Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Opera Urns

The opera urns being filled in the basement of the Paris Opera, Dec. 24, 1907. Photo from the NY Times.

Format wars

In my lifetime I've seen the rise and fall of many formats of recorded music, from LPs and singles to cassettes to compact discs to DVD-Audio to digital streaming to the vinyl revival. Different formats have always existed simultaneously, and it hasn't always been clear which new format had a sufficient commercial or technological advantage to dominate the market: remember Laserdiscs from the early 1980s, MiniDiscs from the early 1990s, or Super Audio CDs from the early 2000s?

Such format wars have been fought since the advent of recorded sound. In the first decade of the 20th century the dominant audio format was the Edison wax cylinder. But a new technology was beginning to make inroads into the market: the shellac gramophone disc. Gramophone discs were becoming popular thanks in large part to a rising young Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso, who was recorded in the new format by one of Edison's commercial rivals, the Gramophone Company. Caruso was the gramophone's killer app: the ten recordings issued from his first session in 1902 were international hits and fueled the sales of both playback machines and discs.

The 1907 urns. Photo from BnF, Le feuilleton des urnes de l’Opéra: 2, by Pascal Lafay / BnF

The opera urns

It was in the middle of the Gramophone Company's marketing struggle to establish their format over cylinders and competing disc systems that its president, Alfred Clark, had the idea for a brilliant publicity stunt: a gramophone time capsule. In 1907 he offered 24 discs to be placed in hermetically-sealed metal canisters, or "urns," to be stored in the basement of the Paris Opera and opened in 100 years.

The ostensible purposes were scientific (to demonstrate to future generations the current "state of sound-recording devices") and cultural (to preserve "the voices of the foremost singers of our age"). The more immediate purpose, of course, was to gain free publicity for the Gramophone Company and the imprimatur of the Paris Opera and the French government for the company's audio system and recording catalog. It worked so well that in 1912 Clark donated another 24 discs, plus a gramophone, spare needles, and instructions for playback.

Over the decades the four urns sat neglected in a basement storage room at the Opera. As time passed, of course, audio technology continued to change. Electrical recording using microphones replaced acoustic recording using horns in the mid-1920s; magnetic tape, which made it possible to edit audio performances, was invented in the 1930s and commercialized in the 1940s; vinyl long-playing 33⅓ rpm records were introduced in the late 1940s, and soon replaced 78s; stereo was developed in the late 1950s and quadraphonic sound in the early 1970s; and the compact disc debuted in the 1980s.

In 1989, during renovations at the Paris Opera, the basement storage room was entered and the urns were rediscovered. One of the urns had been broken into, and the gramophone had been taken; the remaining three were moved to the Bibliothèque Nationale.

After remaining sealed for a century, two of the urns were opened in 2007. It was discovered that the records had been separated by glass plates (many of which were now broken) and wrapped in asbestos cloth (!), rendering them unplayable without extensive (and hazardous) cleaning and restoration.

The cleaning of the recordings. Photo from BnF, Le feuilleton des urnes de l’Opéra: 3, by D. Cueco/BnF

However, each of the two urns (one from 1907 and one from 1912) contained a list of all the titles that had been included in those years, and so it was possible to find matches for all of the recordings in existing collections. In 2009, EMI Classics, a corporate descendant of the Gramophone Company, issued a three-CD set of the music contained in the urns (Les Urnes de l'Opéra, 50999 206267 2 3).

Emil Berliner with an early prototype of his invention, the gramophone acoustic recording system

The recordings

The first thing to say about these recordings is that it's amazing to be able to hear legendary singers such as Enrico Caruso, Geraldine Farrar, Emma Calvé, Pol Plançon, and Feodor Chaliapin. However, ears accustomed to modern stereo sound must definitely make adjustments when encountering historic recordings.

