Coda: Off the Shelf
Deciding which CDs to toss. by Brian Kellow
Deaccession in progress
Illustration by Gary Hovland
WITH THE END OF 2015 in sight, I decided to greet the New Year by making more space in my office/library. I was able to toss a surprising number of books. (Did I really need to hang on to The Blithedale Romance, which I barely staggered through in college?) But it was the CD collection that got hit the hardest: bag after bag of recordings I had thought I would never part with got unceremoniously dumped, surprisingly without regret—only relief.
I remember the thrill of collecting many of these recordings back in the heyday of CDs. Some of them I listened to only a handful of times, but I justified their presence on my shelf out of “archival interest.” At some point, as I was madly disposing of them, I felt giddy with the power of deciding who would survive and who would perish. But when I stopped to survey my work, I noticed a pattern: I was hardly throwing out any of my complete opera recordings. The category most frequently marked for extermination was solo recital CDs. And as I perused them, I began to understand why.
When I first came under the spell of opera, I did it slowly and incrementally, and, like many people, I focused on the hit tunes. I can remember playing Montserrat Caballé’s performance of “Ernani, involami” over and over, electrified by her buoyant singing. But it was a year or two before I took the time to explore the rest of Ernani and understand what a big step forward, in terms of dramatic structure, it marked in Verdi’s career. Now I found myself putting on the entire recording and playing it through, start to finish. Even if I was concentrating on something else, I could anticipate my favorite moments with pleasure. Now I needed to experience the whole show.
The same was true with many other operas. The final trio of Der Rosenkavalier yielded to the entire work, including the long comic stretches in Acts I and III that so many complain about. Sometimes singling out one of my previous favorite moments seemed downright coarse, because I wanted to feel the arc of the entire drama. Thus “Augusta! How can you turn away?” got played only in the context of all of The Ballad of Baby Doe, and I needed to hear everything that preceded and followed “Do not utter a word, Anatol,” in Vanessa, or the Countess’s death scene in Queen of Spades. It was all part of the joy of embracing opera as great drama—not just great numbers. (One exception was Turandot: I decided early on that the only part I really liked was the Act II lament of Ping, Pang and Pong, so that’s all I play.)
There’s something else that led me to dump recital discs by major artists such as Gérard Souzay, Richard Crooks and Frederica von Stade—the advent of YouTube. Now, when I do feel the need for a straight shot of one song, one aria, it feels foreign to seek it out on my CD player. Only the computer will do, and I can pleasantly pass hours at a time leaping from one piece to another, like a torch race. But mostly, when I have the time, I want the entire work, even with longueurs, because they provide a wonderful platform, a kind of resting place, from which to reflect on the stretches of greatness. Throwing out those recital discs didn’t make me feel like I was losing anything at all. Instead, it reminded me that love of opera is a growing, living thing—and that seems as good a way as any to greet the New Year.
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