Hear Singers from the Metropolitan Opera Record Their Voices on Traditional Wax Cylinders

Vinyl is back in a big way.

Music lovers who booted their record collections during the compact disc’s approximately 15 year reign are scrambling to replace their old favorites, even in the age of streaming. They can’t get enough of that warm analog sound.

Can a wax cylinder revival be far behind?

A recent wax cylinder experiment by Metropolitan Opera soprano Susanna Phillips and tenor Piotr Beczala, above, suggests no. This early 20th-century technology is no more due for a comeback than the zoetrope or the steam powered vibrator.




Beczala initiated the project, curious to know how his voice would sound when captured by a Thomas Edison-era device. If it yielded a faithful reproduction, we can assume that the voice modern listeners accept as that of a great such as Enrico Caruso, whose output predated the advent of the electrical recording process, is fairly identical to the one experienced by his live audiences.

Working together with the New York Public Library’s Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound and the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, the Met was able to set up a session to find out.

The result is not without a certain ghostly appeal, but the facsimile is far from reasonable.

As Beczala told The New York Times, the technological limitations undermined his intonation, diction, or performance of the quieter passages of his selection from Verdi's Luisa Miller. In a field where craft and technique are under constant scrutiny, the existence of such a recording could be a liability, were it not intended as a curiosity from the get go.

Phillips, ear turned to the horn for playback, insisted that she wouldn't have recognized this recording of "Per Pieta" from Mozart's Così fan tutte as her own.

Learn more about wax cylinder recording technology and preservation here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Free: Download 10,000+ Master Drawings from The Morgan Library & Museum’s Online Collection

It’s hard for the casual browser to know where to begin with a collection as vast as the master drawings belonging to the Morgan Library & Museum.

The Library’s Drawings Online program gives the public free access to over 10,000 downloadable images, drawn primarily from—and in—the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries. Many images are fleshed out with inscriptions, information on provenance, biographical sketches of the artist, and, in over 2000 instances, images of the verso, or flip side of the paper.

Researchers and similarly informed seekers can browse by artist or school, but what if you don’t quite know what you want?




You could tour the highlights, or better yet, bushwhack your way into the unknown by entering a random word or phrase into the “search drawings” function.

Knowing that the internet is crazy for cats, I made that my first search term, but the results were skewed by an 18th-century Dutch artist named Jacob Cats, whose work abounds with cows and sheep.

Caricaturist Al Hirschfeld’s portrait of Kathleen Turner in the 1990 Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  is unavailable for viewing due to copyright restrictions. (It’s easily viewable elsewhere…)

And the Where’s Waldo-esque excitement I felt upon an anonymous artist’s Mountain Landscape with Italian-Style Cloister faux-Bruegel dissipated when I realized this return owed more to the abbreviation of “catalogue” than any feline lurking in the pen-and-ink trees.

Next I entered the word “babies.” I’m not sure why. There certainly were a lot of them, almost as many as I encounter on Facebook.

Returning to the pre-selected highlights page, I resolved to let the experts pick for me. I saw a charming rabbit family by John James Audubon and the old favorite by William Blake, top, but what really grabbed me was the first page's final selection: Honoré Daumier’s Two Lawyers Conversing, circa 1862.

Part of the Morgan's recently closed Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection exhibit, the subjects' dress may be archaic, but their expressions are both humorous and evergreen. Lawyer. I had my search term.

My favorite of the seven search results is illustrator Edmund J. Sullivan’s Soumin an' Roumin from 1914. One of a dozen or so drawings Sullivan made for an updated edition of George Outram's Legal and Other Lyrics, it shows "an old woman in a farmyard surrounded by livestock fleeing three monstrous lawyers wearing wigs and robes and armed with hideous talons instead of hands and feet. One … chases a cow with a scourge, the thongs of which end in scorpions.”

Download that one for all your lawyer friends or your lawyer spouse… upload it to a t-shirt if you’re crafty.

Claud Lovat Fraser’s set design for Pergolesi's short comic opera La Serva Padrona (or The Maid Turned Mistress) at the Lyric Hammersmith doesn’t depict any lawyers, to the best of my knowledge, but he himself was one—also a caricaturist, lampooning the literary and theatrical luminaries of his day, and a soldier whose life was cut short due to exposure to gas in World War I.

In addition to the Morgan’s particularly well-fleshed-out artist bio for this work, the verso is a treat in the form of a printed announcement for the Chelsea Arts Club Costume Ball.

