One reason opera is flourishing in the United States today is a program called "The Voice of Firestone," sponsored by the tire manufacturer, that began broadcasting on the radio in 1931 and was on television from 1949 to 1963. No causal connection can be firmly established, but it is interesting that so many American opera companies were started in the postwar years when this program was going out nationwide and propagandizing for opera, intensely, to a mass audience.
A few years after the show left the air, the master kinescopes of all the "Voice of Firestone" telecasts were given to the New England Conservatory of Music, which has now licensed Video Artists International to release segments on commercial videotapes. "When I first saw the catalogue, I felt much as the Tut excavators must have felt," says Ernest Gilbert, founder and chief executive of VAI. The reason becomes evident to any opera lover looking through a list of the singers featured in the first 10 VAI "Voice of Firestone Classic Performances" releases. They are (more or less in my order of preference) Rise Stevens, Richard Tucker, Eleanor Steber, Franco Corelli and Renata Tebaldi, Jussi Bjoerling, Bidu Sayao, Leonard Warren, Joan Sutherland, Lauritz Melchior and Licia Albanese. "All the artists we have contacted to date have been blissfully cooperative," Gilbert reports.
Performers who were not opera singers but who may be included in future releases range from Edith Piaf, Chita Rivera and John Raitt to Rudolf Nureyev, Jacques d'Amboise and Mahalia Jackson. The first 10 releases have great value not only as nostalgia (the black-and-white kinescopes have a rich 1950s flavor, even when they are trying to project the Seville of Figaro or Carmen), but even more for presenting great artists in unusual repertoire and for visual documentation of some of their best roles. Rise Stevens, for example, is shown in three staged selections from "Carmen," her greatest role. But she also seems right at home in songs of Richard Rodgers ("Falling in Love With Love," "It Might as Well Be Spring"), and in one outstanding show of versatility, she sings "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," Carmen's "Habanera" and Schubert's "Ave Maria" on one program.
Unlike most performing arts programs on television today, these broadcasts were live. They sometimes lack the studio-edited gloss that is now common, but they compensate with the interest and excitement of something happening in real time. Most of the tapes run 40 to 45 minutes, but some are shorter and padded out with orchestral pieces because on some shows the singer sang on the half-hour program only once and there is less material from which to select. In one case, Franco Corelli and Renata Tebaldi, VAI had the happy idea of putting the two singers on the same tape although they did not sing together; Tebaldi's program, from 1959, has three arias from "Madama Butterfly," "Tosca" and "La Boheme"; Corelli, in 1963, sings Neapolitan songs and arias from "Cavalleria Rusticana" and "Turandot" -- some of his strongest repertoire. Lauritz Melchior is 60, a bit past his prime vocally and not quite comfortable with the television medium on his tape, but it will still be treasured by those who remember that great voice. Sutherland was still near the beginning of her spectacular career and in great voice when she made her one appearance on the program, but she is not particularly telegenic.
In at least one case, the tape delivers more than its cover promises. The Richard Tucker tape would be worth having if it contained only what is listed: several pop numbers plus "Celeste Aida," "Vesti la giubba," "Questa o quella," "La donna e mobile" and the Carmen "Flower Song." But it also has Tucker singing "Mattinata" and "Dearly Beloved" as well as a troupe of dancers performing Leroy Anderson's "Blue Tango." With or without such surprises, all of the items so far in this series should interest devotees of the artists involved.
Not many of the world's top orchestras specialize in Luciano Berio, as does the Royal Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, which will be at the Kennedy Center Wednesday night. But dedication to the avant-garde is a long-standing tradition with this great orchestra. It specialized in the music of Gustav Mahler during the long years when he was unfashionable. These two composers are featured in recent Concertgebouw recordings with music director Riccardo Chailly, who also will be conducting the orchestra here. In its Berio program (London 425 832-2), the high point is a performance of his best-known work, the Sinfonia, with a group called Electric Phoenix taking the unusual choral part premiered by the Swingle Singers and, remarkably, doing it even better. The same cannot be said of mezzo-soprano Jard van Nes, who competes unsuccessfully with the memory of the late Cathy Berberian in "Folk Songs." The disc also has a brilliant performance of "Formazioni," a virtuoso piece, dedicated to this orchestra, that delves into and intriguingly alters traditional concepts of orchestra sound.
The orchestra's latest Mahler recording (London 430 165-2, two CDs) is his Sixth Symphony -- an electrifying performance but, in such a crowded field, not the only recommendation. What sets this recording apart is a brilliant performance of the six "Maeterlinck Songs" of Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942), a composer whose reputation is still growing slowly but solidly. (He also was the suitor of Alma Schindler before another composer swept her off her feet and made her Alma Mahler.) Here Van Nes is very much in her element and sounds wonderful.
The programming is sensitive and imaginative on London 430 324-2, which couples the happy, relaxed Second Symphony of Brahms with the surprisingly similar "Im Sommerwind" by Anton Webern, who later became one of the major prophets of atonalism. The performances are appealing, as they are also in the First and Fourth symphonies of Schumann (London 425 608-2), played with a lightness and vigor that this composer does not get often enough.
A new name to me is Richard Nanes, whose Symphony for Strings will be performed by the American Chamber Orchestra, William Yarborough conducting, tomorrow night in the Terrace Theater. But this Philadelphia-born composer has more than a dozen works recorded on the Delfon label, and from the sounds of them they should be winning lots of fans. Those who believe that contemporary music can and should be as light and happy as music of the past will welcome the symphony (Delfon CDR 2422), which combines baroque structures with modern sonorities. The same disc has the brilliantly moody "Rhapsody Pathetique" for violin and orchestra and the ingenious Concerto Grosso for brass trio and orchestra. Perhaps, if the applause tomorrow night is very loud, Yarborough will program more of Nanes in the future.