Early 20th Century Opera Singers; Their Voices and recordings from 1900 to 1949 by Nicholas E. Limansky


YBK Publishers, NY 2016, 298 pages $29.95 click here for the website

Or order it from amazon by clicking here


This fascinating title caught my eye as this is also MY passion and interest, at least from the title. Of course, I realize that this is a vast subject and that no two aficionados will necessarily have exact reference points. I had over the years seen Mr. Limansky’s name, but I did not know him personally. I found his website (click here) and from postings to his site from over ten years ago I formed a basic positive impression of his credentials. I believe there is at least a ten-plus year gap in our respective initiations into this rarified world. I came in at the end of the 78rpm era and Mr. Limansky came along at the height of the Long Playing record. When I entered this world Maria Callas was a fresh new name on the European scene that we read about, and when Mr. Limansky entered, the body of her best work was already behind her.

This book is a collection of essays about some of the twentieth-century’s leading operatic singers with a hefty tilt toward high sopranos with coloratura skills. The book feels like a friend who comes into your home to listen to records, as we often did forty or fifty years ago, and while listening to the various singers we chat about the singer’s merits vis-à-vis their competition, juicy anecdotes we heard about them, and occasionally their place in the larger pecking order. This phenomenon does not exist now as we rarely listen to recordings as a shared social experience with friends; we all have piles of unlistened-to cds and dvds as well as a list of YouTubes we don’t have time to absorb seriously. And now many opera lovers want complete operas and possibly dwell on a director’s “take” on the work. It is now common to hold in contempt those persons who are fanciers of singers as opposed to those who want to study the art form itself for its larger musico-dramatic meanings. I count myself and many of my friends as students of vocal art, and I think Mr. Limansky is one of us.

Limansky clearly has listened to and absorbed much of the valuable legacy that exists on the early recordings. In his narrative and analyses he quotes heavily from Michael Scott and John Steane; he used the Met Opera database with its rich selection of reviews to reinforce his points. The book is organized around the early days of record collecting in New York City, which did have a rich array of stores when Limansky began his journey; the many retail outlets that stocked rare and imported recordings as well as the-then underground pirates, sold surreptitiously. He has an introductory chapter on Patti and Battistini as representatives of essentially late nineteenth century artists who recorded in the early twentieth century and how to appreciate what they committed to recording. He then gives us extensive chapters on Maria Barrientos, Celestina Boninsegna, Giuseppe Borgati, Eugenia Burzio, Caruso, Chaliapin, Fernando De Lucia, Ivan Ershov, Galli-Curci, Maria Galvany, Maria Ivogun, Miliza Korjus, Melba, Antonina Nezhdanova, Ponselle, Joseph Schwarz, Marcella Sembrich, Tetrazzini. So, of the twenty focused chapters on individual singers, almost half are not just female singers, but of high lyrics, often, but not exactly correctly called coloratura sopranos, since coloratura refers to a technical skill, not the range of the singer. This all “computes” as one of his passions is Yma Sumac (click here); Limansky has written over the years several articles about the Peruvian singer, including his 2008 book on her art.


The most important drawback of this book is that there is no index; I realize that this essentially self-published book would not have the resources to create a good index. I remember when Northeastern University Press, which published my Rosa Raisa book, asked me fairly late in the publishing process if I would create the index or have them commission one from a professional indexer. I opted for the Press to commission a professional, the cost of which virtually wiped out my first-year royalties. A book like Limansky’s cries out for an index because every page has dozens of names of other singers. One advantage of an on-line e-book is that you can use the browser’s “find” function if you want to know what the author has to say about specific singers. It is a given that this book has no photographs; I think this type of book is richer if it is also illustrated, but this is a small caveat against the mission of a book which is to discuss the recorded output of the selected artists. And this Mr. Limansky does rather well.

Mr. Limansky is credited as one of the members contributing the biographical sketches for the New York Vocal Record Collector’s Society (VCRS) annual Christmas cd. I have found these notes well researched and skillfully condensed for this compact medium, as worthwhile notes in a cd booklet can be challenging. This knowledge informs his opinions of many of the recordings he discusses in this volume.

I will list some chapters and paragraphs in the book that will resonate with collectors of this era of recordings: The Art of Listening; Eddie Smith’s TAP recordings; Rococo (out of Canada); Scala and Club 99 (Labels produced by Ben and Ellen Lebow); OASI (Bill Violi); Preiser (out of Vienna); New York City Retail Record Stores (Bremen House, Music Masters, Discophilia, Darton, Ludus Tonalis, Four Continents (USSR imports)); Joe Pearce (Joe wrote for this book a little bio of himself and memories of early record collecting); How to Listen?; Romophone; Marston; Pearl; Symposium; Nimbus; IRCC; The Record Collector; Each chapter or paragraph is insightful and there is a ton of information here.

(Martinelli and Eddie Smith)

If any of the above references has any resonance with the reader, than this is a “must” book, if not for new information, but as a memoir of sorts of a time past that we fondly remember.

Charles Mintzer, July 2016