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“I was in London in January, 1970, to record three aria discs with Aldo Ceccato for ABC Records—one Mozart-Strauss, one Rossini and one Verdi. The Rossini disc was to consist of arias from The Siege of Corinth, “Una voce poco fa” from The Barber of Seville, the aria from William Tell and I forget what else. I was in rare form, and the Mozart-Strauss went well and was quickly finished.
Then, there was a choice of whether we would begin the Rossini next or the Verdi. As I began to feel a cold coming on, I decided to try “Una voce,” because I knew I could sing it, cold or no cold.
“Well, it went OK, so we decided to tape two of the Verdi arias in the same session. We went straight through them once, like the Barber aria. By the next session, however, I was really very ill, though my voice remained surprisingly clear. Even with terrible pains in my chest, we managed to tape two more of the Verdi arias. Afterwards, at dinner, I began to feel as though I could no longer breathe.
I was taken to a doctor at once. After examining me, he said, ‘Miss Sills, you have a temperature of nearly 105 degrees. My suggestion is that you get home as quickly as possible, otherwise you could be confined to a hospital here for weeks.’
“I was driven back to my hotel, took some antibiotics the doctor had given me and crawled into bed. When I woke up, my husband was there, which gives you some idea of how long
I was out. He had been phoned in New York about my condition and had immediately caught the next plane to bring me home.
We left London the following morning, with me on a stretcher. I traveled across the Atlantic flat on my back, and when we reached New York, I was taken straight from the airport to a hospital. I stayed there three-and-a-half weeks.
“When I came out, after having been so sick, I completely forgot I had ever recorded the Verdi arias. I didn’t even remember them months later when a test of the Mozart-Strauss was sent to me to GK for issuing. Eventually, I presume, the master tapes of “Una voce” and the Verdi arias were sent to ABC in New York, where they were shelved and forgotten for over ten years.
“We now jump forward to when the Music Corporation of America bought the ABC library, probably not realizing that my records went along with the deal. MCA assigned two people to do an inventory of ABC’s material to know exactly what it
had purchased. During the course of this inventory, a young man called me, introduced himself and we discussed my part of the ABC catalogue.
“‘You’ve got the cream of the crop,’ I said to him, ‘my three Donizetti queens, my Manon, my Lucia, really all my goodies.’
‘I know,’ he said and added, ‘And we have to decide what to do about the Verdi.’
‘What Verdi?’ I said.
And he said, ‘The arias.’
‘But there are no Verdi arias,’ I answered.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘I have a tape box here with your name on it that says Attila, Ernani, Il Corsaro and Vespri.’
‘No, no,’ I contradicted him. ‘That’s a mistake. I don’t even know arias from those operas. I never sang them.’
‘Well, it certainly sounds like your voice. Why don’t I just send you a cassette of this tape and see if we can straighten this out.’
“When I heard the tape, I was floored. I had no recollection of learning this music, coaching it or recording it. I even looked through my scores of Attila and Ernani, and there is not a single mark in them. To top it off, I don’t even own a Corsaro score! The only thing I can think of is that my accompanist Roland Gagnon chose these arias for me, had copies made and marked them for me. Perhaps I left them in the studio in London when I became ill. Who knows?“
And, of course, when the tapes were found, Roland had died, so there was no way to check this. Nor have I a clue what had been planned for the second side of the disc. Looking at the four pieces I did record, and knowing Roland’s tastes, I am certain that the rest of the LP would have been more Verdi rarities—maybe something from Stiffelio. I can assure you, at least, there would have been nothing from Nabucco!
“As I listened to the cassette, I kept thinking, ‘Why did we pick these arias?’ I guess that was just the way I was then. You know, being a late bloomer allowed me a lot more freedom than if everything had come to me when I was a younger singer. At the time these Verdi arias were taped, I was a 40-year-old woman and felt I could do whatever interested me without worrying if someone would say, ‘What’s she doing, with that voice of hers, singing arias like this?’ I obviously had fun doing these pieces, and I think the Corsaro aria, in particular, is exemplary in its line.”
--Excerpted from liner notes by John Ardoin.
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