The man with the monocle

There was a time before microphones. Think about what that meant for a singer. You had to stand on stage in front of an orchestra, and your unaided voice had to reach the far corner of the hall. It is an astonishing thing: to sing with pitch, control, feeling, as well as power and volume. It requires talent, dedication and training, and technique.

OGt-TauberTopper

Richard Tauber in his dapper prime

Microphones changed singing. From the 1930s on, it was possible to front a band and sing, and let the microphone do the heavy lifting. You could focus on timing, timbre and expression. Paradox: the electronically amplified singer can sound more natural.

So to modern ears, operatic singing is a bit of an acquired taste. The power and volume of the natural, trained classical voice seems a bit odd, stylised, artificial. It is worth making the effort, though. Before the microphone, classical singing was singing. This was how it was done, how music sounded.

One of the early superstars of recorded music was Richard Tauber. He wore a monocle. Along with a silk top hat, it was his trademark. He did not need the lens to see. In fact – well-kept secret – monocles are completely useless for helping vision. They were only ever a silly fashion item. But Tauber had a squint in one eye, and the monocle disguised that, and made him look dapper besides.

More to the point, Tauber could sing. A measure of his popularity is that long after he died (of lung cancer, in 1948), when superior recording techniques allowed other tenors to share their art, Richard Tauber’s work continued to be reissued.

I have not been able to determine when this track – one of more than 720 he recorded – was released on shellac. Guessing mid-1930s? Nor do I know when the vinyl EP reissue, with this and three other songs, came out. Guessing late 1950s? All that matters: here is a voice than has pitch, control and feeling, as and can reach the far corner of the hall. Just listen!

  • Artist: Richard Tauber
  • EP Title: Richard Tauber Favorites Vol. 1
  • Track: A2 “Liebestraum” (Liszt)
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: Parlophone
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: REPO 7501
  • Year: Unknown

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The trouble with opera

I spent many years being prejudiced against opera. It wasn’t really opera’s fault. What happened was that when I was a teenager, my parents divorced. I lived with my Mum and every couple of weeks traveled to stay with Dad.

Dad was a loving and kind man but, like many Australian men of his generation, not especially good at showing it. He was a better talker than listener, and tended to assume that he knew exactly what people needed in their lives. So, it was with the best intentions that he chose to bond with his 13-year-old son by discussing free-market economics and taking him to the opera.

6011 Puccini 1959 sleeve

Madame Butterfly was not an optimist

I am not being critical. He was doing his best. But in case there are any divorced parents with teenage children reading this, can I suggest that you ask what he or she would like to do before you buy tickets to the whole of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

Anyway, the result was that for many years I had an aversion to opera. Still not my favourite musical form, in truth. One thing about operas – they do go on for a very long time. Which makes the sort of record that has bobbed up today on Planet Vinyl a great way to get past prejudice and to enjoy opera for what it is: lovely music, beautifully sung. That the music is often draped around a melodramatic and slow-moving plot can be ignored.

Coronet was a budget reissue label owned by CBS, and one of their innovations was to issue records like this one: 7-inch discs which play at 33⅓ rpm. Each side plays for about eight minutes – enough time for a worthwhile-but-not-overwhelming serve of classical music.

6011 Puccini 1959 label

Coronet records had cool octagonal labels.

This particular disc includes four arias from the works of Giacomo Puccini. The singer is Bidu Sayao, a Brazilian soprano who enjoyed huge success in the United States. I have not been able to find out when these songs were recorded – from the quality of the sound I would guess earlier than 1950. There are two arias from La Boheme, one from Madame Butterfly, and one from … Gianni Schicchi?

No, I had never heard of that opera before either – even the liner notes describe it as “the lesser known short opera”. But here on Planet Vinyl, we lean towards the lesser-known, and also I have chosen it because it is called “O mio babbino caro”, oh my beloved father.

My Dad passed away two years ago, and I love him and miss him. And I am working on enjoying opera.

  • Artist: Bidau Sayao
  • Composer: Giacomo Puccini
  • EP Title: One Fine Day and Other Puccini Arias
  • Side 1, Track 2: “O mio babbino caro”
  • Format: 7” EP 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Coronet KCG 131
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1959