By MARK HARTSELL
The National Jukebox features an interactive version of an early 20th-century guide to opera recordings that allows users to read the book’s summaries of opera plots, view photographs of performers in costume and listen to almost every recording listed.
The 1919 edition of The Victrola Book of the Opera describes more than 110 operas and lists recordings of excerpts from those works offered that year by the Victor Talking Machine Co. The book was published in 13 editions between 1912 and 1976 as part of a strategy to promote the sale of recordings of opera excerpts produced by Victor.
For 75 cents, buyers of the 1919 edition could learn the plot and production history of popular operas, check out photos of performers in character and illustrations of scenes from the productions, and keep a handy a list of catalog numbers for Victor recordings.
Most of the recordings found in The Victrola Book of the Opera are part of the jukebox. The interactive version of the book on the jukebox allows users to do something readers of the original couldn’t: listen to the recordings as they read about them and instantly compare different interpretations of the most popular arias of the era.
The book listed selections by stars from Victor’s premier Red Seal label—Enrico Caruso, John McCormack, Geraldine Farrar—as well as performances by bands and singers from the company’s lower-priced labels, such as Victor Herbert’s Orchestra and “house” vocalists Harry Macdonough, Reinald Werrenrath and Elizabeth Wheeler.
Early editions of the book were compiled by sales catalog editor Samuel Holland Rous, who, billed as “S. H. Dudley,” began his career with Victor as a vocalist.
William Braid White, reviewing the 1924 edition of the book, noted the smart use of the guide as a marketing tool.
“The Victor Book of the Opera is not only a fine piece of artistic propaganda, but a very shrewd piece of publicity,” White wrote, “and the best of it is that every party to it reaps a profit from its existence.”
“The interactive Victrola Book of the Opera is a fabulous research tool for musicians, scholars and collectors,” said David Sager, a curator in the Recorded Sound Section. “To be able to compare the same arias as sung by baritones like Antonio Scotti and Emilio De Gogorza or the sopranos Luisa Tetrazzini and Marcella Sembrich offers a plethora of convenience, insight and pleasure.”