So what exactly is an Opera? The Opera is basically an art form that combines text (called a libretto) and musical score, where singers and musicians perform a dramatic work, usually in a theatrical setting.
When I was a teenager I started taking voice lessons. That was the beginning of my addiction to opera. I got a job at a record store to help feed my addiction. Minimum wage was a small deterrent compared to opera cds at cost. I quickly through all of the studio recordings much to my coworkers’ dismay. I found the need to turn to live opera recordings.
Initially I was apprehensive. Like many, when I thought of live recordings of opera I thought of scratchy recordings rife with flaws. The first recordings I bought was Cavalleria Rusticana with Placido Domingo and Leonie Rysanek. I was amazed at the energy of this performance. It had more vitality than any studio recording I had ever heard before. It also became very precious to me because if featured the great Leonie Rysanek. That recording made me a big fan.
From Italian opera I moved to German Opera. I fell in love with Richard Wagner. My father had the Solti Ring cycle on Lp. I listened to it over and over again until one day I got tired of flipping records and decided to buy the CD. I knew that I loved Birgit Nilsson but I wanted something new. I picked the Karl Bohm Ring. What I found was a recording that to this day I think is ultimately preferable to the Solti Ring. Birgit Nilsson said herself that she preferred her performance in the Bohm Ring because she felt that Solti’s habit of doing take after take ultimately robbed the performance of its spontaneity. I know that many love the Solti Ring cycle but I agree with Nilsson. Listening to the performance you feel transported to Bayreuth.
As a singer I treasure live performances not only for their excitement but for there flaws. In this day of digital wizardry it is possible for anyone to sing “Di quella pira.” There is something dishonest about a recording that has been pieced together like Frankenstein’s monster. It also fosters the notion that great performers are perfect. Live performances show that although they may be great artists they make musical errors and produce less than adequate tones. When I realized this it made me a lot more relaxed as a singer. Not that I do not continue to strive for excellence, but I do not beat myself up in the same way I used to if everything is not perfect.
Technology is amazing these days. With ipods and other downloadable music the opera recording may give way to opera mp3. Aren’t ipods wonderful? You can take days worth of music everywhere you go. Long plane ride? You can start Parsifal at the gate and in most cases not have finished the opera by the time you have reached your destination. Since I got my ipod I have loaded scores of recordings into it. (I think back to the dark days of cassette tapes and wonder how we managed.) I am sure that the future will bring us even more innovative ways to enjoy this great four hundred year old art form.
I did not set out to try and establish that Live recordings of opera are better than studio recordings. There are many studio recordings that I treasure greatly. However it seems that live opera recordings have always taken a back seat to their studio counterparts. I encourage everybody reading this to pick one up and try it out.