The opera world of 1916 is my oyster as Library of Congress unveils its National Jukebox
From opera to Tin Pan Alley to the French-Canadian folksong "Savez vous planter des choux?", thousands of recordings going back to 1901 are now available for free online streaming from the Library of Congress. The vehicle is the National Jukebox, and its first wave of audio-visual files, compiled with the help of Sony Entertainment, are an invaluable resource.
According to the Library of Congress, the opening set of 10,000, or so, tracks were all originally issued between 1901 and 1925 by Victor, a label owned by Sony. The institution received a blanket license from the Japanese firm, so it is promising access to the incredible Columbia library, among others, in the future.
Go visit, and get lost.
In the meantime, I'm going to digress:
Although this is an amazing sea of history to swim around in, broad reach sometimes does mean compromises.
I spent some time leafing through the 1919 5th edition of the Victrola Book of the Opera -- a combination record-buyer's catalogue and source of background information on all the main operas in the repertoire at the time. It was published by the Victor Talking Machine Company of Camden, N.J.
The first entry is L'Africana -- "Text by Scribe; music by Meyerbeer" -- with a full-page engraving of Enrico Caruso as Vasco di Gama on the facing page. There's a production and plot summary, lists of the main arias, accompanied by Victor catalogue numbers and prices.
The musical selections are indicated with little arrows. One click at Prelude to Act III introduces us to the La Scala Orchestra, circa 1906, as well as to all the hisses and pops of ancient 78 rpm discs.
Unfortunately, none of the four tenors, including Caruso, listed as options for recorded versions of the aria "O Paradiso!" are available. I decided I wanted to hear Canadian tenor Edward Johnson (who became general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in 1935), but couldn't find a search function. You have to manually flip through all 436 pages.
I found the same edition of the book online in the University of Toronto's collection, which supports most of the different e-reading platforms -- and makes it easier to search quickly. But, because this is a text-only archive service, there are no sound files.
A search of the U of T archive revealed, in mere seconds, that Edward Johnson is not mentioned in this book. I keyed in Nellie Melba, whose entries appeared as a series of quick-click bookmarks.
So, the determined power-searcher can open both the Library of Congress version, for access to instant streaming audio, as well as the University of Toronto's book, for instant searchability. And, voilà! the opera world of a century ago is your oyster.
Since I wanted some Edward Johnson, I found him on YouTube, singing Rodolfo's Aria in Puccini's La Bohème: