Times have changed. Not that long ago anything in the recording industry seemed possible. The major record companies released one opera after the next. Money was not an issue. Great new stars were introduced, and just as easily dropped. Yet another Aida and Traviata, the hundredth Rigoletto, the two hundredth Tosca or Don Giovanni…..
Smaller labels targeted the niche market of classical music enthusiasts. These collectors were interested in lesser-known works by Donizetti or Bellini, in long forgotten scores and in composers like Meyerbeer, Pacini and Mayr, who enjoyed considerable renown in the past.
One of those labels – fortunately still active today – was Opera Rara. It started out as a small business run by just two men. In their pioneering years their records were issued directly to subscribers. When Opera Rara planned to record an opera, those subscribers had to pay first. After a wait that could take as long as a year, the records were distributed. Highly exclusive! Over the years, Opera Rara became what is probably the largest (and certainly the most important) opera label.
Twenty years ago I visited Opera Rara in London, where I met Patric Schmid* and conductor David Parry. Schmid was one of the founders of Opera Rara and its recording executive. Since the death of his partner Don White he also was the label’s artistic director.
It is raining quite heavily as I step out of Liverpool Street station. I have a few hours to spend and intend to visit a few bookstores. Because I get lost everywhere, it seemed a safer idea to first carefully map out my route. It turns out I am much closer by than I had thought.
Still, when I make my way there fifteen minutes before my appointment I get lost once again. The weather has turned completely, the sun shines and it is hot. Covered in sweat I enter the building on Curtain Road where Opera Rara resides.
I am received by Stephen Revell, the very friendly assistant of Patrick Schmid, who leads me into an enormous room. In the middle a grand piano, covered under a yellow sheet. On the shelves, thousands of scores, books and records.
We sit at a large wooden table. Patric Schmid enters: a handsome man in his fifties, with grey hair. He apologises David Parry has been delayed and will join us later. Coffee and tea are served, and the story behind the most adventurous opera label begins.
The love for belcanto started with Chopin. Schmid, as a young pianist, came under the spell of his enthralling music and went on a search for more. A search that eventually led to belcanto. His fascination with belcanto became so big that he wanted to change the fact that this music was hardly ever performed. To achieve this, he founded an opera company in 1970 with his friend, the musicologist Don White, called Opera Rara.
The search for unknown opera’s was not easy. Schmid himself uses the expression “to dig up.” And since there were no photocopiers at the time, everything had to be produced by hand.
In 1972 their first opera was performed: Myerbeer’s Il Crociato in Egitto. Several problems occurred. Shortly before opening night the tenor cancelled. Where on earth do you find a replacement for a highly obscure work on such short notice? Fortunately William McKinney saved the production by taking over the role two days before the premiere.
All the operas performed by Opera Rara were broadcast by the BBC. Afterwards, these performances were issued by various pirate labels. In 1977 Schmid and White decided to record the operas themselves and founded the record label Opera Rara. The money to make the recordings was collected directly from their supporters on a subscription basis. The first recording was Donizetti’s Ugo Conte di Parigi, made in July 1977. The conductor was Allun Francis, who has been one of their two regular conductors since.
Janet Price sings Bianca’s aria “No, che infelice appieno….” from the Donizetti rarity Ugo Conte di Parigi: