The wax cylinder is a dark brown tube, displayed upright. The containers echo the tubular shape of the cylinder. They are made of a lighter brown cardboard, with a round lid on the top. Some of them have handwritten notes written directly onto the cardboard, as well as paper labels and stickers.

Lionel Mapleson (1865–1937)
Early opera recordings on wax cylinders

1900–1904
Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center

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Early opera recordings on wax cylinders

Transcript below

Music: "Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre" ("Toreador Song") from Carmen by Georges Bizet.

Anna Deavere Smith: What you hear is among the earliest recordings of live music in existence.  

This performance of the “Toreador Song,” from Bizet’s opera Carmen, was recorded in 1902 on a wax cylinder like the one you see here.

The pops, hisses, and warbles wouldn’t pass for high-quality sound today, but at the time it was state of the art. A librarian named Lionel Mapleson made this recording—and hundreds of others—on the job, at his workplace: The New York Metropolitan Opera House. He eventually found he could achieve the best recording quality from a catwalk suspended 40 feet above the stage.

Music: "Ride of the Valkyries" from Die Walküre by Richard Wagner.

Mapleson used a Model A Edison “Home” Phonograph that he bought in 1900. Powered by a clockwork mechanism, the device played wax cylinders—and with a special attachment, it could record on them, too. He enhanced this setup with the addition of an enormous, specially constructed recording horn that was nearly as big as Mapleson himself!

Performers would gather in Mapleson’s office after the show to listen and marvel at the novelty of his recordings. Frequent playing accounts, in part, for the extent of the “crackle and hiss” distortion. 

Mapleson made his recordings for his own amusement, but today they’re invaluable documents in the history of recorded music. They allow us to hear performances by some stars whose voices were never otherwise recorded. They also reveal something of the character of New York City opera audiences of the time.

Music: "O Paradis!" from L'Africaine by Giacomo Meyerbeer.

Just listen to the crowd go wild for Polish tenor Jean de Reszke’s “O Paradis!” from Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine.

End of Transcript

We gratefully acknowledge the editorial guidance of Tom Owen of Owen Forensic Services, LLC.

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