Small picture of Donizetti






The Kaufman Chronologies

by Thea Cook, October, 2014

This is a slightly revised version of an article that appeared in Newsletter 123. In it, Thea Cook describes the unique Kaufman archive and asks for ideas on how it might be preserved and the work carried forward.


Open one of Opera Rara’s booklets pre-2011, and you will likely find included a performance chronology by Thomas G. Kaufman for the opera in question.  Alongside Jeremy Commons’s essays on the operas, Tom’s chronologies enriched our understanding of these works:  they were a snapshot of the opera’s popularity, showing its place in the repertory of the 19th century, what famous singers performed it and how often, in which countries and at what theaters. Tom contributed many articles to our newsletters and journals, wrote  LP and CD liner notes, and published a massive reference work, Verdi and His Major Contemporaries, (VHMC) his true magnum opus.  VHMC is devoted chronologies of operas by Verdi’s rivals.  It is a priceless resource for both the serious and amateur students of the Ottocento.

Tom was truly a one-off.  Born in Austria in 1930, his love of Italian and French opera of the 19th century and of tenors was boundless, as was his impatience with Wagner and Strauss.  He was a regular and very vocal contributor to all the major online opera listservs, where he was affectionately nicknamed “Tenormonster” or just “Monster.”  Tom never took himself too seriously and was the soul of gentlemanliness, scholarly ideals, and impish humor.  He would not hesitate to correct a mistake, but corrections were always carefully thought out, documented with sources, and delivered with tact and politeness.

Tom’s library of books about opera was one of the largest in private hands.  Crammed into his Baltimore apartment, it consisted of 12,000-13,000 volumes.  Many of them were utterly obscure opera house chronologies.  There were books in every conceivable language (one written in Maltese).  He delighted in a series of tiny paperback volumes, whose pages detailed the entire history of an obscure French house.  According to Tom, it was the only known complete set in existence.  There were bound copies of periodicals - such as Opera going all the way back to its inception - and a collection of 19th and early 20th century Italian, French, German and English periodicals on microfilm that would be the envy of many a university library.  Other shelves overflowed with a gargantuan collection of opera CDs.  LP’s were kept in a bursting-at-the seams storage room in the basement of the apartment building.  There were ephemera too, including a large selection of printed libretti – many of them original printings from the 19th century.

But Tom’s most prized possession were his manuscript chronologies.  These 9x12 three-ring binders were filled with raw performance data about virtually every major house – extant and defunct – from the beginning of the 19th century up to the present day.   The fruit of decades of painstaking labor, they were a never-ending project, for as Tom often reminded me, such chronologies can never be really be complete.  He was always finding new periodicals and deliciously obscure reference books to consult.  


My Acquisition of the Chronologies

In 2009, I visited Tom and found him in good spirits despite increasingly poor health.   On that visit he stunned me by saying (still with his mischievous smile) that he wanted me to have his chronologies when he passed away.  It was an incredible honor, very humbling, and a huge responsibility.  It was with misgivings that I accepted his charge.  When he passed away that April 2010, I was personally devastated by the loss of my friend.  But more importantly, there was no one left to take Tom’s place, no one to do exactly what he had done, no one with the expertise or the limitless enthusiasm he had for his task. 

In the midst of a very emotional situation, I had to make a very cursory assessment of what the chronologies contained and to make quick decisions about how to best transport and store them. At first, I was glad to have the chronologies in my possession but as the months wore on, I began to worry.  They were in a poor state of preservation and deteriorating.  They needed to be conserved.  In my apartment, they were not easily accessible to other researchers, nor did I feel comfortable allowing others to handle them for reasons I will explain below. 

And though I consulted them in preparing two chronologies for Opera Rara, by virtue of their sheer volume it was daunting to use them as a source.  I didn’t know how to best stabilize and conserve the documents themselves.  It became clear to me that the best course was to find an institution that not only understood their significance, but had the willingness and the wherewithal to preserve them from further deterioration. That proved unexpectedly difficult.  I contacted university after university.  I spoke with musicologists and librarians alike.  Most knew of Tom’s work, and many knew him personally.  Some had even utilized his library.  All were initially excited about the prospect of a donation of Tom’s archive.  But in the end, none of them was able to accept the donation.  They simply didn’t have the funds available to conserve the documents, catalog them, store them properly. 

