Opera Media Review Print



Opera on CD-ROM: An Encyclopedic View

October 31, 2001 - Raleigh, NC:


One of our major discoveries in recent months has been an operatic archives project initiated by Mike Richter. He calls one of his product lines "Audio Encyclopedia CD-ROMs," and they are that with a vengeance. A second line includes what he calls "replacement discs" that present previously issued material that may be of compelling interest to collectors. Information on discs that are currently available may be found at http://www.mrichter.com/. Readers who choose to embark with Richter on a journey of discovery (or, in some cases, rediscovery) may wish to bookmark his site for future reference because there is a wealth of supplemental material available there, including printable covers for jewel boxes (which, to hold down production and mailing costs, are not provided with the CD-ROMs). With his permission, we reproduce here Richter's brief overview of his Audio Encyclopedia project:

"The concept of an audio encyclopedia occurred to me late in 1995. It is simply to provide encyclopedic coverage of an aspect of recorded history through audio selections connected through HTML, the language of the World-Wide Web. "A prototype was distributed early in 1996 with the complete recordings of Enrico Caruso. It was well received in very limited distribution and both its comprehensive coverage and its sound quality were particularly noted by the recipients. Several lessons were learned in the process which are incorporated in later releases. Among them, we now include a simple Windows browser as an alternative to the commercial products; and we have upgraded the sound quality so that it now approaches that of monaural FM radio. Our hope is to use the broad coverage of each volume to inspire publication of at least selected materials in higher quality from better sources using modern processing. Ideally, the Encyclopedia will become a reference work, summarizing in sound a portion of our history otherwise preserved in text and pictures. As with any reference, the Encyclopedia is intended to support research and education while pointing to the best materials for further investigation.

"These discs run on a computer CD-ROM, not on a conventional CD player. They have been tested on many platforms, including PC's with various Windows implementations, Macintosh systems with OS 7 and above, and Unix boxes. On the most common configuration (a PC with a 486/100 or above and Windows 95, 98 or NT), the discs will operate without requiring any installation. On a Mac, you should download Quick Time 4 from Apple and install it into your preferred browser. You then simply browse WELCOME.HTM on the disc--no Internet connection is required. Earlier discs in this series contained instructions and files to support the Mac; they are no longer required."

As techies will immediately surmise, the files contained on Richter's discs are compressed digital audio files, commonly referred to as MP3 files. The technology allows astonishing quantities of material to be placed on a single disc. This is the file storage and transmission format used by Napster, but the Audio Encyclopedia releases do not contain any material that is in general distribution, commercially. The Richter recordings in this series stem largely from broadcasts and in-house recordings.

At the end of this column, we'll provide notes on all of the releases that we've sampled, but for now, here is but one example that may astound readers because of the breadth and depth of the item. It is a single CD-ROM of the operas of Wagner--all of 'em, including Feen, Liebesverbot and Rienzi. This disc comes with complete libretti, keyed to the MP3 cuts.

One might wonder about the sources and the sound quality. The complete operas are mostly from Europe, although one group involves performances from San Francisco. They are generally in more than tolerable mono sound that most collectors of such material will not find objectionable. None is as bad as some of Eddie Smith's Lp series (Golden Age of Opera, Unique Opera Records Corporation, or A.N.N.A.). Most are quite impressive in terms of recorded sound and performances, too.

Of course, one generally places a CD-ROM in a computer, so the sound quality will be directly affected by the speakers used. Since Richter started his project, however, DVD machines capable of playing MP3-encoded sound tracks have come onto the market, and in recent months the prices of some of these have plummeted. A cheepie from K-Mart, purchased not long ago, plugs into a conventional stereo or surround-sound theater setup and works fairly well, but for its miserable indexing system and the fact that its upper limit is 200 tracks and some of the discs contain many more than that. (I mention this so readers who seek such a machine will know to take a sample disc with them to the store.) Naturally, one gets more out of the discs when they are used with a computer, where the fine indexes and supporting information may be enjoyed while listening, but it has been our experience that most collectors prefer to hear music in their music rooms rather than at their desks. With that in mind, however, it may be worth noting that MP3 machines play these CD-ROMs in track orders that differ substantially from those given in a CD-ROM drive on a PC. We have spent a considerable amount of time preparing cross-indices of the dozen or so we have obtained and will be happy to share copies of them with Triangle readers who follow in our footsteps. These won't be needed for standard computer use of the discs but those who purchase MP3 devices may find them helpful. For more information, contact us at our email address.

