Columbia Corporate History: Grand Opera Series

Columbia Master Book, Volume I, Tim Brooks, ed.

The spring of 1903 brought a truly historic series of recordings, and a coup over the rival Victor company. Grand opera stars, particularly those associated with the prestigious Metropolitan Opera in New York, were among the most famous and highly paid musical celebrities in the world. Most had never recorded commercially, in part for artistic reasons (recording technology was too crude to reproduce their voices properly), in part because the record companies would not pay their high fees. Operatic excerpts did appear in the catalog, but they were by studio bands, popular instrumentalists, and lesser-known opera singers such as Emilio de Gogorza (as “Edward Franklin”), Alberto De Bassini and Bernard Begué. Given the popularity of this second-rate material, it must have been tempting to imagine how well arias by “real” opera stars might sell.

Industry scuttlebutt in late 1902 was that Victor had sent its recording manager, Calvin Child, to London in December to arrange an exchange of masters with that company’s English affiliate. These would include grand opera recordings by the greatest stars of the continent—the first ever sold in the U.S. The publicity value alone would be enormous. Not to be outdone, Columbia quickly arranged with several major stars of the Metropolitan Opera in New York to record at its own 26th Street studio. These were the first “celebrity” opera recordings ever made in the U.S., and they preserved for posterity some of the greatest voices of the age.

The first appear to have been made in late 1902 or very early 1903, when soprano Suzanne Adams (of the Paris Opera, Covent Garden and the Met) recorded six selections with her husband cellist Leo Stern, including “Je veux vivre” from Romeo and Juliet, and “Home, Sweet Home.” In quick succession recordings were made by baritones Antonio Scotti, Giuseppe Campanari and Charles Gilibert, basso Edouard De Reszke (his only recordings), soprano Marcella Sembrich, and contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink. All were available as 10” discs only, and were announced in a special “Catalogue De Luxe” which was rushed out. The first advertisingappeared in early April.18

Prestige did not come cheaply. The discs sold for $2 each, twice Columbia’s usual price, reflecting the high fees demanded by these superstars. Columbia continued to publicize the discs for the next several years, and sometimes appeared obsessed by the amount of money it had been forced to pay for them. Sembrich was said to have been paid $2,000 for her three recordings, while Adams received almost that much for two.19 Although most of these illustrious singers had recorded before, their previous recordings (mostly for Bettini cylinders or for G&T discs in England) had very limited distribution in the U.S. and their appearance on Columbia was a major event.

The records did not generate large sales, however, which must have disappointed Easton and his bottom-line oriented management. Moreover Victor quickly counterattacked by issuing its own classical recordings on a special “Red Seal” label in early April. The first releases were those obtained from London, but beginning on April 30, 1903, Victor also began recording domestically. It even established a recording studio in Carnegie Hall itself. Backed by enormous promotion Victor quickly won the title of “the” label for Grand Opera superstars. Victor clinched its triumph with its acquisition of a phenomenal young Italian tenor named Enrico Caruso, who would become perhaps the most famous recording artist of the early twentieth century. Several of Caruso’s Milan recordings for G&T were among the first batch of imported Red Seals, and beginning in 1904 he recorded for Victor in the U.S., exclusively. In addition, Victor records of the period were simply better made than those of Columbia, a fact doubtless not lost on the discerning ears of higher class customers.

Faced with the relentless barrage of Victor publicity, as well as its own disappointing sales, Columbia abandoned Grand Opera celebrity recording in the U.S. for the next several years. Its high-priced Metropolitan artists, including Scotti, Campanari, Giligert, Sembrich and Schumann-Heink, switched to Victor Red Seal records.20

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The Columbia Master Book Discography, 4 Volumes, Complied by Brian Rust and Tim Brooks. Reprinted by permission.