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Library of Congress

Yesterday afternoon, I listened to tapes that I made over twenty years ago. Some of them may even date back to law school. If the sound hasn't deteriorated too much, I'm going to send them to a friend who can use them in her car, which only has a tape player. If you're driving a car that's so old that it has a tape player, it probably wouldn't make sense to install a CD player even if money were no object. At the same time, nobody sells audiocassettes anymore, not, at least, of classical music.

The first tape that I draw from the vinyl suitcase in which the tapes have lodged, largely untouched, since the late Eighties is a bit dreary. It might be just right for a thoughtful hour by the fire late at night. The sound quality is excellent, considering, but, oh, dear, I don't think I could pull out of the driveway if the first thing I heard was one of Bach's cello suites. Ingmar Bergman used to use this music to highlight extreme despair, and not without success. Ah, but we're not to have the whole suite, for after the opening prelude I've switched to Brahms's second clarinet sonata. This is sweet, but definitely not drive-time music.

Somewhere around here there's a notebook with each tape's playlist. I may know what's playing, but my friend may not, and I'll have no use for the lists anyway.


In the back of cabinet, I found a stack of opera recordings. I've simply run out of room for operas, and will have to start practicing triage in order to fit these into my collection. Only one of them is a favorite work: a Così fan tutte recorded live in the Nineties, under Sir George Solti. (That makes nine recordings of the opera on my shelves.) The others are all operas that I feel I ought to know because doesn't everybody. Fidelio, which I try hard to like at least once every ten years; Samson et Dalila, which is not worth my time but which has its moments; The Turn of the Screw, Les Troyens, and Carmen, all of which I wished I liked better. Cyrano de Bergerac, which is really a much lovelier opera than the only available CD recording would suggest (I haven't gotten round to the DVD that stars Roberto Alagna, but of course I've got it). A really disappointing recording of Lucie de Lammermoor - that's right; as Emma Bovary would have heard it - an opera that, aside from its great Sextet, drives me mad with impatience. Something by Paisiello, even.

These discs all say the same thing: You've changed. Time was when my curiosity was imperially expansive and my ambitions as the amasser of a comprehensive library were unbounded. Somewhere along the way, during the past five years, I've set those efforts aside in favor of getting to know what I already know much better. I want to study the connections between the things that I know. This does not mean buying no new books or listening to no new music. What it does mean is dropping the compulsion about inventory-enhancement. Surely a collection that includes nine Cosìs ought to have two Carmens? At least - if the Library of Congress is doing the collecting. My Library of Congress days are over.


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The English man of letters, Bernard Levin, wrote a great piece when retired as an opera critic in 1988. Entitled “The Expurgated opera lover”, he points out “Every real work of art is inexhaustible; that is indeed the way you know a real work of art from an imitation,” and that all his opera going over 40 years had “blinded me…of the truth: that there were many operas I have enjoyed but from which I have get no more.” He goes on with some wonderful asides “Mummy, mummy, why is that man laughing? Hush dear, he has just realized he is never going to hear Arabella again” but he wrote what I hadn’t the ability to put in words, about what I was gradually feeling about some of the operatic canon.

Some 37 years into going to opera, with nearly 1500 performances of well over 200 operas under my belt, each year I go to certain operas more (like Elektra) but skip many more than I used to. Rigoletto has nothing to say to me anymore; neither do Wozzeck, Lulu, Carmen, Samson, and Faust etc. etc. And I imagine I will continue to prune and concentrate on what I care for, rather than my once youthful determination to see EVERYTHING.

Your piece reminded me of the truth in the Levin article, although I suspect that much of the canon you never got tired of because you didn’t care for them or bother with them to begin with!!!

And can it ever be healthy to have nine Cosi? I have more Elektras and Toscas, which I think is VERY sane.

RJ, this is the kind of noticing I was referring to in my letter to you of today (Friday, August 26) in the realm of opera. Yours and PPOQs weariness with breadth and expansion are characteristics I think of maturation: the introspection, relevance, reflection that accompany the second half of life as opposed to the accumlation and unsatiable appetites of the first half. What a wonderful line to have crossed.

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