Browse the Morgan Library & Museum’s Drawings Online in its entirety here, or narrow it down by artist, School of Art, or personal whim.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her New York City  on February 8, when she hosts Necromancers of the Public Domain, a variety show born of a single musty volume - this month: Masterpieces in Colour, Basten-Lepage. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Hear the Highest Note Sung in the 137-Year History of the Metropolitan Opera

You may have heard an A above high C the last time you accidentally stepped on your cat's tail, but it takes a combination of rigorous training, genetic luck, and sheer grit for a human to produce this note on cue.

According to all known records, the coloratura soprano, Audrey Luna, is the first such being in the Metropolitan Opera’s 137-year history to do so on its stage, an achievement that has all the opera dogs barking. Hear it in the NPR clip below.

Some purists view the rare note as a distasteful stunt on the part of composer Thomas Adès. The score of his new opera, The Exterminating Angel, based on the Luis Buñuel film, also calls for miniature 1/32-size violins, a pair of rocks, a wooden salad bowl, a door, and an ondes Martenot—an electronic instrument from 1928.

Others are bedazzled by Luna’s history-making pipes. She makes her entrance on that high A, and hits it again shortly thereafter, as Leticia, a diva who rolls up to a dinner party following a performance of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. (The title role of that one—a part Luna has played, natch—is another that demands stratospheric notes of its performers, setting records at opera houses around the world.)

See below for more of Luna’s dizzying highs, including her somewhat NSFW performance as Olympia, the mechanical doll in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann

If you're mad enough to try it yourself, please let us know how high you get in the comments below.

via NYTimes

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Brooklyn Academy of Music Puts Online 70,000 Objects Documenting the History of the Performing Arts: Download Playbills, Posters & More

Yesterday the sad news broke that The Village Voice will discontinue its print edition. Co-founded by Norman Mailer in 1955 and providing New Yorkers with savvy music writing, raunchy advice columns, juicy exposés, reviews, entertainment listings, apartments, jobs, band members, terrible roommates, and pretty much anything else one might desire every week for over half a century, the paper will be missed. Though it won’t disappear online, the loss of the street-level copy in its comfortingly familiar red plastic box marks the abrupt end of an era. Those of us inclined to mourn its passing can take some solace in the fact that so many of the city’s key cultural institutions still persist.

Prominent among them, Brooklyn’s Academy of Music, or BAM, has been at it since 1861, when it began as the home of the Philharmonic Society of Brooklyn. It has inhabited its present Beaux Arts building in Fort Greene since 1908. In its 150 years as a performance space for opera, classical, avant-garde theater, dance, and music, and film, BAM has amassed quite a collection of memorabilia. This year, on its century-and-a-half anniversary, it has made 70,000 of those artifacts available to the public in its Leon Levy Digital Archive. Like future issues of the Voice, you cannot hold these in your hand, unless you happen to be one of the museum’s curators. But “researchers—or anyone else interested,” writes The New York Times, “can create personalized collections based on specific artists, companies or eras.”

The history represented here is vast and deep, by a young country’s standards. “Every presidential candidate made campaign stops there before there was television,” says former BAM president Karen Brooks Hopkins. “Mary Todd Lincoln was in the audience during the opening week of festivities. Then you have [Rudolph] Nuryev making his first performance in the West just after he defects, [Martha] Graham performing her last performance on stage….” These landmark moments notwithstanding, BAM has earned a reputation as a home for avant-garde performance art, and the collection certainly reflects that dimension among the 40,000 artists represented.

We have further up the postcard Keith Haring designed for a 1984 Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane piece called Secret Pastures (Haring also designed the sets). We have the poster above for a 1981 performance of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha, his opera based on the life of Gandhi. And below, a poster for the 1983 world premier of Laurie Anderson’s United States: Parts I-IV. These objects come from BAM’s Next Wave Festival collection, which contains many thousands of photographs, playbills, and posters from the space’s more experimental side, many, though not all of them, downloadable.

Between the Civil War memorabilia and modernist documents, you’ll find all sorts of fascinating ephemera: photos of a very young Meryl Streep and Christopher Lloyd in a 1977 production of Happy End at the Chelsea Theater during a BAM Spring Series, or of an older Patrick Stewart in a 2008 Macbeth. Just below, we have a charming playing card featuring the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Peter Jay Sharp building in 1909, the year after it was built. It’s an imposing structure that seems like it might last forever, though much of the vibrant creative work featured year after year at BAM may someday also move entirely into digital spaces. Enter the complete BAM digital archive here.

via The New York Times/Hyperallergic

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch Wagner’s Ring Cycle: A Complete 15-Hour Performance Is Now Free Online Thanks to the BBC

The word “Wagnerian” as a synonym for operatic bombast may have fallen out of favor in recent years, as has the reputation of German composer Richard Wagner. He has been regarded as "the most repugnant of musical nationalists,” writes David P. Goldman at Tablet---a sentiment widely shared given Wagner’s permanent association with Nazism. His music has long been banned in Israel, though “every so often a prominent musician makes a point of sneaking Wagner into a public concert.” And just as philosophy departments across the world have struggled with Martin Heidegger’s Nazism, so the classical music and opera worlds have wrestled with Wagner.

