Cher Public

Chris and the pirates

Back when I was a good boy, I told my parents that my goal in getting my first job was to earn money for college; however, my real motive was to make my secret wish come true—to be able to consort with “pirates.”  

Every month for a few years I’d devoured the ads at the back of my High Fidelity and Stereo Review and send off for mouth-watering catalogs listing thousands of live opera recordings, but unfortunately I realized I lacked the essential necessary component: a reel-to-reel tape deck, this being 1975, after all. Although cassettes were becoming more popular, virtually none of the pirate purveyors offered their wares in that format—it was reels or nothing. And the format made perfect sense: dubbing was relatively easy and 90 minutes of music fit on each side of an 1800’ tape (the standard format), two hours at the more fragile 2400’ length.

I recently realized—to my chagrin—that exactly 40 years have passed since that summer when I squirreled away enough money from my part-time job to make the biggest purchase of my life. My mother worked in the credit offices at the largest department store in town, so she made a phone call to her friend in human resources and soon I was selling television sets at the tender age of 16—it probably helped that I was tall for my age.

Many of my peers also got jobs that summer and with their new earnings were most likely shopping for cars, not audio equipment. But automobiles weren’t my passion because at age 11 I had discovered the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts. From then on for the remainder of grade school and throughout high school, my Saturday routine was to take the bus downtown to the main library to inspect its extensive LP collection and then race home before the broadcast began at 2:00.

I attended my first opera—by myself—at 12 but soon realized that the local opera company was just not good enough for my precocious aesthetic sensibilities. Weaned on the radio and weekly armfuls of borrowed LPs I became a good little opera-autodidact as no one in my family had the slightest interest in classical music.

Initially I dutifully worked my way through the standard repertoire—often guided by what was going on at the Met. Bellini’s Norma became an early favorite due to the buzz surrounding the new production featuring the dazzling pairing of Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne.

My craziest early opera escapade transpired when I discovered that our car radio had the best reception for the station that carried the Met. So I bought brand new batteries for my father’s Craig three-inch mono reel-to-reel tape recorder and sat holding the microphone next to the car speaker for nearly four hours in our driveway recording Joan & Jackie that April afternoon in 1970!

I was puzzled that during those early years I didn’t find myself drawn to the popular operas that everyone else seemed to adore—Puccini didn’t do anything for me, and although I did enjoy most Verdi, I couldn’t quite figure out a lot of Wagner or Strauss. But from the beginning I loved Mozart’s operas but not always the standard ones—Idomeneo became a great favorite via the old Glyndebourne recording which also caused me to succumb to sublime Sena Jurinac, a long-term love affair that still continues.

An unfulfilled yearning eventually moved me to explore works written before Mozart, and it soon hit me that those early operas were my true “calling.” Two LP sets that I always had checked out from the library were the New York City Opera version of Handel’s Giulio Cesare with Beverly Sills and Norman Treigle on RCA and the Glyndebourne Festival production of Cavalli’s L’Ormindo concocted and conducted by Raymond Leppard on Argo. No opera I had heard introduced by Milton Cross cast the same spell as those two wildly different operas.

Naturally I became hungry for more but there wasn’t much early opera available on record in the 70s, but I had become aware of so-called “pirate recordings.” I didn’t understand the ethical and legal issues that surrounded them, but back then those who trafficked in these recordings openly advertised them in magazines.

My library had such a great collection that I rarely needed to buy things although I did occasionally order records from King Karol in New York City. But in one of those pirate catalogs I discovered a list of live recordings issued on LP by MRF. Their allure was so great so I ordered one—the famous La Scala L’Assedio di Corinto with Sills and Horne.

Returning home one afternoon from high school I was excited to find my parcel had arrived. The box set was pretty bare-bones—usually MRF product came with a full libretto but these three LPs contained just performance date and cast list on their red labels. Although Sills had been my initial attraction, Horne’s monumental scena on side 5 instead prompted me to listen obsessively.

That Assedio included all the riotous Scala ovations, and I began to relish (and prefer) the warts-and-all frisson of a live performance that I had also found so appealing on Met broadcasts—something missing from commercial recordings. Unfortunately MRF’s titles were almost entirely obscure 19th century operas and I just wasn’t that interested then in Pacini or Mercadante or countless Donizetti works. I had to look elsewhere and I knew that meant tapes, besides I never liked “vinyl” anyway!

