with the Viardots, which he did until he died. She inspired characters in almost every novel he wrote — almost always as femmes fatales who charm men with their wit.

A true artist, Viardot was held in the utmost respect by her peers because of her immense talent. Although she toured into old age, she was famous for instructing some of her equally famous descendants. (She, as well as the Comtesse de Castiglione, features prominently as a character in Alexander Chee’s incredible novel Queen of the Night). Her home was known as a safe haven for artists of all kinds, and she encouraged and helped many in their creative processes.

By almost all accounts, Pauline Viardot was a belle-laide. Whenever her looks were written about, it was always to take note of the fact that she was beautiful, in the sense that she “conquered her physical ugliness.”

So, in 2017, just remember… that although ours is an image-obsessed society, there is nothing that surpasses tremendous talent and razor-sharp charm.