We'll hit the highlights of some of these releases, full descriptions of which are also available online. One is devoted to very early "complete" opera sets, most of which are far from complete; these involve such singers as Emmy Destinn, Fernando di Lucia, and others. This one includes what are apparently the first four sets of Gilbert and Sullivan operas plus a batch of German Kurzoper (short, or abridged, opera) albums and a "potted" Ring in English led, variously, by Coates, Goossens, Pitt and Ronald.

A disc of "Opera from Paris" consists of broadcasts that date from WWII through the mid-'70s. Among its treasures is a complete Damnation de Faust with Gedda, Crespin and Blanc, conducted by Markevitch; Berlioz's orchestration of Gluck's Orphée, with Rita Gorr in the trouser role; Strauss' orchestration of Mozart's Idoménée; and some stunning concert selections involving Géori Boué.

A personal favorite is a disc of non-Russian operas in Russian that contains many recordings by Kozlovsky, Lemeshev and Nelepp that have been on this writer's want-list for years. Its companion disc, devoted to Russian performances of Russian works, brings comparable treasures such as rarely-heard readings of Shaporin's The Decembrists (in what may well be its world premiere); The Stone Guest, Dargomyzhsky's answer to Don Giovanni; Rimsky-Korsakov's Sadko (with Kozlovsky as the Indian Guest); and so on. Some of the recordings on these two discs come from Soviet-era Melodiya Lps.

Three discs are devoted to performances from the San Francisco Opera, some of which area readers will surely have heard before WUNC-FM abandoned opera years ago. Another encompasses all in-house recordings of Strauss' operas, mostly from Munich; there are multiple performances of Ariadne, Elektra, Frau ohne Schatten, Rosenkavalier and Die schweigsame Frau. And last but hardly least, we've sampled a disc devoted to opera from Bayreuth that includes Boulez's live 1976 Ring plus other works led by such distinguished maestri as Knappertsbusch, Jochum and Böhm.

The contributors of notes include Barry Brenesal, currently on Fanfare's masthead and for a time a resident of Louisburg, and the late John Ardoin.

Available now but not yet heard is a disc devoted to the second half of Meyerbeer's operatic output.

As noted at the outset, Richter has released not only the Audio Encyclopedia series but also a few less formal items that are reproduced as needed. The "replacement disc" series encompasses material in the public domain, but because notes and other documentation included in some previous commercial releases may remain under copyright, they are not included. As a result, the purported target audience for the CD-ROM "replacement discs" consists of collectors who already hold Lp versions of the sets and the notes that came with them. Among the gems in this series is "Singers on Record." At a current list price of $8.50, this single CD-ROM contains the entire four-volume set of "The Record of Singing" plus its single-Lp supplement. As it happens, we own copies of the original releases and can thus confirm that this one disc encompasses material that originally spread across 47 Lps that set one back a princely sum.

Another "replacement disc" is devoted to the celebrated series of cylinder recordings made by Lionel Mapleson at the Old Met at the turn of the last century; its basis is the Lp set issued by the Rodgers & Hammerstein Archives, supplemented by different transfers published by IRCC. This CD-ROM also includes transfers of three outstanding collections of early Wagnerian recordings previously available as "Singers from the Green Hill," "Wagner Singers on Record," and Acanta's "Richard Wagner: Sein Werk in dokumentarischen Aufnamen."

Richter's prices are, in our view, ridiculously low, but his interest is in sharing the material so he tries to make his releases available for no more than $10.00 including domestic postage if ordered over the internet. There are currently two exceptions; "Men of Empire" and "Stars of David" are priced at $15.00. Prices quoted by distributors may vary.

Opera is often viewed as the entertainment of dilettantes and the well heeled. These outstanding CD-ROMs now place the genre within reach of even impoverished students, not to mention other struggling collectors. Check 'em out and let us know your reactions, please.

(Note: Richter's site provides links to dealers from whom his releases are available. These include The House of Opera (at http://www.houseofopera.com/), which has embarked on its own series of releases in this format. A compilation of Toscas is available, and in the HofO pipeline is a disc devoted to the first half of Verdi's stage works (Oberto through Rigoletto) that is being marketed at their website for $18.50.)