Toward the end of the summer of ’75, armed with a bit of money and feeling ready to make my big purchase, I “came out” to my parents about wanting to buy my “machine.” There wasn’t much of a reaction—by then, I’m sure they had grown used to my unorthodox notions. My father agreed to take me to the local high-end stereo emporium, not that I knew precisely what I was in the market for. We ended up in the used equipment department where I was introduced to exactly what I needed: a self-contained, four-track stereo seven-inch reel-to-reel deck—a unit with its own amplifier so I didn’t need to connect it to a component system.

That long August afternoon I lugged home my like-new portable Sony with two large detachable speakers; it weighed a ton and cost the enormous sum of $200. Although I knew that commercially recorded reel-to-reel tapes existed I didn’t remember ever seeing them available in my hometown. But as I had keenly pored over my drawer-full of pirate catalogs, I had already chosen several performances that I had to have. Having no bank account of my own, I cajoled my mother into writing a few checks made out to those seductive vendors. And then I waited… and waited.

“Non temer: d’un basso affetto” from L’assedio di Corinto
Marilyn Horne, mezzo-soprano
La Scala, April 14, 1969

Brown padded envelopes arrive, their contents more often than not containing revelations, in Part Two.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    Lovely memories. Mine began much earlier and I remember positioning the little microphone from my seriously deficient Webcor tape recorder near the speaker of various radios. All motion in the house that would result in floors creaking or pots and pans clashing were banned for the length of the broadcasts and all of the intermissions. It took a long time to be able to afford equipment with direct inputs so we could move around. Sometimes I brought the empty and undecorated box tops from the reel to reel tapes backstage for singers to autograph. Most of them had a variety of their own photos they were passing out to the fans permitted in the dressing rooms.

  • Camille

    What a sweet story, Mister Christopher. Love to think of you holding that mike to the car radio recording Joan&Jackie. Opera-junkie teens live a life on the wild side, from having been there and done that….

    I’m afraid that my experiences with Handelian opera started out and ended right there with that Sutherland Alcina. Perhaps I should now go back to the beginning and start over again—as in doing so, I may unlock the curious constriction of heart and soul vis-à-vis his operas. I remember loving “Tornami a vagghegiar”, and little else —oh maybe Bradamante or Ruggiero’s aria as well. Good project for a rainy day.

    In the meantime, and aside from both Bellini’s Il Pirata, and Arturo de Córdova as the eponymous Frenchman of Frenchman’s Creek, this is my hands down fave pirate action:

    • gustave of montreal

      Must be the Alcina performances at Covent Garden sometime between 1961 and 1963 that I attended deadly bored. We spent the 2d act drinking at a nearby pub only to return for Act III “to be polite”

      • Camille

        Est-ce vrai? Grand merci!

        This is as good as it gets and, certainly, can appreciate the consummate vocalism and musicality on display here—but it’s just not my cuppa, and I would have been lagging not far behind you. Maybe listening to her recording with Fritz Wunderlich from ’59 would be the cure?

        • lyrebird

          Alors Camille, it works for some: “Sutherland, sounding galactic and supernatural, stops you in your tracks with every utterance …”

          As someone partial to a bit of Joan from time to time (who knew) here’s Sparkles Plenty with Mr Leitner, and doesn’t the man with the stick make a difference:

          • Camille

            Merci bien, mon ami L’oseau lyre!

            Yes, I auditioned this version as well but decided to go for the one more close in time to my own experience as well as Monsieur gustave’s, above. I think Fritz Wunderlich might just make all the difference in the world; after all.

            Wondrous bird—
            Next, you’ll have me listening to “The soldier tir’d”, and on and on it goes. Thanks for your kind mention and intention.

            • Quanto Painy Fakor

              Youtubies like the vast collection collection of coloratura fan can be difficult to locate, but if you enter (for example) “coloraturafan Sutherland” you will have a wonderful playlist. In this concert Joan and Ricky gave a masterclass to all in attendance. She was, I think, in retrospect first and foremost a musician -- something so lacking is young singers dreaming of fame in the world of opera. Bonynge play what he know will be helpful to Joan and what is sensible for his keyboard technique. Usually one only encounters that in coaching session from the very best coaches -- Take a lesson from the assorted videos from this recital with the green dress.

