All Time Coloratura

The Pleasures of Opera on Vinyl

Posted in Thoughts on Opera by cToronto on June 11, 2010

Many of us are familiar with the vinyl fetishism that is gaining ground among rock, pop, & jazz enthusiasts. These days every self-respecting Brooklynite mp3 blogger owns a suitcase turntable (which can now be purchased from Urban Outfitters), and a lot of new indie releases include a vinyl option. Deep into the iPod age, it turns out that many people still want a medium with pretty packaging: something that they can hold in their hands, organize on a shelf, and dig through bins for. While sales of just about everything music-related are plummeting, the LP is actually clawing its way back up.

Classical and opera seems to have remained largely immune to this trend, with fans choosing to mostly buy recordings on CD or electronically, even though we opera-heads arguably have much more compelling reasons to stick to the old medium. The downsides of electronic formats for opera are vast and much discussed. In addition to vague claims of loss of “warmth” with digital formats, there’s the issue of fragmentation: while the iTunes world urges us to abandon the album and instead shuffle through an ever-changing playlist of 4-minute favourites, opera benefits from being listened to all the way through, in the intended order. And let’s not get started on the best way to deal with all those recitative tracks.

If you are lucky enough to live near good record stores (Toronto is particularly blessed in this aspect), it’s well worth taking the time to dig through their bins. What opera you find is likely to be extremely cheap once, I found a complete Deutsche Grammophon box set of Die Zauberflote in pristine condition, complete with fat, glossy libretto, for $3. I found the Leontyne Price Tosca and a lovely Contes D’Hoffmann languishing in a bargain bin. My Springsteen-loving boyfriend, used to record store rock sections that have been picked to the bones by hipsters and collectors, was jealous of the quality of recordings available. If you’re patient and willing to sift through the bins at the back of the store (in a lot of places, the classical stuff just winds up in a section called “bargain” along with Nana Mouskouri), you’re almost certain to be rewarded.

Granted, there are some downsides. New opera releases rarely come out on vinyl, so the things you’ll find tend to date from the 80’s and earlier. You have to turn over the record a lot more frequently than you’d have to change a CD. But the vast selection of first-rate recordings for rock-bottom prices, as well as the pleasure of beautiful packaging and big libretti in a reasonable font size, makes it worth pulling that old record player out of your parents’ basement.        

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