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.