Opera for Operaphiles

Opera for Operaphiles

Written by Ted Shafran

Opera is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. My own children and at least one of my brothers detest it. I understand. At first, it can seem very artificial, almost comical. And television ads depicting enormous, bombastic sopranos in Valkyrie war dress don’t help that image.

But for those of us who have fallen in love with opera, it is as the great director Robert LePage once said “The Mother Art Form.” It has everything: drama, gorgeous music, beautiful sets, heroes, villains, and damsels in distress, as well as fierce, independent damsels. It’s also incredibly daunting (and expensive) to perform, requiring a full orchestra, complex sets and set changes, and a cast of singers who must not only remember the words, but also the notes and the stage directions. Often, there’s also a chorus involved. As a singer myself (although not an opera singer), I can attest to the difficulty of trying to do all those things at once, particularly if you happen to be in costume, and swinging a sword or lying on a divan. Opera is emphatically not an easy art form.

For its aficionados, however, it is an incredibly rewarding evening of theater. Many years ago (1977 to be exact) I had the privilege of experiencing Wagner’s Ring in his own theater in Bayreuth, Germany. It was an experience that I still cherish today.

The truth is, however, that attending the opera is expensive and – for many of us – most often experienced at home, in the form of recordings. And that leads me to an introduction to the subject of this article: Opera Depot.



Based in San Francisco and founded by Andrew Whitfield, a musician and opera lover, Opera Depot offers over 1,000 recordings of live opera performances, derived from radio broadcasts and other “unofficial” sources. It is a catalog of performances that you won’t find anywhere else.

So what about the quality of these recordings? Well, let’s start with some information from Opera Depot’s website:

“Accordingly, we go to great pains to make sure that we have found these performances in the best possible sound. We remaster all of our recordings to make sure that they are pitched correctly and devoid of clicks or other digital interference. If a recording doesn’t meet our standards we will not release it. If a recording has flaws but is of high historical importance, we will disclose these flaws so that you can make an informed decision and avoid finding yourself with a recording that you find unlistenable.”

That said, I’ll be blunt. Some of the recordings are in excellent sound, as good as any commercial release. Some of the recordings – particularly older ones – are in fairly primitive sound. So, to be clear, this is not a website for audiophiles. It’s a website for operaphiles.

And if you are an operaphile, what a treasure trove! You’ll find rare recordings by great conductors like Sir Thomas Beecham, Carlos Kleiber, Ferenc Fricsay, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Pierre Boulez and a host of others. You can also listen to some of the greatest singers of the last century in recordings that you won’t find elsewhere. I’m talking about singers like Jussi Björling, Jon Vickers, Magda Olivero, Sena Jurinac, Shirley Verrett, Boris Christoff, George London, Tito Gobbi and many others, often in roles that they never recorded commercially.

The recordings are available either on CD or as MP3 downloads, encoded at 256K. Personally, I would be happier if they chose to offer downloads in FLAC format, but given the variable quality of a lot of the source material, it’s not clear that this would make much of an audible difference.

With over 1,000 recordings in their catalog, I obviously can’t give you an encyclopedic overview of Opera Depot’s offerings. Instead, I’ve chosen to highlight a few of my personal favorites, starting with…



From 1935 through 1937, Arturo Toscanini made a summer home at the Salzburg Festival, leading a series of acclaimed performances of Verdi’s Falstaff, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg, Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and this – Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio. All of those operas were recorded, albeit in primitive sound. Ward Marston did a wonderful restoration of Meistersinger for Andante, but that recording is no longer available, alas. Andrew Rose at Pristine Classical has done equally fine work with the Falstaff and the Zauberflöte. But, unfortunately, all that remains of the Fidelio performance is this fragment, starting with the Overture and ending with Abscheulicher. And what a shame that is! This a rare chance to hear the great Lotte Lehmann in one of her signature roles, with one of the greatest conductors of that work. The sound is, indeed, primitive, but it gives the listener an idea of the magic that was alive on that summer night.



Readers who have encountered my scribbles before will know that I’m a huge admirer of the late, eccentric Carlos Kleiber. I’m not alone in that admiration. Conductors like Bernard Haitink, James Levine, Riccardo Muti and Simon Rattle all worshipped at his altar. That said, Kleiber’s recorded repertoire is razor-thin although we know that he conducted a much broader repertoire in his earlier years. Here’s an example. Kleiber’s father Erich led the world premiere of this opera, and Kleiber-fils does a superb job of following in his father’s footsteps. In truth, I’m not a big fan of Berg’s operas, but it’s hard to argue with the effectiveness of this performance. The sound is excellent.