What’s odd, however, in this case, is that Wagner died in 1883. He towered over 19th-century German culture, a contemporary of Nietzsche rather than Hitler, who claimed him after the composer’s death.




Yet those who know the story of Wagner's turbulent friendship with Nietzsche know that the philosopher violently rejected his former idol and father figure in part because, as Robert Holub argues, Nietzsche “was unequivocally antagonistic toward what he understood as anti-Semitism and anti-Semites.” Nietzsche saw the writing on the wall in views Wagner expressed in essays like 1850’s “Judaism in Music.”

Wagner---musicologists and historians would say---also saw the future, and helped design it through his unwitting posthumous influence on Hitler. The composer's famed theory and practice of what he called Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total work of art,” anticipate the massive spectacles of 20th century totalitarian aesthetics and the mythological dimensions of 20th century fascism. Wagner called his work the “Music of the Future,” happily appropriating a term critics used to deride his Romantic nationalism. But Wagner’s cultural influence is much, much broader than its most damning association, including his formative influence on Nietzsche.

Wagner’s greatest achievement, Der Ring des Nibelungen—referred to as the Ring Cycle—inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and scored the “Ride of the Valkyries” scene in Apocalypse Now. Loony Tunes’ “Kill the Wabbit” spoofed the Ring Cycle, and became an entire generation’s “first, and often only exposure to opera,” as Ayun Halliday noted here recently. The Ring Cycle’s overwhelming demonstration of the Gesamtkunstwerk is a thing to behold, and you can see it here performed in full, all four parts, “15 hours of epic opera” courtesy of BBC Arts and The Space. The film here, by Opera North, comes from live performances in Leeds in 2016. At the top, see Das Rheingold, below it Die Walküre, just above Siegfried, and below Götterdämmerung ("Twilight of the Gods").

So what should we make of Wagner’s music, given its unavoidable relationship to wars of domination (against even “Wabbits”)? If we are to heed some of his critics, we might think of him as a 19th century Michael Bay. Mark Twain is rumored to have called Wagner’s music “better than it sounds”—though it turns out the quote actually comes from humorist Edgar Wilson. Twain did write that he enjoyed “the first act of everything Wagner created,” but “after two acts I have gone away physically exhausted.” Samuel Beckett, in a gem of a paragraph, called Wagner’s work “clouds on wheels.” But Wagner is also incredibly powerful and often sublime, and his music does inspire the kind of awe that Tolkien and Francis Ford Coppola drew on for their own awe-inspiring work.

< Appreciating Wagner may indeed be an endurance exercise. His booming tales of dwarfs and giants, gods and river-maidens, heroes and, yes, Valkyries, can seem to rumble along several miles above us. The exercise is not for the faint of heart. However, the technology of streaming video can save us from Twain’s fate—you can return here, or to the BBC’s site—as many times as you like without having to take in the massive Der Ring des Nibelungen all in one sitting. And as is always helpful in opera of any length, you can peruse summaries—like this one—when you feel a bit lost in the clouds. Or, for a truly surreal condensed Wagnerian experience, watch the video above of “four and a half hours of opera in one minute.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Alan Turing Gets Channeled in a New Opera: Hear Audio from The Life And Death(S) Of Alan Turing

Creative Commons image by Steve Parker

It can seem like a cruel irony that some of the most celebrated people of our day didn't receive the same acclaim during their sometimes troubled lives. Van Gogh may have been on the cusp of fame when he died despairing and broke, but few could have imagined then that he would be the universally beloved and admired artist he became in the following decades. (A recent Doctor Who episode poignantly imagined Van Gogh traveling to our time to witness his legacy.) In a more recent example in the sciences, the book---now film---Hidden Figures celebrates three previously unsung African-American women: mathematicians, or “human computers,” whose calculations were instrumental to NASA’s success but whose accomplishments were obscured by prejudice.

The same could not quite be said for Alan Turing, another genius recently celebrated in a multiple-award-winning Hollywood film, award-winning documentary, and spate of articles, essays, and books. Turing was viciously persecuted for his homosexuality by the state, and he has often been unfairly characterized in many portrayals since.




