I am curious about people's first recordings of opera (I mean the first two or three, not the first thirty). What were they? At what age did you first listen to them? Were they a gift, bought, borrowed, or stolen (OK, you don't have to answer the last one)? What impact did they have on you? How have they held up over the years, as you have heard and learned more?That provoked a (predictable) deluge of responses. Here' ours:
My proper introduction to opera, per se, occurred quite late (viz., when I was in my early 30s) and quite by accident (a double entendre as will presently be made clear). I grew up within a musical milieu peopled by serious-minded musicians, instrumentalists all, who regarded, as did I, the whole domain of opera to be nothing other than fodder fit only for the delectation of musical groundlings and the proper butt of uncharitable jokes. In my younger years I'd occasionally tune into the Texaco Saturday Met opera radio broadcasts (which almost invariably turned out to be something from the Italian or French rep) and despite Milton Cross's enticing intros never managed to last beyond the first half-hour or so of the first act so trashy if superficially pretty and appealing did it all sound to me. Fast-forward to 1970. I've been laid up for the better part of a year courtesy of a near-death-dealing motorcycle accident. Bad business that, but it's not all terrible. I've plenty of time on my hands, and I'm taking full advantage of it by reading like mad and listening to dozens of LPs I'd bought one fevered afternoon of record buying at a Sam Goody 50%-off sale some few years previous but still haven't gotten around to auditioning. (Not as ridiculous as it sounds. I bought over 250 LPs that out-of-control afternoon.) One of the albums I'd plucked from Goody's shelves was the then-new Solti-Decca release of the first _Ring_ opera, _Das Rheingold_ (which I later learned is called a "music-drama"; not at all the same thing as an opera), an opera of which I never before heard so much as a measure and a recording I bought not because I had any intention of listening to the opera itself (what an idea!) but because that then-new recording had quickly gained a reputation among audio freaks, of which I was one, as being a kick-ass test of one's speaker system. So one afternoon of my enforced confinement I pull the still un-played _Rheingold_ album from its place of storage, think to myself, "Forgot about this. Time I gave it a whirl to see just how great these speakers of mine really are," remove its still-intact shrink-wrap, and start the first LP going on the turntable. With hobbling gait I almost make it back to my comfy armchair when the soles of my feet more than my ears become aware of that solitary, 16', four-measure opening E-flat pedal, and my first thought is that something's gone badly awry with my stereo system. I mean, no opera can possibly begin like that. After assuring myself that my stereo system is operating just fine, I start the LP going again, this time no longer intending to test my speakers but intending instead to find out just what sort of opera it is that can begin in such an un-opera-like manner. One-hundred-and-thirty-six measures later (i.e., the full length of the _Rheingold_ prelude) such is my astonishment that I'm struck virtually dumb. I simply can't believe what I've just heard. No composer — not the divine Wolfgang, not even great Bach himself — should be able to do that much with such a paucity of harmonic and melodic material stretched over 136 measures; essentially not much more than a single arpeggiated major triad repeated over and over. Hobbling back to the turntable as quickly as I'm able, I start the LP going again at the beginning, and again listen, more carefully this time. I end up replaying those opening 136 measures some dozen times before I let the first of the three Rheintöchter finish the opening phrase of her song. And when she does, further astonishment. She and her two sisters are bantering among themselves in dramatic real time, their banter sounding as natural as the dialogue of a spoken stage play, but they're all...singing! And the singing is lovely. Not bel canto lovely, but a different kind of sung lovely I've no name for because I've never heard anything like it before. Then a nasty-sounding baritone comes on the scene and interrupts their playful banter with some rather less playful banter of his own, also sung, and his singing, like the singing of the Rheintöchter, is in dramatic real time and as natural as spoken dialogue in a stage play and, in its own jarring way, electrifying. Inseparably intertwined with all this rather than merely accompanying it as it would in any respectable opera is a huge orchestra making rich continuous comment on all the goings-on in the manner of the chorus in a classical Greek drama, enriching and deepening immeasurably both drama and meaning, the gestalt effect positively riveting. At this point it becomes abundantly clear to me that, in terms of opera, I'm not on solid ground anymore but hopelessly adrift in waters wonderful strange and considerably over my head. This is a new and gripping musico-dramatic experience; one which bears but the most superficial resemblance to opera as I understand it. No recitative, no arias, no duets, trios, quartets, or choruses. Nothing from and among the singers but a single continuous stream of back-and-forth natural-as-speech sung dialogue, the whole interwovenly fleshed out and deepened by the huge orchestra acting as the work's principal "voice". As I've said, astonishing. And as I continue listening almost each succeeding new measure brings with it something new to astonish and by _Rheingold_'s end I'm utterly floored by the evocative and eloquent magic of it all. That initial encounter with Wagner and his _Ring_ tetralogy set the stage, so to speak, for my subsequent Wagner attachment, and the deeper I immersed myself in the _Rheingold_, and over the ensuing weeks, months, and years in the entire _Ring_ tetralogy and then deeper still in _Tristan_ and _Parsifal_, that which initially captivated the Wagner-naïve musical snob continued, as it continues still, to captivate the seasoned and informed devotee I became. While in strictly musical terms Bach and Mozart are still my ne plus ultra composers, transcendent geniuses both, in musico-dramatic terms I now know there has never been, nor is there ever again likely to be, a genius as all-encompassing prodigious and transcendent as Richard Wagner.