3. Caruso, Phonography, and Operatic Fidelities: Regimes of Musical Listening, 1904–1929
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97 In what follows, I hope to suggest some epistemological repercussions—social, cultural, and musical—that accompanied the technological advent of phonography, hence the move from live performance experienced in theatrical settings, particularly as regards opera, to the quasi-privatized listening made possible by the domestic gramophone. For the most part, the music of my concern will be operatic arias and small vocal ensembles whose total length could be contained on the single side of a shellac disk,1 around four and a half minutes’ duration. I’ll be considering two American companies, Victor and Edison, to the exclusion of others except in passing reference. PICTURING OPERA The Victor Talking Machine Company,2 inaugurated in 1901, in 1912 published a glossy hardback book titled The Victor Book of the Opera, subtitled Stories of Seventy Grand Operas with Three Hundred Illustrations & Descriptions of Seven Hundred Victor Opera Records.3 Three editions were printed during the inaugural year. In 1917 a fourth edition appeared (fig. 63), the title altered to The Victrola Book of the Opera and the text this time credited to Samuel Holland Rous, editor of the Victor sales catalogue. Whereas the 1912 editions 3 CARUSO, PHONOGRAPHY, AND OPERATIC FIDELITIES Regimes of Musical Listening, 1904–1929 The machine demands that we give bodies to the sounds emanating from it. For example, while playing an aria sung by a famous singer we see the stage he stands on, we see him dressed in an appropriate costume. The more it is linked to our memories, the stronger the record’s effect will be. Nothing excites memory more strongly than the human voice, maybe because nothing is forgotten as quickly as a voice. RUDOLPH LOTHAR, DIE SPRECHMASCHINE: EIN TECHNISCH-ÄSTHETISCHER VERSUCH (1924) 98 • V O I C I N G S U B J E C T I V I T Y ran to 375 pages, the fourth had been expanded to 553 pages and the number of operas augmented to 120, accompanied by 700 illustrations and now listing 1,200 Victor opera recordings, a tally that does not appear to have increased in later editions up to the eighth in 1929, the most recent I have found, though additions and deletions of operas occur from one edition to another. Many of the operas (and operettas) included are today obscure. (The preface to the eighth edition indicates that more than three hundred thousand copies of the book had been sold.)4 Imagery in the 1912 third edition opens with photo spreads of European and American opera house exteriors, followed by one of New York’s Metropolitan Opera House auditorium, sans audience (fig. 64). Victor advertising replicated similar photo spreads (fig. 65), part of its ambitious effort to suture home listening to the experience of live opera performed in the world’s prestigious venues, for most people an experience only imagined. The 1917 fourth edition’s initial illustration is a composite photograph of twenty-six costumed singers (fig. 66), all exclusively Victor recording artists, among whom Enrico Caruso (1873–1921) held first rank, a singer whom Victor avidly promoted, on account of which his international celebrity was quickly secured.5 It’s clear that Victor’s marketing department understood the stakes of star culture to a degree that its competitors, Edison figure 64 Interior of Metropolitan Opera House, New York, in The Victor Book of the Opera, 3rd ed. (Camden, N.J.: Victor Talking Machine Company, 1912), 8. Private collection. figure 65 Victor advertisement: “The greatest opera house of all—the Victor,” in The World’s Work Advertiser 23 or 25 (March 1912 or 1913), inside front cover. 100 • V O I C I N G S U B J E C T I V I T Y in particular, did not (on which more below).6 Victor’s no-competition contract with Caruso served as a marketing ploy virtually from the moment he signed with the company in 1904, already apparent in a fashionably up-to-date art nouveau–styled advertisement from that same year (fig. 67). Victor marketed opera for its cultural prestige value, a desideratum by then established by various democratizing general education movements.7 The promotion of operatic high culture (as it was marketed) was intended to rub off on Victor’s own image; its opera catalogue provided a cultural foundation for more or less any sort of music it sold. Put differently, classical music, but opera especially, supplied cultural merit, just as the company’s other recordings provided popular...


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Subject Headings

  • Music -- Philosophy and aesthetics.
  • Modernism (Music) -- History -- 20th century.
  • Opera -- Social aspects.
  • Motion pictures -- Social aspects.
  • Sound recordings -- Social aspects.
  • Nature in music.
  • Nature in motion pictures.
  • Puccini, Giacomo, 1858-1924. Fanciulla del West.
  • Fitzcarraldo (Motion picture).
  • Days of heaven (Motion picture).
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