            • Camille

              Yes, thank you so much for the thoughts and I would, in general, agree about her as first and foremost a musician, naturally; actually a kind of Exceptional Exemplar of singing musicianship, rather than any kind of stage creature at all. And that is just fine, as her exceptionality was just extraordinary, a phenomenon.

              By happy coincidence, just yesterday found this, an example of her Madame Herz at Glyndebourne, of which I’d first read in that Braddon bio so long ago and had subsequently always wondered about—as it was said to have been so good. And so now, after a lifetime, I can finally hear it—qual gioia! Apparently, she was not asked back to Glyndebourne because her teeth were so bad at the time and this embarrassment finally triggered her into borrowing the money from the ROH management to have them capped, and just in time! Well, we can’t be bothered by the teeth here, just revel in the sounds!

            • lyrebird

              And the winner is ….

  • phoenix

    ‘Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.’
    -- Willa Cather

    • Camille

      What a nice quote. I had not come across it before. Thanks, phoenix.

      I’ve now completed my Ciné Negro Mexicano film series and had the Maria Felix experience, and can report back that you were sure right about her. What a personality! As soon as she sprinted onto the screen the audience exploded with applause. What a magnificent clothes horse she was and with the most elegant carriage and beautiful walk. A real model. Other than that—I just loathed her for how she not only took over but took down and out my belovèd Arturo de Córdova. Debil Woman!!!!

      Hasta luego, phoenix y cuidate!

  • JohninSeattle

    Yum… Can’t wait for more installments.

    What is the Mr Tape story? I’ve heard so many rumors -- all of them true, I’m sure. (You can’t see my eyes rolling but they are)

    Some folks went to great wonderful lengths to document these treasured performances. I’m especially curious about their stories. Dimme!

  • DeepSouthSenior

    I enjoyed this immensely, Christopher. My own memories of 55+ years came flooding back with sweet nostalgia. Here I was, a nerdy kid from the Mississippi Delta sixty-five miles south of Memphis, living on an ordinary farm (my dad called it a “Plantation,” but we were definitely not upper-class local society), with a consuming passion for classical music that mystified my parents. With no access to world-class live performances other than Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts on TV, I saved school lunch money to buy those precious Richmond bargain LP’s at $1.99 each. The Richmond label, I believe, consisted mostly of late 1940’s and early 1950’s London mono recordings. As such, it was one of the first reissue labels, a happy home for mono in the early stereo era. Anyone remember the LP sleeves stamped with the distinctive fonts of “London ffrr”? Wonderful memories. Thanks again, Christopher, you made my day!

    • DeepSouthSenior

      Please indulge me for a few more thoughts. I remember trembling with excitement, taking a few $$’s to the local “Music Center” -- a Real.Record.Store c. 1960 -- and looking over the owner’s big book of LP’s available from labels large and small. Armed with my very own Schwann catalog (one of my first subscriptions to any publication), I would compare my Richmond order with expensive stereo versions of the same works from Bernstein, Szell, von Karajan, Ormandy, et al. I thought to myself, “Someday I want to be able to hear the newest stuff!” Now, more than a half-century later and semi-retired, I’m profoundly thankful than I can get to the Met, Houston Grand Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera, and orchestras in those cities once or twice a year. Life is good.

      By the way, I think my mother never caught on that I stashed away school lunch money to buy records. She always wondered how I stayed so skinny, as I made a made a total pig of myself at supper every night.

    • messa di voce

      When I started buying records in the early 70s, those Richmond LPs were still 5 for $10 when they went on sale -- the Kleiber Rosenkavalier, the Krauss Fledermaus, and lots of other great stuff. And some of the lamest choices for cover art ever.

      • Henry Holland

        I went to my first opera in 1988, LP’s were still the only way to get a lot of opera recordings as they hadn’t been transferred to CD’s yet. Living in Los Angeles, there were some good resources: the Tower Classical store on Sunset, this huge place on Highland run by this guy who had everything, albeit at way inflated prices.

        First opera recording owned: the Britten/Pears Peter Grimes on CD. I found an ad for a classical record store in New York that shipped LP’s out cheaply. I called them and the very nice gentleman was quite helpful. I told him I was a newcomer to opera, loved modern stuff, the wilder the better. We made an agreement: I would send him a certain amount of money and he’d send me back 3 complete operas that were “wild”. A few weeks later a box arrived with Lear, Die Soldaten and The Devils of Loudon. That was that, I was hooked on opera. After that, I found a complete set of the 60’s Karajan Ring cycle on DG, I bought it and listened to almost nothing else for a few months.

