On Stage At The Met, 1901 – Thanks to Lionel Mapelson

Lionel Mapleson with Edison Home Phonograph and extra large horn, probably at the Metropolitan Opera House. (ca. 1901-1903)(Photo: New York Public Library)
Lionel Mapleson with Edison Home Phonograph and extra large horn, probably at the Metropolitan Opera House. (ca. 1901-1903)(Photo: New York Public Library)

On March 15, 1901, New York’s Metropolitan Opera performed Giacomo Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine. This long opera about the travails of an African princess and the admiral who tries to rescue her is musically old hat today, but back in 1901 it was box office gold, especially with the Polish tenor Jean de Reszke.

Handsome, intelligent, decent and blessed with a splendid tenor voice, “The Divine Jean” broke hearts and possibly ear drums on three continents. Any history of singing devotes chapters to his name and his fame.

Alas! de Reszke made no commercial recordings. We have no studio-made aural representation of his voice, but what we do have is a Mapleson cylinder of a live performance that Reszke gave at the old Metropolitan Opera House at Broadway and 39th Street.

The recording was made by Met Librarian at the turn of the century, Lionel Mapleson (1865-1937). Mapleson used an early sound recorder to make recordings on foil-covered cylinders from the fly space many feet above the Met’s stage.

These cylinders were not available to the public until 1962. Over 100 of them are known to exist. Eventually, the cylinders were collected, re-pitched, cleaned up aurally as much as possible and issued in a collectors set by the New York Public Library in 1982.

You can’t buy a recording of Jean de Reszke, but you can hear him – just barely -in L’Africaine at the Met on March 15, 1901:

I’m not here to tell you that these recordings are easy listening, or even pleasurable listening. We have to listen through a hundred years of snap-crackle-pop (and what you are hearing now are even the restored titles).

The cylinders are important for the study of music making in an era before Mahler, Toscanini or Caruso performed in New York.

Mapleson kept at it until 1904, when he either lost interest or somebody caught on and objected. Thanks to his work we have a treasure trove filled with operatic performances as they were given in the early days of the 20th century.

One cylinder is especially intriguing.

For years it was thought to be Nellie Melba (1861-1931.)  She was just as famous as de Reszke and remains famous today – as much for her garrulous temper as her splendid voice.

Research now tells us that the flashy singer on this cylinder is Suzanne Adams (1875-1953), who had a humbler career than Melba (most artists did, as Melba would have been the first to remind you) but a splendid voice and technique.

This is from another Meyerbeer opera, Les Huguenots, as performed at The Met in 1901 or 1902:


It’s only fair that we also hear a bit of Melba. This recording (which has been authenticated – Suzanne Adams was out of town) is of a performance of Guiseppe Verdi’s La traviata on March 16, 1901 – just seven weeks after the composer’s death.


We’ll finish with another legend. Lily Ann Norton was born in Farmington, Maine in 1857. She began her career singing in band concerts on Boston Common and while studying in Italy, Lily Ann was re named Lillian Nordica.

She was the first American-born aritst to make a huge career in Europe. Wagner and Verdi both adored her.

Here she is with George Anthes (1863-1923) in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde - which both had sung for Wagner – in 1903:

If Nordica was a small town girl who made good, her death in a shipwreck off the coast of Java in 1914 was nothing if not operatic.

Who knows what people will be listening to in 200 years. Perhaps our iPods, MP3s and CDs will need to be painstakingly restored and decoded, but I hope listeners in the far future will be as curious, and have as much fun.

P.S. – The archives of the Metropolitan Opera are online, thanks to the great work of Robert Tuggle and John Penino. Indispensable. Addictive.