In The Grand Tradition: Seventy years of singing on record, 1900-1970 (Scribner's, 1974), J. B. Steane quotes the soprano Emma Eames on what it was like during gramophone recording sessions:
To a sensitive person the conditions were unnerving. We had to sing carefully into the very center of a horn to the accompaniment of an orchestra that inevitably sounded out of tune, owing to the fact that metal horns were substituted for the wooden sounding-boxes of the violins. In the case of a brilliant and vibrant voice like mine, as one approached the climax, or high note, the climax was turned into an anti-climax for fear of a blast, so-called; one was gently drawn back from the horn, so that instead of a ringing high note one sounded as though one had suddenly retired into the next room. The process enervated me, as I felt that with even the most satisfactory results, my voice would be diminished and deformed, and the cross-vibrations eliminated completely. (p. 9)
The sound of a gramophone recording was also "diminished and deformed" in other ways. Arias were shortened because the discs could only hold about four minutes of music on a side. Orchestras were reduced in size, because the acoustic horn could not easily pick up sounds from more than about ten feet away. Brass and wind instruments were substituted for string instruments because acoustic recordings couldn't capture either high or low frequencies very well. This limitation also affected the sound of the singers' voices, as Steane describes:
The distortions of 'pre-electrical' recording (that is, the 'acoustic' process prevalent until electric recording was established in 1925) affect the singer's tone, intonation and artistic freedom. The frequency range was limited so that a voice would be shorn of the full richness of its harmonics....A voice remarkable for its purity of tone, as [Nellie] Melba's was, would be reduced to something pipelike when the harmonics were cut; a contralto whose voice was naturally rich would sound plummy as the edge was blunted; a bass would seem hollow or wooden when the qualities that made for a rich depth were removed. Tenors generally came off best; the characteristic tenor sound is bright-edged, and the voice is well in the middle of the gramophone's frequency range. (p. 7)

Enrico Caruso in 1910

That tenors' voices were reproduced relatively faithfully is a key reason why Caruso's recordings became such huge hits. It's still possible to hear what contemporary listeners found so thrilling about his records. Here is an example from Urn 3: Caruso singing "Celeste Aida" from Act I of Verdi's Aida, recorded in 1908:

This recording was restored by Bob Varney and made available by the invaluable Internet Archive.

Nellie Melba in 1902

But as Emma Eames suggests, the recording process could be less kind to sopranos. From Urn 2, here is Caruso's frequent partner Nellie Melba in "Caro nome" from Act I of Verdi's Rigoletto, recorded in 1907:

The digital transfer of this recording was done by Tim Ecker and the clip is made available by Internet Archive.

Steane says of Melba's recordings that "for all their faults and limitations they present a marvelous singer" (p. 40). Interpretive questions aside, Steane writes that "hers was the purest and firmest of voices, the most perfect scale, the most exact trill." But he also writes that "the occasional faults are mercilessly exposed when such a voice as hers is shorn of its natural harmonics by the old recording process." Certainly the passage from about 1:02 to 1:14 doesn't seem to display the "accurate intonation" that "all contemporary accounts one of her outstanding characteristics" (all quotes p. 37). My ears have not yet fully adapted to the sound of historic recordings, but I would agree that on this recording Melba's voice sounds "pipelike" and "hollow"; on this evidence, it's not apparent why Steane judges Melba to be this era's "best of all recorded singers" (p. 37).

The recording limitations can also, to my ears, flatten not only the voices but the sense of immediacy and drama. From Urn 3 here is "Addio, dolce svegliare alla mattina" (Goodbye, sweet awakening I knew each morning) from Act III (not Act IV as the CD booklet has it) of Puccini's La bohème, recorded in 1907. In this scene Mimi (Geraldine Farrar) and Rodolfo (Enrico Caruso) are bidding each other a farewell so tender that it leads to a reconciliation, while at the same time in the background (beginning at about 1:25) Marcello (Antonio Scotti) and Musetta (Gina Viafora) are having a nasty breakup. But because all of the singers had to crowd around the horn in order to be heard, there can be no background. For me, this lessens the poignancy (and humor) of the scene:

This recording was restored by Bob Varney and made available by the Internet Archive.

The selection

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Verdi (whose operas were frequently performed then and now) is the composer with the greatest representation: 11 recordings among the 48 discs. And as you might imagine, Francophone composers were also well represented. Charles Gounod leads this group with seven recordings, and overall there are 28 sides featuring French music.

It's not clear who made the selection of the recordings. Were the selections made by the Gramophone Company's Clark in order to gain approval for the project from the staff of the Paris Opera and French government officials? Or did he allow the Opera staff or the officials themselves to make the choices? There is no indication in anything I've read about the opera urns; perhaps at this distance from the original events it is unknowable.

Whatever the case, we can be grateful that the selector(s) included recordings of Reynaldo Hahn singing and accompanying himself on two songs. From Urn 4, here is Hahn singing Emmanuel Chabrier's "L'île heureuse" (The island of happiness), recorded in 1909:

Recordings like this one remove the barriers of time and technology that separate us from these performers, and let us experience their art with a surprising vividness and immediacy.

Many thanks to M. Lapin, who sent me the EMI set along with his own translation of its booklet essay by Elizabeth Giuliani, Directeur du département de la Musique of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, together with Alan Riding's New York Times article about the urns.

Information in this post is taken from those sources, the website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and from J. B. Steane's The Grand Tradition.

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