Viewpoint: The Music Man
In the world of opera, the past is always present. Conversations about performance practice are inevitably dominated by opinions of the way things were done in previous years; the passage of time (and, in many cases, the absence of any recorded documentation) puts a tinge of gold on those performances that took place in years gone by. The way operas and opera singers once sounded is an inevitable point of discussion in an art form that has created its standard repertory from works created principally in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It would be instructive, I suppose, if any of us who love Faust could hear a performance by the opera's original cast of 1859; would the legend of Marie Miolan-Carvalho, Gounod's first Marguerite, be quite so secure if we could compare her execution of the jewel song with any of the interpreters who have followed her in the role? We will never know for sure, of course, because Madame Miolan-Carvalho had the great good fortune to end her career in 1885 — just two years before Emile Berliner (1851–1929) patented the system of sound recording that was the foundation of his Berliner Gramophone Company. It's unlikely that most OPERA NEWS readers could identify Berliner's place in the history of opera, but he was the man who essentially changed the way in which we listen to music. To my knowledge, Berliner didn't compose any music, classical or otherwise, but he was responsible for a content-delivery system that increased the audience for music by hundreds of millions of listeners within his own lifetime. Other inventors, including celebrated men such as Edison and Bell, had worked on sound-recording systems before Berliner, but it was Berliner who invented a method of sound recording that used discs — the ancestors, if you will, of most of the recording software that allows consumers to listen to music outside the concert hall and the opera house.
Berliner's name may be unknown to the majority of our readers, but it's a cinch that most of them could identify Steve Jobs. The cofounder of Apple, Jobs created a brand and a system of processing information that is now part of everyone's life — even if you are technologically illiterate, as I am. As I write this column — on an iMac — I'm listening to a program of Bach cantatas that I purchased at the iTunes store. During my train commute to work this morning, I listened to some of Claudia Muzio's Edison recordings from the 1920s on my iPod; the rest of my iPod library has about thirty-six hours of music on it, including two complete recordings of Anna Bolena. I have no idea how this all works, but I can't imagine life without the music I love being available to me whenever I want it. It's a need that I didn't know I had until Steve Jobs thought of it.
This season OPERA NEWS has introduced Take 5, a new online series of video interviews in which young singers field five questions from our online editor, Adam Wasserman. I urge you to visit Operanews.com this month to see and hear Take 5 interviews with Stephen Costello, who sings Percy in the Met's Anna Bolena this season, and Anthony Roth Costanzo, Ferdinand in the Met world premiere of The Enchanted Island on New Year's Eve.
F. PAUL DRISCOLL
The opinions expressed in OPERA NEWS do not necessarily represent the views of The Metropolitan Opera Guild or The Metropolitan Opera.