Berlioz is not a composer with whom you would associate Wilhelm Furtwängler, but this performance, from the Lucerne Festival in 1950 (sung in German) is a fascinating artifact. With a strong cast, including Hans Hotter and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, it makes for a very interesting listen.



This is a legendary performance from La Scala in Milan, featuring the great Maria Callas in the eponymous role, with Leonard Bernstein in the pit. Apparently, he learned the score in five days. Callas’ co-stars are pretty amazing too: Fedora Barbieri and Gino Penno. Medea is one of Callas’ signature roles, and this is considered one of her greatest performances. It’s in mono, but otherwise a very clear recording.



Here’s another fascinating historical recording. Otto Klemperer’s 1964 recording of Die Zauberflöte remains in the catalog as one of the great performances of this, arguably Mozart’s most charming opera. If it had been recorded with dialog, it would probably be the gold standard for this opera. Here’s a chance to hear the performance on which that recording was based, this time with complete dialog, and a substantially different cast, including Joan Sutherland as the Queen of the Night, and Hans Hotter as the Speaker! The sound is acceptable, but a bit murky.



And now, for those of you craving something in good sound, how about this one? In clear stereo sound, this 1969 performance of La Bohème from the Rome Opera features a young Pavarotti in glorious voice, with an equally young Mirella Freni (they were both born in 1935 in Modena). The late Thomas Schippers leads a beautifully-paced performance.



Alas, in less-than-ideal sound, this is nevertheless an opportunity to hear one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century in music that he very seldom performed. The cast is strong, if not ideal and, as expected, the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera plays beautifully. Kleiber perfectly captures the bitterness and angularity of this music.

As an aside, if you want to hear Carlos Kleiber conducting Richard Strauss with good sound, there are also four recordings of Der Rosenkavalier to choose from, three of them in excellent stereo sound.



One doesn’t normally think of Neeme Järvi as an opera conductor and if you look at his discography, it largely consists of orchestral works. But here’s an opportunity to hear a rarity: Järvi leading a lovely performance of Tchaikovsky’s best-known opera, with a young Gabriela Beňačková and the fine orchestra of the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. The recording is in excellent sound.



There are 17 pages (!) of Verdi recordings on the Opera Depot website. Choosing just one of those as an example is shuffling through an embarrassment of riches. I selected this particular performance because it is both excellent and unusual. Unusual, in that it was recorded in Tokyo in 1970, during a tour of the Deutsche Oper Berlin and features performers who are largely not associated with this repertoire, including Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Pilar Lorengar, and Edith Mathis. But it’s excellent both in terms of the recording quality and commitment that these singers give to their individual roles. Lorin Maazel conducts a crisp, idiomatic performance, backed by the wonderful playing of the Deutsche Oper orchestra.



If it was nearly impossible to choose a single exemplar from over 300 Verdi recordings, it is even more challenging for Wagner, with nearly 500 recordings in the Opera Depot catalog. I hope that the gentle reader will therefore forgive this Wagnerian for selecting only two performances that highlight the breadth of Opera Depot’s offerings.

The first is this performance of Wagner’s sparkling comedy, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, from Bayreuth in 1973. The 1974 performance with a similar cast was released commercially by Philips, but it suffers from a nearly unbearable Walther, in the form of the late Jean Cox. This performance is significantly improved by the presence of René Kollo, still in fine voice, in that role. While the sound is not quite up to the standard of the commercial recording, it is still entirely adequate and in stereo.



I also thought it would be interesting to identify one of the many rarities in the Opera Depot catalog. I could have chosen – for example – Nicolai Gedda’s only foray into Wagner, as the swan knight in a production of Lohengrin with the Royal Swedish Opera, in 1966. But this is an equally unusual treat. Pierre Boulez was a renowned interpreter of Wagner. In fact, the 1977 Ring cycle that I mentioned earlier was conducted by Boulez. But, as far as I know, this is the only extant recording of him conducting Tristan und Isolde. This is from a production in Osaka, Japan, directed by Wieland Wagner and featuring the leading Tristan and Isolde of their day: Wolfgang Windgassen and Birgit Nilsson, both in fabulous voice. It’s a swift reading, as one might expect from Boulez, but very intense and passionate. The sound is in mono but is otherwise very clear.

The 11 recordings that I’ve mentioned above represent nothing more than a toe in the water of Opera Depot’s immense catalog. Whether your taste runs to baroque, verismo or expressionism, or to Italian, French or German opera, you will find many gems on Opera Depot’s website. I wish you happy hunting.


Header image: Maria Callas, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/public domain.

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