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The Lyric Stage: Nov. 18 - Act One of "The Lisbon Traviata"

If you were looking for them they were not hard to find - maybe it was the tell tale bulge of the portable cassette player from their jacket pockets or that curiously large briefcase they lugged as if it were the most ordinary of things to be taking into a performance in Zurich, New York, or Rome. Eyes shifting, they took their seats. They were the pirates, those denizens of the not so secret world of illegal opera recordings. They lived in the shadows and wanted nothing more than to go unnoticed. They crept past the formalities of artist's contracts and payments, any kind of ethical concern, actually. And the end the result was often of dubious sound quality with  sometimes comic interpolations of officious prompter shouts, an over emphasis on the second violin section or perhaps the timpani, coughs, sneezes and the occasional mysterious thump.

The payoff? A record, however technically flawed, of live do it now or never performances by great artists that we would have in no other way. And of all the recordings that occupy this murky world, perhaps the best known is "The Lisbon Traviata", the 1958 performance at the San Carlos Opera House in Lisbon of Verdi's opera starring Maria Callas and Alfredo Krauss, with Franco Chione conducting. Whoever made it had the inspired idea of having only 2000 copies available, thus creating unusual word of mouth publicity and a sometimes ruthless demand for the recording - and also inspiring Terrance McNally's 1989 play, "The Lisbon Traviata." And this week on the Lyric Stage we have Act 1 of that performance. Alfredo Krauss will also sing a selection of Spanish songs.

Mike Harrah is host of The Lyric Stage, which airs Sundays at 8 pm.