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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Tchaikovsky’s Voice Cap­tured on an Edi­son Cylin­der (1890)

Down­load 10,000 of the First Record­ings of Music Ever Made, Thanks to the UCSB Cylin­der Audio Archive

Opti­cal Scan­ning Tech­nol­o­gy Lets Researchers Recov­er Lost Indige­nous Lan­guages from Old Wax Cylin­der Record­ings

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

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