        I don’t miss LP’s in terms of scratches, warping and having to change the records every 25 minutes or so, but they were vital for me as a young opera fan.

  • WindyCityOperaman

    Rose Records, downtown Chicago, two locations both stocked with the major label’s opera releases that seemed to be kept in print for ages, and then in the side aisles imports and a few “private” label records that I was always curious about. Upstairs were the classical budget labels and cut-outs that got increasingly more populated as the CD edged out the LP. Then the CD edging out LP and cassette. Now downloaded music edging out the CD. Those were the days. Very nostalgic for those times.

    • DeepSouthSenior

      As I moved into my late teen and college years and had a little extra money, I placed dozens of LP orders with Rose Records. I remember the thrill of my first $100 order. My very first Naxos CD was purchased in person at the Chicago store in 1994 -- Suites by Marain Marais, I think. (Still prefer that one over the budget-busting Jordi Savall.) Only music fanatics like the Parterre bunch will recall such a milestone. We’re actually the normal people, right, and the rest of the world is crazy.

  • Rowna

    Lovely story. Each of us has a unique “first” experience with opera and I so enjoyed hearing yours. And now to the clip. This is what I would categorize as WOW singing. That’s all I can say -- summed up in three little letters. Thanks for sharing it.

    • Lohengrin

      Hy Rowna, did You watch Manon Lescaut fromMünchen?

      • Rowna

        Yes I did. I was thinking of doing an online review, but I am wondering what relevance there is to my opinion. I need new adjectives too. BTW, I hated the production. HN in his divine wisdom of explaining his Konzept still left me wondering about the chorus costumes and the madrigal singer. Oy.

        • Fidelia

          It’s always interesting to have your take on productions, Rowna, even ratty ones. Or steatopygical ones, if that’s a word. (If it is, there’s a new adjective for you. More novel than “strapping”.) ;-)

        • Lohengrin

          Your opinion is ALWAYS of relevance! I love to listen to Your online-clips.
          By the way: I liked the production, saw it 4 times in house and now online. Very different to London and also to the upcoming production at the Met, which could be seen from Baden Baden on television last year (with EM Westbroek and M. Giordano, did not like it).

          • aulus agerius

            “To enhance the opera’s dramatic impact for today’s audience the directors update the story…”
            This quote from Tommasini’s NYT review of Norma explains it. One wondered. Is this perchance what the director of ML was trying for, i.e., to increase the dramatic impact. Fail.

        • Camille

          Dearest Rowna of Pittsburgh*
          Everyone’s opinion counts for something. Each and every person has an unique perspective and should be heard, absolutely, and in my not humble opinion.

          It’s just that some opinions are more interesting or entertaining or substantive than others, and yours happen to be of interest to many simply because they come spontaneously and from the heart, grounded in your own musical practice and discipline, and unfettered by a surfeit of Meta-Über-Psycho-Sprache-Babble.

          Love you,

          * N.B. The forgotten Donizetti pasticcio Rowna di Pittsburgo ossia La cantatrice del Tempio, has finally been located in a basement in downtown Bergamo! [It was found during excavation for a new subway line]. It is expected that, once “Will the Trill” gets his hands on the MS and develops enough trills for every one of the numerous cabalettas the heroine, La Rowna, has to sing, ’twill be in the lineup sometime in the next few years for the Bel Canto at Caramoor summer festival, putting the bells, not to mention il bello back into Bel Canto. The heroine, La Rowna, is a formidable role in the rara avis category of “Oltranto”—the hunt for an appropriate Cantatrice will go massive and worldwide. More details to come, so stay tuned. xxxooo

          • Rowna

            Carrisssissima Camillissima et al. I have decided, that relevant or not, my newly painted green finger nails should have world wide access, and so I went about making a video review of ML, but in the process you will all see my flabby upper arms. So much for reality. Take that HN! I can’t wait to take on Rowna di Pittsburgo -- saving up my shekels for the score. In the meantime -- here it is:

  • gustave of montreal

    Anyone remembers the pirated recordings of EJS ?

  • skoc211

    What a lovely story.

