New Stars, Old Tech

Met Opera stars Piotr Beczala and Susanna Phillips teamed up with some audio historians to make recordings using wax cylinders, technology that is a century old, and helped make household names of Enrico Caruso and Nellie Melba.

Anthony Tommasini of the NYTimes has the story. And the Met has put up (an oddly amateurish) video of the experiment.

This isn’t the first time this has been tried. The great Wagnerian soprano Birgit Nilsson made a recording using acoustical technology rather than electronic microphones. She presented it anonymously to some music critics to see if they could identify her. They couldn’t, and one said, “I don’t know who it was, but it clearly wasn’t a major singer.”

There are all sorts of speculations I’ve harbored about the intersection between opera and recording technology over many years as a more or less faithful opera aficionado. One is raised by this current experiment–how did people hear these recordings? (With the same thrill we can get from a modern high def recording with fidelity to the nth degree?) Or as a faint souvenir of a great voice?

Also, how did recording change the artform–and was it for the better? Certainly it’s easy to speculate that the emphasis on voice above all (which is still the dominant view, if contested) is amplified by a century’s worth of audio, where of course what you have is the voice front and center–and presented in a way that rewards obsessive comparative opera fanaticism. (And pace, yes, I think the voice is important, but I don’t think opera is “about voices,” per se.  Rather, is a thrill because opera is more than the sum of its parts, including theatrical values, such as the physical production, the direction, and overall musical conception, the narrative and dramatic quality of the work, etc. These don’t necessarily show up on wax cylinders, or on CDs or downloads for that matter. (Of course opera on video does provide a sense of this this, and has become for me at least, a lot more rewarding than audio only.)

Finally there is a paradoxical thing–although I find these recordings hard to listen to at many levels, the surface is scratchy and the dynamic range so limited, and yet… they do offer a window into a world of singers and styles that is fascinating, and some singers I have come to treasure (and I hear you saying, because of the voice, and that’s true).

Amelita Galli-Curci is the prime example of this for me. Astonishing technique,  elegant style, and as a YouTube commenter points out, perhaps the most natural singer on the opera stage of her era, or any since.

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