The purpose of this article, then, is threefold:

1. to offer a general description of the archive:  its state of preservation, its organization, and its contents

2. to suggest the outlines of a way to make the archive a useful and practical tool for researchers in the

3. to raise awareness of its existence among scholars and institutions in the hopes that it may yet find a
    more suitable home.


Physical Description and the Contents of the Chronologies

As already stated, the chronologies were originally stored on bookshelves in 3-ring binders, mostly printed by hand on paper specially designed by Tom.  Gridlines were drawn on blank white paper and these sheets had been Xeroxed so that performance data could be entered in tabular format.  Other sheets are standard filler notebook paper such as might be used by students.  I have yet to do a precise count, but my best estimate is that the four bankers’ boxes currently housing the chronologies contain approximately 6,000-7,000 pages.

The loose-leaf copy paper itself is aging and often in poor condition.  The oldest sheets are tissue thin, the edges often fraying.  The rings in the binders have in some cases torn through the paper.  Tom wrote many of the chronologies in pencil to enable easy revision, but this resulted in the writing sometimes fading or smearing.  In several of the binders, sheets had either come loose or been removed at some point during Tom’s research and not replaced in their original locations.   These orphan pages were sometimes to be found in the front of back pocket of the binder or were stored in pockets in the yellow dividers.

Within the binders, like data – most often grouped by specific cities and houses within those cities – are separated by yellow dividers with plastic tabs, on which was written the name of the house/city.  When I removed the chronologies from the binders for shipping, I preserved the location of the divider tabs and kept orphan pages separated and in their original locations. 

The individual sheets of paper within these groupings do not generally have the house/city name printed on them as a header or footer, nor do they have any page numbers.  This means that anyone using the chronologies for research has to be exceedingly cautious not remove pages without carefully marking their original location; such a blunder make it next to impossible to replace pages correctly.

A further complication with the chronologies is in the handwriting.  Though not was bad as that of his idol Pacini, Tom’s handwriting sometimes can at times be daunting to read   It is usually decipherable, but his notes were small, taken quickly, and in large volume.  Certain words and names can therefore be difficult to make out.  A working knowledge of main singers active during the 19th century is essential to successfully utilizing the chronologies in their current state.



The vast majority of the material – and the portion that formed the fons et origo of Tom’s published chronologies – consists of performance data organized by city and by theater.  Tom’s method was simple and effective.  As his first line of inquiry, he consulted all the periodicals he could find in print during a given period of time in the city he was documenting.  When he encountered a notice of an upcoming performance, he would tentatively note it but confirm in later issues – preferably in reviews - that the performance actually took place.  He would note the singers, which role they sang, and the date of the first performance.  When noting the singer name, he typically used only the singer’s first initial and last name, or their last name only.  Wherever possible, he would cross-check data from one periodical in others to confirm accuracy and completeness.  Though he utilized secondary sources, he tended to distrust their data unless he could confirm it with contemporary periodicals or other primary sources.

The chronologies do not generally include citations:  to have sourced every detail of every performance listed would have led to footnotes or endnotes exponentially larger than the chronologies themselves.  However, some of the pages do show notes indicating that he wanted to confirm the performance in additional sources, or that he wanted for some reason to note the source:  he might, for example, note “AMZ” for Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung.  Details of which he was unsure were left blank or sometimes noted as dubious with a question mark.


Examples of My Use of the Chronologies

Opera Rara contacted me to prepare a performance chronology for their CD of Maria di Rohan (ORC44).  The task was made somewhat easier by the fact that the chronologies contained some organized by composer.[1]  There are separate chronologies for Donizetti, Pacini, Mercadante, Vaccai, Bellini, and Coppola and the Riccis to name several.[2]

Because there as already a partially complete chronology for the Donizetti operas, the task seemed simple:  type and format the chronology verbatim and hand it over.  But the Donizetti chronology material presented its own conundrums.  First, there were not one, but two chronologies for Donizetti:  one handwritten and the other typed.  At first, I assumed that the handwritten manuscript was a draft of the typewritten one. 