    I grew up in a stiflingly conservative Catholic family, but the one godsend was that my grandmother was a passionate lover of opera. I think I was 10 when she took me to “Hänsel und Gretel” at the Met. I’ll never forget seeing “Elektra” with her for the first time -- I must have been 12 -- and she told me before it began something like: “Dear, this is not music you will hum later, but it is special.”

    I’m somewhat of an adult now and I’ve started taking her to the Met. My father drives her in and we carefully walk up the stairs of the Family Circle -- because that’s where we always sat and she can’t imagine sitting anywhere else.

  • I was a conservtory student in the 70’s in Boston. I used to haunt a used record store in Kenmore Square called Looney Tunes. I would scour the bins for what new had come in from HRE, Lebendige Vergangenheit, and my favorite Club 99. Club 99 records were 99cents and I had budgeted so I could buy one a week. All people I had never heard of and I started on a hunt of “legendary” singers. I remember the day we discovered Maria(not marissa) Galvany. I wore that record out. She does a Faro ditty called “ouvi dizer” which must be heard. Also a version of the queen of the night aria complete with a cadenza! Then I discovered EUGENIA BURZIO!.I bought everything I could find of her. My rule when choosing a Club 99 selection was I could never have heard of the singer.
    I never developed a liking of studio records and have spent my Opera lifetime buying only live performances.
    Good times

  • danpatter

    What great memories this brings back. I remember MRF and BJR and ERR so fondly! It was particularly exciting for me to discover the back room at Rose Records in Chicago where all the “pirate recordings” were kept. Once I saved up $500, drove to Chicago from Louisville, spent it all at Rose Records and then drove back home. I feasted for weeks.

  • Krunoslav

    I was lucky in growing up with access to my father’s LP and tape library, which contained all kind of rarities that I encountered early -- from Fioravanti’s LE CANTATRCE VILLANE with Alda Noni and Sesto Bruscantini to a private recording of Leonard Kastle’s TV opera DESERET with Judith Raskin and John Alexander to Marisa Galvany and Joan Patenaude-Yarnell in Mayr’s MEDEA IN CORINTO--another Newell Jenkins offering--to the Keilberth FRAU on DGG- as it was then--with Bjoner, Borkh, Moedl, Thomas and DFD and the fabulous Antal Dorati/Helga Pilarczyk Berg disc issued on Mercury. I listened to virtually everything in the collection by the time I was 21 or so.

    The first vocal LP I bought new for myself was the Crespin/Chauvet TROYENS excerpts in its Seraphim reissue. Early LP sets included the Milanov/Bjoerling AIDA and an early RITORNO D’ULISSE with a few wonderful performances--Maureen Lehane as Penelope, Margarethe Bence as Ericlea and Edward Wollitz as Nettuno/Antinoo.

    These purchases reflected repertory or-in Cresoin’s case, artists-- I was seeing in my schoolboy days, circa 1975-76.

    Most memorable still-in the-package LP purchase ever- in a back-room general store in Northampton MA, circa 1980, I found-- in a carton largely full of Andy Williams Xmas albums and such. it was priced at maybe $6, new;

    Years later, he first opera set I bought on CD was the Leinsdorf BALLO. i think i bought the Crespin TROYENS CD next, for continuity, even though I knew by then that the conducting left something wanting.

    • Camille

      Somehow--the idea of La Divina rubbing elbows with Andy Williams has just, like an arcobaleno, made my day.

      My what a privileged childhood you had — it is no great wonder you grew up to be such an exceptional connoisseur.

      In comparison, upon bitterly lamenting to my Uncle about the “kid’s stuff” which my Mother had dutifully brought home (Hänsel and Gretel with Nadine Connor and Risë), I was cynically handed down and over an Il Tabarro by Cetra-Soria, (“Here kid, see if this is grown-up enough for you”), a Metropolitan Opera Record Club shortened version of Aïda starring the indefatigable Bianca Castafiore d’utilité of those times, and a MORC Butterfly with Our Southland Diva, Mme Kirsten, with the further instructions to “Look into Betty Blackhead sometime, kid”, with a giant smirking face all the while thinking he had cured me forever; that I’d go settle back into Czerny or Clementi.

      Never returned to boring old Czerny nor even the less boring Clementi, and was, from that meagre beginning, off and running, never to look back. It was like discovering the lost gold of Troy.