Cher Public

The best is yet to come

By the mid-1980s however my musical world was changing—my trusty old Sony finally died and was replaced by replaced by a new Akai deck, one I still use. The CD explosion coincided with an enormous increase in interest in HIP (historically informed performance) so now there were lots of commercial recordings of the sort of operas I had turned to pirates to find.  

Also, a change in European copyright laws allowed many items that had only previously been available as pirates to be openly sold in stores on CD.  EMI even released some live Callas performances, ironically in sound inferior to their earlier “unauthorized” incarnations.

But the biggest sea-change was announced in Opera News: I can still remember opening the issue and reading that the Met had taken action against Mr. Tape for selling copies of Met telecasts and Ralph Ferrandina was arrested in November 1986 and his collection of both audio and video tapes seized. During the first half of my “pirate decade” (1975-85) both Met broadcasts and in-house recordings were openly sold by most everyone—I treasured my Birgit NilssonJon Vickers Tristan and my all-Shirley Verrett premiere of Les Troyens. However at some point that openness changed dramatically and the closing down of Mr. Tape was a result. I never bought another pirate tape again.

Only in retrospect did I perceive how the coming of AIDS may have factored into the doom of this golden age of pirates. One of my correspondents had to move “home” from NYC in the early 1980s due to ill health and was in and out of the hospital until I stopped hearing from him altogether. Another sent out a notice that he was selling all his masters and going out of business due to health and declining sales—perhaps some of his clientele was sick or dying? And from a 1990 New York Times Magazine profile I learned that Ferrandina (Mr. Tape) had died of AIDS, nursed during his final days by Teresa Stratas.

When I moved to New York City in 1990 I was avidly collecting CDs and there would just be no room for my Akai and over 200 pirate reels so they remained in Ohio finding a new home in a closet of my mother’s spare bedroom. I would look longingly at them when I visited, but there they stayed until I bought a Philips CD recorder from J&R around 2000. I hoped that I might listen again to some of my favorites but via my CD player. That recorder proved a mixed blessing—I’ll never buy anything made by Philips again—but my Akai and some of my tapes had finally made their way east.

Then, about ten years ago, I happened upon an online group devoted to sharing live opera performances, and, wow, it felt like I had come home! I was amazed by the industry and generosity of so many who uploaded digital copies (both audio and video) of 1000s of performances to a common file-sharing service. I became motivated to unearth my buried treasures to give others a chance to hear them. It took me a while to find a contraption that would link my computer to my reel-to-reel (which still works like a charm—whew!) and to schlep many reels to Manhattan but soon enough I became an active uploader.

A few group members took time to acknowledge what I uploaded, but mostly it was enough to be part of the sharing community from whom I was downloading many marvelous treasures. Unfortunately not everyone involved was so altruistic—many uploads showed up for sale online on a number of sites—strictly against the group’s rules–so eventually anyone who hadn’t upload material was expelled. Naturally a few injured parties bellowed loudly about being excluded, but the reasoning was sound: a performance I had digitized and uploaded myself miraculously appeared on a well-known site’s list just a few days after I posted it!

Several other sharing groups have since popped up since and seem to be flourishing. For those who might want to dabble but not necessarily become actively involved in a group, there is an Argentinian website that “poaches” download links from various groups.  Lots of interesting things, old and new, to be downloaded can be found there, although since the closure of Rapidshare, the file-sharing company, a lot of dead links clutter the site.

Two 21st century “pirates” have appeared online carrying some interesting product. Opera Depot, a particular friend of Parterre Box, has a nicely varied catalog and frequently promotes valuable free downloads; it also sells its product on CD. Another organization is Opera Club which presents an intriguingly curated selection of rare product, but it’s only available by download.

This is my pirate tale; there surely are many others. I came late to the table: I never owned any EJS records and I never visited Discophile in the Village. I walked into Music Masters near Grand Central Station in the early 1980s but felt intimidated by its luxe atmosphere and fled after a few minutes.

My adored maternal grandmother would occasionally mention that she had gone to high school with the famous cartoonist Milton Caniff whose best known comic-strip was Terry and the Pirates. She probably had no idea of the remarkable, transformative musical adventures her grandson had back in the day due to some less sinister pirates whom I thank publically now.

Gabriel Fauré: Pénélope
Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires
Broadcast, July 14 1962
PénélopeRégine Crespin
UlysseGuy Chauvet
Eumenée: Ángel Mattiello
Euryclée: Solange Michel
Eurymaque: Julien Haas
Antinoüs: Eugenio Valori
Léodès: Nino Falzetti
Ctésippe: José Crea
Pisandre: Italo Pasini
Orchestra & Chorus Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires
Conductor: Jean Fournet

Tomorrow: The “Chris and the Pirates” saga concludes as the author shares his favorite recording from his tape collection, in Part Five.