After extracting the material specific to Maria di Rohan from both, I examined them to compare their contents.  The sheer number of performances – for Maria di Rohan was at one time practically a repertory piece – obscured the true situation at first.  The two chronologies overlapped to a large degree.  But a detailed side-by-side comparison revealed that the typewritten manuscript was not, as I expected, a more complete version of the handwritten one.  Nor was the reverse true.  Each of these two chronologies for the same opera contained data for some performances the other did not cover.  Additionally, some performances that were listed in both chronologies contained more detail in one chronology (i.e., more singers, or a more definitive date) than in the other.  Again, unexpectedly, it was not always the typewritten version that was the more complete.  Thus it was not clear which of these two drafts was the prior one. 

The task, therefore, was to collate the two chronologies into a single document that had no duplicates or omissions.  This would seem like a largely clerical task, but there were problems here, too.  To the greatest extent possible, I wanted to follow Tom’s format of using a singer’s first initial and last name consistently throughout.  Singers for whom only a last name existed would have to be researched.  I filled these names in wherever possible.  Also, as previously noted, the handwritten version was difficult to read.  If the same performance was noted in the typed version, this was no problem.  However, where this was not true, I had to do additional independent research and detailed handwriting comparisons to decipher exactly what singer was being referenced.  The final stage of the process consisted of finding the performances that had occurred since the most recent listed on the two chronologies.  This part was my own original research.  The entire task was quite lengthy, taking about two months of work.[3]

A second chronology I prepared for my collaboration with soprano Francesca Mondanaro on a concert dedicated to the career of Giuseppina Strepponi in August, 2012.  This chronology also presented unique problems.  Tom had been working on a large-scale singer chronology but it was in the early stages of completion.  The section on Strepponi was fragmentary, and so it was necessary to compile a chronology by hand.  Knowing that Strepponi only sang on stage in Italy somewhat simplified the task.   Still, it was laborious.  It was necessary to leaf through every page between 1834 and 1846 of every chronology for every city in Italy that Tom had researched and note the details of any performance in which Strepponi had appeared.  Had Strepponi enjoyed a longer, more international career, the task would have been infinitely more daunting.  But in the end, the work proved worth it.  Although a chronology appears in two of the major biographies of Strepponi, and it proved to be mostly accurate, Tom’s research revealed a number of roles and performances that had been overlooked by the earlier researchers.

Despite the obvious challenges of working with such a large mass of raw handwritten data, the value of this trove of material cannot be overstated.  To compile a reasonably complete chronology of any singers, composers, operas, or opera houses from scratch without this material would be a virtually impossible task without simply duplicating Tom’s decades of labor.  Having this data in one concentrated source – even one that itself demands many hours of work to tease out its secrets  - represents a priceless time savings for a researcher. 


The Way Forward

The institution that might eventually accept the chronologies as a donation faces challenges.  First and foremost, the fragile documents in the archive need to be physically stabilized and preserved.  But more importantly, the data itself needs to be protected from potentially becoming scrambled and useless.

The outlines of a solution might be borrowed from the legal industry’s practice of “Bates-stamping” large boxes of documents produced in litigation.  Essentially, each page would be stamped with a unique sequential number so that the documents could always be put back in the order in which they originally appeared.  I am not sure if a clever researcher would be able to replace the ‘orphan’ pages back into their original locations, but at least the pages that clearly belong together would be protected from potentially being separated and becoming useless.  Ideally, once the page numbers were affixed, the pages could be scanned digitally for conversion into high-resolution images. 

Once the pages were protected both from physical decay and human error, work could someday begin on tabulating and entering the data into a database to which search filters could easily be applied.  Relatively complete chronologies of singers, composers, operas, opera houses, cities and even nations could become a matter of the click of a mouse.  What such a database could yet reveal about opera is anyone’s guess, but it would most certainly contain many surprises.

I encourage anyone with leads on an institution that might have interest in acquiring the chronologies to contact me for further discussion.  The need for this archive to be preserved for current researchers and for future generations cannot be overstated.


[1] In addition, Tom had prepared chronologies for a number of famous singers, including Mario, Persiani, Strepponi, and others.  At least some of these were prepared for other researchers writing biographies of singers.

[2] These appear to have been groundwork for a companion volume to VHMCthat never actualized.  Tom had mentioned to me that he planned a work entitled “Bellini and his Major Contemporaries” which would have covered these composers.

[3] In their initial pressing of the booklet for Maria di Rohan, Opera Rara mistakenly attributed sole authorship of the final chronology to me, an oversight that they promised to rectify in future printings of the booklet.  My chronology for their recording of Caterina Cornaro was the product of my own research, and so sole authorship was appropriate in that case.