The Opera Quarterly 20.3 (2004) 384-388
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Feature Book Review
Caruso Records: A History and Discography by John R. Bolig
James A. Drake
Few first-time authors have been granted a more auspicious entrance into the national operatic scene than John R. Bolig received when his The Recordings of Enrico Caruso was published in 1973. Aslim, no-frills volume offset-printed from Bolig's typewritten manuscript and bound by its publisher like a doctoral dissertation, the book quickly earned its young author a place in the limelight surrounding the centennial of Caruso's birth.1 With that limelight came a ready introduction to the New York operatic scene, courtesy of a number of well-placed Caruso devotees including the late Francis Robinson, then assistant general manager of the Met, who saw to it that Bolig was included on the invitation lists for the centennial galas and tributes.
At the center of all this attention—and for the most part unfazed by it—was an experienced academic researcher with a genial personality, easygoing demeanor, and almost cinematic appearance (at a 1977 event celebrating the eightieth birthday of the Caruso protégé Rosa Ponselle, to which Bolig was invited through Robinson, one of the guests, the soprano Nanette Guilford, initially mistook Bolig for the actor Kier Dullea).2 At that time Bolig's "day job," as he liked to call it, was as an administrator in the Delaware state higher-education system. Between that and amassing a collection for the Delaware State Museum about the life and career of Eldridge R. Johnson, founder of the Victor Talking Machine Company, Bolig spent the rest of his free time, such as it was, researching the history of the recording industry in general and the recordings of Caruso in particular.
Like its predecessor three decades ago, Bolig's new book, Caruso Records: A History and Discography, is a stand-alone discography rather than an appendix of [End Page 384] a Caruso biography. Several of these appended discographies had appeared from the 1940s onward, and in his new book Bolig assesses the major ones in summary form. Concerning the first of these tacked-on discographies, compiled by Jack Caiden for Enrico Caruso: His Life and Death, a 1945 biography by the tenor's widow,3 Bolig says simply that Caiden "listed 234 published recordings in alphabetical order, with very little detail" (p. 187). Concerning Francis Robinson's 1957 Caruso: His Life in Pictures, Bolig points out the limitations of John Secrist's discography while crediting him as "the first to publish matrix numbers for all of Caruso's recordings" (p. 187)—an important advance in discographical research because the matrix-number systems developed by Victor and its competitors during the early years of the phonograph industry were used to identify each test recording an artist performed, whether or not that recording was ever released commercially. "As was standard practice at the time," Bolig writes, "Caruso usually made between one and three tests." In practice, this meant that for nearly every Caruso recording Victor or its international affiliates made available to the public, the tenor had recorded alternate versions, each of which was a distinctive and separate recording. But Caruso alone, Bolig notes, "had final approval over the version selected for publication" (p. 17). Strangely, the tenor seems not to have kept many of these alternate versions, even giving away some of them as spur-of-the-moment gifts to friends and colleagues.4 Fortunately, however, a few of the artists who performed with Caruso in duets and ensembles kept their own copies, and in later years allowed some of them to be issued by niche companies that specialized in historical recordings.
Because Bolig, like Caiden and Secrist before him, also contributed discographies to books about Caruso, he is confronted in the pages of Caruso Records with the awkward task of assessing his own work. Here, the candor and objectivity that pervade this new book...