A Time-capsule in the Vaults of the Paris Opera Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

A Time-capsule in the Vaults of the Paris Opera

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On Christmas Eve, 1907, a musical time-capsule was walled up in a storeroom of the Paris Opéra. The capsule actually comprised two cylindrical lead urns, each 36cm in diameter, into which were placed 24 disc- (as opposed to cylinder-) recordings of the great opera stars and instrumentalists of the early 20th Century. Each record was carefully wrapped in asbestos-covered cloth and separated by sheets of glass. The containers bore instructions that they were not to be opened for 100 years. In 1912, the Paris Opéra anticipated that recording technology was moving on and supplemented the two original urns with two more, containing not only 24 more records, but also a hand-cranked gramophone – including instructions on how to use it! – and a supply of needles with which to play the records.

First Archive

Artists featuring in the recordings placed in the 1907 urns included operatic stars whose names are almost as familiar to us today as they were to the opera-going public a century ago: Enrico Caruso, Dame Nellie Melba, Adelina Patti, Selma Kurz, Francesco Tamagno1, Ernestine Schumann-Heink2 and Emma Calvé, as well as others probably now only really known to opera history buffs: for example Berthe Auguez de Montalant and Léon Beyle.

Unfortunately the voice of some of the artists here were rather past their best – Adelina Patti was over 60 years of age by the time this recording of Batti, batti, o bel Masetto from Act I of Mozart's Don Giovanni was made in 1905. As well as the vocal numbers, the archive included recordings of solo performers such as the celebrated violinist Jan Kubelik3.

One of the urns comprised mainly operas by French composers: Gounod's Faust and Roméo et Juliette; Massenet's Ariane, or performances by French artists: Marguerite Mérentié, Maurice Renaud. The second urn celebrated the international scene, with arias sung by the likes of Caruso, Patti and Melba. The instrumentalists were represented by a piece by Antonio Bazzini, La ronde des lutins, played by the violinist Jan Kubelik, and an arrangement of the March from Act IV of Meyerbeer's opera, Le Prophète, played by the Band of the Coldstream Guards.

Clark and the Gramophone Company

The whole exercise was the idea of Alfred Clark, the former General Manager of the Compagnie française du Gramophone, an enterprise formed in partnership with the London-based Gramophone Company. Clark had sold his interest in the enterprise in 1904 to the London company, which would soon launch the famous 'His Master's Voice' record label and which in 1931 would merge with the Columbia Gramophone Company to form Electric and Musical Industries Ltd (EMI), with Clark as its first Chairman.

Clark had two passions: opera and food, both of which he indulged, and in 1907 he initiated the Musée de la Voix, an institution founded to preserve for posterity the voices of great singers in the archives of the Opéra de Paris. For this work he was awarded the French Légion d'honneur. The discs were of course all provided by the Gramophone Company, and although the project was inspired by a genuine love for opera, it also provided very welcome publicity for the (then) new, flat, 12-inch discs.

Second Archive

As mentioned previously, in 1912 two further urns were added to the archive. Caruso, Melba and Jan Kubelik were again featured, but joined by the great Russian bass, Feodor Chaliapin, sopranos Marcella Sembrich, Geraldine Farrar and Luisa Tetrazzini, the pianist Paderewski and the violin virtuoso Fritz Kreisler. As well as Verdi's Aïda, Otello, Rigoletto and La Traviata, arias from Wagner's Lohengrin, Puccini's La Bohème and Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro were included, as well as part of the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No.6 (The Pastoral), Chopin's Waltz in B flat major Op.34 No.1, and the Allegretto that Kreisler tried to persuade the world was his arrangement of a work by Boccherini, but which was in fact composed by Kreisler himself.

Tomb Raider

In 1989, during building works to install air-conditioning at the Paris Opéra, it was discovered that the archive had been broken open. One of the 1912 urns was empty and the gramophone was missing. The remainder of the archive was immediately transferred to the Bibliothèque nationale de France. At the end of 2007, the 100 years had elapsed, so the archive was opened, as presumably Clark et al had intended. Fortunately, in both 1907 and 1912, a printed record of the archive's contents had been included in one of the 1907 urns and the unopened 1912 urn, so the information on what the contents of the empty urn had been was not lost.

Apart from those missing, the discs are relatively undamaged. A commercial release of a three-CD set of the recordings is being made in 2009 by EMI. None of the original discs has been used in the digital transcription; it was decided that they should remain unplayed until such time in the future when they can be played optically, thereby avoiding physical contact with the discs. Since precise details of which discs were in the archive was documented, copies of the same discs, available from other archives, were used as analogue masters to be digitized.

1Verdi's first Otello.2Richard Strauss's first Clytemnestra in Elektra.3Father of the conductor Raphael Kubelik (1914 - 1996).

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