Class Amid the Crass

Lured by the video of his favorite stars, a nonbeliever steps into the ethereal world of YouTube

January 23, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,sun music critic

For me, it all began with some disgruntled opera fans in Milan.

Last month, tenor Roberto Alagna made news when he abandoned a performance of Verdi's Aida at La Scala, the celebrated opera house, after being booed.

Frustrated that I could only read about it, I remembered YouTube, the Internet site that gave us the "macaca" heard 'round the world - when Virginia Sen. George Allen tossed out that ill-considered word during the re-election campaign he ultimately lost.

I had never explored YouTube before, assuming that it was just for a much, um, younger crowd. After the case of the testy tenor, though, I had to check it out.

Sure enough, only a day or two after Alagna strutted his stuff off the stage in a huff, anyone anywhere with access to the Web could see and hear the sorry spectacle. It was a delicious moment of cyber-voyeurism, the market that YouTube has so brilliantly cornered.

As I played around with the Alagna clips, I noticed something that veteran YouTubers take for granted - a scroll-down list of "related" clips that the invisible digital gods who control the site conjure up at the same instant they answer your typed-in search request.

There weren't just other Alagna moments, from various appearances over the years, but also clips of other tenors - and not just contemporaries, either. Vintage footage of the unequaled Swedish tenor Jussi Bjorling, for example, popped up. How cool, I thought, that the ever-so-now YouTube includes something as so-last-century as Bjorling singing an Italian song on an old TV broadcast in black and white.

The next thing I knew, I was surfing for all sorts of artists, vocal and otherwise, living and dead. Each fresh search produced another round of related temptations. I became determined to excavate this gold mine in the ether.

The pursuit was fueled by the continual uncovering of things I never knew existed, or didn't count on finding the YouTube way. Yes, many of the downloadables are simply taken from readily available DVDs (or old VHS products), but plenty of out-of-print, or even seemingly never-in-print, things turn up, too.

As I dug, I kept wondering who the people are who have all this material, and feel compelled to share it with the world by uploading it onto a Web site overflowing with oddball amateur video of things like a skateboarding dog (very cute). There's an awful lot of stuff I wouldn't want to go near, judging by the titles. "Spit Art"? Please. "Ironic/Satirical Video About Sarcasm That No One Understands"? Get a life.

But Barbra Streisand in a recording studio singing songs that have never appeared on disc? Candidates for Most Unlikely Duo Ever, Joan Crawford and Tim Conway, doing a comedy skit? Leontyne Price talking on Dutch TV about her career? Karen Carpenter singing duets with Ella Fitzgerald? Now you're talkin'.

So many icons, so many possibilities. Welcome to MeTube, an eclectic scrapbook of the stars.

First, the amazing Streisand treasure. Skip the phone-camera shots of her tour last fall and head to the rare entries, like her mesmerizing, early '60s guest appearances on The Bob Hope Show and The Dinah Shore Show.

And those recording sessions, circa early '90s. Priceless. Here's Streisand trying out material that she has, as far as I know, never sung publicly, from a melting medley of "How Are Things in Glocca Morra" and "The Heather on the Hill" to a knockout performance of "Make Our Garden Grow" from Leonard Bernstein's Candide (capped by a high note held for 19 stunning seconds).

I was excited to find Bernstein the conductor on his Omnibus TV show in 1958, leading the last scene of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Very hot.

YouTube will guide you effortlessly from there to many other great Wagner moments, including performances by soprano Birgit Nilsson. And viewing her can take you to a 1981 Swedish TV version of This Is Your Life, where she gets surprised by dashing tenor Franco Corelli, who talks about the time he bit her onstage.

From diva to diva you can go. There's the inimitable Leontyne Price captured by hand-held video camera at a 1994 recital in Brooklyn, N.Y. Shaky picture, so-so sound, but rapturous vocalism all the same. Try her account of "This Little Light of Mine" for a sample.

Listening to Price respond to a TV interviewer in Amsterdam in 1996 is almost as much fun as hearing her sing, since her distinctive speaking voice makes its own kind of marvelous music.

If you overdose on opera stars, YouTube has an antidote - Fanny Brice doing a funny takeoff on a coloratura in full flower.

Back on the pop side, the attractions are unending. With Dreamgirls in the air these days, it's a good time to look back at the real thing. YouTube entries on the original Supremes include electric concert footage from Europe and a news conference during a Japanese tour.

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