In 1952, he was convicted of “gross indecency” for a relationship with another man and given the choice between prison and chemical castration. The brilliant English mathematician, codebreaker, and father of modern computing and artificial intelligence chose the latter, and the physical and psychological effects were so demoralizing that he took his own life two years later—perhaps grimly inspiring the Apple logo as he enacted his favorite scene from Snow White (a matter in some dispute, it should be noted).

Turing “left behind a lasting legacy,” note the makers of the docu-drama Codebreakers, “and lingering questions about what else he might have accomplished if society had embraced his unique genius instead of rejecting it.” It's not fair to say that society rejected his genius—perhaps even more tragically, it rejected his full humanity. Turing’s genius, though cut short at 41, received its due, inspiring, since 1966, the highest award in computer science. His famed “Turing test” became the standard by which nearly all attempts at artificial intelligence have been measured. In addition to those films, books, and essays, Turing has been much lauded in musical productions, namely the Pet Shop Boys “orchestral pop biography” A Man From the Future and a 30-minute oratorio by Adam Gopnik and composer Nico Muhly called Sentences.

And now, a new two-act opera, The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing, was presented to the public for the first time, in its entirety, on January 12th at New York’s American Lyric Theater (ALT). Commissioned in 2012, and written by composer Justine Chen with a libretto by David Simpatico, the opera is “a historic-fantasia on Turing’s life” that does not obscure the man as it acknowledges his genius. Many critics felt that 2014’s The Imitation Game “obfuscated his sexuality and desexualized him in an attempt to make the story more mainstream,” remarks Shawn Milnes at The Daily Beast. “He was not a sexual creature in this movie,” agrees Simpatico. “He was in the closet." That impression of Turing's personal life has almost become commonplace. And yet the truth "couldn't be more opposite," Simpatico argues.

He was completely out. He was out upon meeting people. He would say, ‘How are you doing? I'm a homosexual. Will you have a problem with that? No.’ He was out to everybody. The movie makes it feel like he had something to hide.

Fully acknowledging all of the dimensions of Turing’s life allows the opera--The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing-- to draw deeply moving arias from his biography like “Cave of Wonders,” above, in which Turing expresses “his grief over the loss of his first love,” Christopher Morcom, a fellow grade school student who died young in 1930. Turing was “openly devastated” by the event, writes L.V. Anderson at Slate, “and he subsequently developed a relationship with Morcom’s family, going on vacations with them and maintaining a correspondence with Morcom’s mother for years. In The Imitation Game, by contrast, he “denies having known Christopher very well” in a flashback scene.

The music of the opera’s Prologue, above, owes a debt to composers like Steve Reich and John Adams, with its pulsing piano and cacophony of voices, simulating, perhaps, the rush of thought in Turing’s brilliant mind. At the ALT site, you can hear a further excerpt from the opera, “The Social Contract,” which dramatizes the pressure Turing’s mother put on him to marry, and his subsequent consideration of a marriage of convenience to his colleague in cryptoanalysis, Joan Clarke. In the opera, writes Milnes, Simpatico had the idea of “fusing sex and intellect on stage” in order to balance Turing’s portrayal and “see who the person was,” as he puts it. As Simpatico says, the tragically persecuted genius “had no division between his sexual, sensual, physical carnal self and his intellectual, cerebral, interior self.” Only people who couldn’t take them both together seemed to have found it necessary to separate the two, and thus do terrible damage to the man as a whole.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Kill the Wabbit!: How the 1957 Bugs Bunny Cartoon, “What’s Opera, Doc?,” Inspired Today’s Opera Singers to First Get Into Opera

It comes as no surprise that many American children’s first, and often only exposure to opera comes compliments of Bugs Bunny. One of the rascally rabbit's most enduring turns is as Brünnhilde opposite Elmer Fudd’s Siegfried in “What’s Opera, Doc?,” a 1957 cartoon spoofing Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Other well known names, including Marilyn Horne and Placido Domingo have assayed these parts over the years, but thanks to the miracle of syndication, Bugs and Elmer are the ones who truly own them, as a celebrated part of their repertoire for six decades and counting.




The law of averages dictates that a percentage---a very small percentage---of their billions of child viewers would grow up to become opera professionals.

The Wall Street Journal recently confirmed that for several prominent Wagnerians, including the executive director of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, “What’s Opera, Doc?" and an earlier work, 1949’s “Rabbit of Seville,” had a profound impact.

And no disrespect to director Francis Ford Coppola, who deployed Ride of the Valkyries so memorably in Apocalypse Now, but no one will ever use it to greater effect than the cartoon’s writer, Michael Maltese, author of the immortal lyrics:

Kiww the wabbit! Kiww the wabbit!

It’s a phrase even the least opera-inclined child can remember and sing, well into adulthood.

Read the complete Wall Street Journal article here.

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