Those recordings have to have been predominantly studio productions, parts of the great inundation of complete operas and recital discs from Victor, Columbia, London, Angel, and other labels during the LP vinyl decades. And one of the significant transformations in our secondary aural environment has been the death (not too strong a word, in practical terms) of the commercial recording industry and the culture it generated. In his book about performing arts economics (Curtains?—see my post, The Bottom Line: Opera and Money, of Sept. 15), Michael M. Kaiser refers to the relationship of live performance and that culture as “symbiotic.” At the least, it was synergistic, and since many more potential devotees could be reached by recordings than by live performance (geographical access, especially in this country; and: money!), many ears, including those of aspiring performers, first bonded to singing, to music, to opera, through recordings. That started in Caruso’s time.
I know thoughtful people, music professionals, who shed no tears for the demise of commercial opera recording. There were plenty of things about it to bewail. Most flowed from the fact that it was commercial, with all the promotional, celebrity-fabricating push that has to go with that, as well as the furthering of the general misunderstanding of art’s economic status and place in society. Not to mention the competitive imperatives that drive toward planned obsolescence, toward the mechanization of “product” replacement, toward cost-cutting at the expense of artistic quality, etc., etc., and the fact that these strategies all tended to leak back into the world of live, non-profit performance in a kind of wrong-way synergy—a symbiosis, all right, but a self-devouring one. I have frequently devoted parts, or on occasion, all of a review to deploring the artistic results of these conditions.
But against these negatives, we should concede at least these positives: 1) That the presence of this commercial enterprise was itself a validation of the importance of opera and classical music to our civilization. The physical items for sale, the stores that sold them, the magazines devoted to them, the ads and editorial attention given them in the “mainstream media” (the only media then of any importance), the competition among labels with their rosters of rivaling stars, the frequent synchronization of releases and their attendant publicity with live events—all these helped to maintain the impression of opera as a still-going concern. If something’s being widely sold and publicized, and for-profit corporate money and energies spent on it, it must be of some importance. 2) Often the recording companies were able to assemble “dream” casting combinations superior to, or at least different from, those available to even the international-level opera companies. This made possible some transcendent home listening experiences, the kind that can raise the level of a devotee’s excitement, draw in an uncertain explorer, or revive a flagging interest. It also extended what at the outset had seemed the most valuable use of recording—to preserve the work of great artists, the performing standards and styles, of bygone times. Finally, the competitive duplications of repertoire and churning of remakes facilitated by technological advances were further signs of the ongoing vitality of the artform. 3) The culture that grew up around recordings, a culture of seekers, collectors, and curators, of equipment geeks and tinkerers, of specialized criticism and inflamed debaters, helped keep alive the sense of passionate engagement an artform must nurture if it is to survive. The fact that this engagement was of a minority, and associated with a classical, high-art form, sharpened the definition of opera’s position in society—an elite and therefore desirable one, for which aspiration and education must precede rewarding participation.