The Record Of Singing: Opera Across The Ages NPR's Tom Huizenga takes Scott Simon on a guided tour of a fascinating new set of opera CDs, documenting singers and their recordings from 1898 to 2007. Along the way, hear opera great Enrico Caruso in his first recording session and the penatrating sound of dramatic soprano Eva Turner.
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The Record Of Singing: Opera Across The Ages

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The Record Of Singing: Opera Across The Ages

The Record Of Singing: Opera Across The Ages

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(Soundbite of opera)

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Opera can touch the heart, stir the soul and soothe the savage breast. No emails now; that really is the quote. To do all of those things and more, there's a new collection of opera. We won't call it complete; we can call it by its name, "The Record of Singing." "The Record of Singing" is a pair of box sets, 10 CDs each, it's put out by EMI, and it covers the history of recorded opera from 1899 - that's no typo - 1899 to the present.

Here to walk us through this collection is NPR's music producer, Tom Huizenga. Tom, thanks very much for being with us.

TOM HUIZENGA: Oh, I'm thrilled to be here.

SIMON: Twenty CDs, right?

HUIZENGA: Yeah, but really they could've had about 60 or 70. It's the tip of the iceberg, but it is actually, I think, kind of a one-stop shopper's guide to the art of singing; mainly opera singers, but some concert singers as well -from a long time ago at the dawn of the recording history to right up to the present.

SIMON: I don't want to delay anymore. Let's get to the first one. 1899, right?

HUIZENGA: 1899, and there were recordings made before this, but this is old and, you know, you're going to have to get used to a little of the sizzling bacon effect here. But this woman's name is Ellen Beach Yaw, and she's actually a little more than a footnote in the opera books today - no one really remembers her. But it's nice that she's remembered in the set because she's an American. I think she had a gimmick going.

(Soundbite of singing)

SIMON: Oh my word. I think my Lazik surgery just got undone.

HUIZENGA: These aren't nice notes, let's just put it that way, but they're kind of fun. And she knew where the money was, because she took those notes on tour all over the place. She sang Lucia di Lammermoor at the Met in 1908, and she had 29 curtain calls - they called her back 29 times. She was offered a contract and she said no.

SIMON: Because?

HUIZENGA: She knew where the money was and that was in concert touring.

SIMON: I think, even to this day, the most famous name in opera, in fact so famous people who don't know anything about opera know this name, is Enrico Caruso

HUIZENGA: Enrico Caruso is - right - synonymous with opera. You see the Pagliacci figure in the white cloak with the big fluffy buttons down the front. And he is synonymous with opera because his career blossomed at the very time that the whole recording industry blossomed. And so they fed off each other. I mean he made money himself and the whole industry made money selling his records.

We're going to listen to a selection from his very first recording session in Milan in 1902. And the aria is from Donizetti 's "The Elixir of Love," called "Una furtiva lagrima."

(Soundbite of opera)

SIMON: Even with the bacon sizzling, you can hear the power in his voice.

HUIZENGA: There's only that feeling that there's, the chest is under so much pressure yet it's so controlled, and we can hear the great coloring and how that crescendo up, that phrase, mama, she loves me, and then the very soft singing that follows.

SIMON: What are you going to introduce us to next?

HUIZENGA: Let's go to 1928. And now we've actually entered into the era of electric recording. So you know, before about 1925 everyone sang into a giant horn. So now we've got microphones. Better to catch the incredibly loud sounds of Dame Eva Turner, who was an English soprano, who really could sing quite loud.

(Soundbite of opera)

HUIZENGA: What do you think?

SIMON: Well, I'm not sure she needs the microphone.

HUIZENGA: She saw an opera at age 10; she came home and told her folks she wanted to be an opera star, and that's what she turned out to be.

SIMON: My God. Well, that's almost all she could've been with that voice. It's amazing.

HUIZENGA: She retired in 1948 and gave some singing lessons after that. And when I hear that, I just - I imagine what it would've been like to actually have been in an opera house and hear that. The security of the high notes and how she reaches them and just the projection that she had makes me excited.

SIMON: Good. Tom, to your discerning ear, what kind of differences do you hear over the decades that are captured in this recording?

HUIZENGA: I think - this is a generalization - but I think singers generally before World War II, let's say, they were not afraid to put their personal stamp on creating an individual style or maybe even interpreting the role. And that's something we hear a little less today. Someone once said that these days you're less likely to find a bad performance but also you're less likely to find truly unforgettable performance.

And singers today are very obsessed with getting everything just right, and maybe sometimes - at least for me - maybe sometimes too right. And these old singers, they varied off the path a little bit, and that makes it exciting, I think.

SIMON: The newest recording in this collection is what?

HUIZENGA: There are a number of singers in the second volume of the two big hefty sets. I thought we'd listen to tenor Rolando Villazon, who is singing today, Mexican tenor who is a lyric tenor mainly, but in opera geek parlance you might call him a lyrico spinto(ph). Spinto means pushed, so he can be pushed into heavier roles. And here's a guy whose career just a few years ago just took off like a cork out of a champagne bottle and everyone is raving about his resplendent high notes and the sweetness (unintelligible) and the strength. And some people called him the next Domingo. And actually in this music that we'll hear, I think you can hear some of the Domingo-type timbers in it. But after a while, I think the worst thing that could happen to a singer happened to him, and that is that his voice gave out on him.

SIMON: So these are the last recordings we'll hear?

HUIZENGA: No. He went to a doctor, the doctor said take five weeks off. The took five months off and he has recently returned. But I just noticed that he's not singing this afternoon live at the Met - he cancelled, laryngitis. But there's no sign of laryngitis in this aria, which is from a little known Spanish zarzuela called "La Taberna del Puerto."

(Soundbite of opera)

SIMON: That was glorious.

HUIZENGA: That's great, isn't it?

SIMON: Yeah.

HUIZENGA: Really exciting. Rolando Villazon.

SIMON: How strong is opera now?

HUIZENGA: Well, you're constantly reading about opera companies and symphony orchestras that are laying off people and tightening belts. But in recent years opera has fared better box office-wise than symphony orchestras. I don't think it's going anywhere any time soon.

SIMON: Tom, thanks so much.

HUIZENGA: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: The CD collection we've been talking about is called "The Record of Singing" on the EMI label. Tom Huizenga is NPR's music producer. And to hear more recordings from this collection, you can go to NPRMusic.org. Thanks so much.

HUIZENGA: Thank you.

(Soundbite of singing)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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