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Live at the Met, 1900-1903: the Mapleson Cylinders May 20 2022

Miracle of miracles, we are obliged not only to imagine the sound of some of the starry evenings in the last years of Maurice Grau’s regime--we can actually hear their dim echo in recordings made “live at the Met” from 1900 until 1903. For this boon we are grateful to the enterprising librarian of the company, Lionel Mapleson. Nephew of Colonel James Mapleson, Abbey’s rival at the Academy of Music at the dawn of the Met’s history, Lionel bought a primitive Edison recording machine, replete with acoustical horn, which he crammed into the prompter’s box along with the prompter. Later he moved, with a much larger horn, to a catwalk above the stage and achieved superior results. The quality of some of the surviving wax cylinders is so tantalizingly good that the faintness of others is even more regrettable. Mapleson, justifiably proud of his treasures, played the cylinders to astonished listeners over the years, with the resulting scratches, loss of wax, and loss of sound.

Lionel Mapleson

Lionel Mapleson with an Edison home phonograph and an extra large horn, probably at the Metropolitan Opera

Although many of the artists captured by Mapleson’s apparatus also made commercial recordings, the cramped acoustical conditions of the recording studio accommodated only a fraction of the presence and the sense of space that this primitive, amateur recording engineer was able to document. Most precious, however, are the cylinders devoted to those singers who never made commercial recordings--the Met’s first Tosca and first Kundry, Yugoslav Milka Ternina, and the world’s leading tenor--Jean de Reszke.

Jean De Reszke

It is a trying exercise to listen to the transcriptions of the Mapleson cylinders today, but an experience whose reward is the chance to hear, as if through some keyhole in time, what was happening at the Met in the Golden Age. However imperfect, there is no better way to read the history of performance.

[IMAGE] Jean de Reszke -one of the Met Opera stars recorded by Mapleson 

Ternina’s cylinders are of such poor quality that even our wildest flights of aural fantasy are inadequate to elicit a reliable impression of the singer, and we must be content with the thrill of hearing her at all. There remains de Reszke.

Glinting through the sonic debris are those highly polished, gleaming phrases that caused women to swoon and critics to exhaust their hyperbole--the perfect transition to head voice at the end of “O paradis (L'Africaine),” the clarion yet effortless brilliance of Rodrigue’s call to fight “pour l’Espagne et la liberté (Le Cid),” the plangency and depth of tone in Lohengrin’s despair. And when de Reszke joins Lillian Nordica in the great Act IV duet of Les Huguenots, as in everything we hear of him, this most princely of tenors proves his class by the astonishing grace of his attacks, his releases, and the linkage of notes in his seamless portamenti. Mapleson and his device were there for de Reszke’s last complete Met performance, his Lohengrin on March 29, 1901.

One of the Mapleson cylinders

Although Lionel Mapleson continued to work as librarian at the opera house until 1937, the year of his death, his valiant recording activities terminated (except for a few concerts in 1903-04) with Grau’s regime.

[IMAGE] One of the Mapleson cylinders, with a recording of Jean de Reszke

The Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound sells the Mapleson cylinders on LP. Excerpts can be heard on the website of the New York Public Library. A few of the cylinders have made their way to YouTube. The quality of the sound ranges from barely audible to quite terrible. Listening with earphones or earbuds is recommended.

Charles Affron, co-author (with Mirella Jona Affron) of Grand Opera: The Story of the Met (University of California Press, 2014)

Original Mapleson Cylinders

 A sound engineer holds one of the original Mapleson cylinders at The Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound - New York

SEE ALSO:

- The Met’s Golden Age in the Gilded Age: 1891-1903

- The Birth of the Metropolitan Opera of New York: Opening Night

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