Lifelong passion for opera inspires Elias collection gift

DANBURY, CONN. — Dr. Julius A. Elias found time throughout his distinguished career as a popular teacher and visionary administrator at the University of Connecticut to share his lifelong passion for opera with his students and colleagues. Thanks to his family’s benevolence, the Ruth A. Haas Library’s recent acquisition of the Julius A. Elias Collection — a vast personal library of opera performances spanning more than four decades that includes approximately 5,000 LP records, as well as several hundred video tapes, published scores and reference works — will share his passion with present and future generations of students and faculty at WestConn.

“The Elias collection is interesting because it offers a fairly comprehensive collection of operatic performances recorded from the late 1940s to the late 1980s,” observed Archivist and Special Collections Librarian Brian Stevens during a recent viewing of the records, tapes and books now stored in an archive room on the lower level of the Haas Library. “There will be performances in here that have not been put on CD, and may in fact play better on vinyl.”

Elias, who died Feb. 25 at the age of 82, served UConn as dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences from 1974 to 1988 and acting vice president for academic affairs from 1988 to 1990. Born in England, he served in the aftermath of World War II as chief of the voluntary agencies liaison division of the International Refugee Organization, where he directed efforts to assist Jewish orphans and victims of the Holocaust in arranging for resettlement in Israel. He emigrated to the United States in 1952 and pursued college studies at Columbia University in New York, taking his first academic appointment in 1960 on the faculty of the City College of New York and earning his Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia in 1963.

Elias served for 12 years as managing editor of the Journal of the History of Ideas and authored numerous scholarly articles and several books, including “Plato’s Defense of Poetry” and “The Antecedents of Nazism: Weimar.” He retired from the UConn faculty in 1992, and remained a frequent lecturer as a professor emeritus offering courses on philosophy, literature and opera.

At the time of Elias’s death, Connecticut State University System Chancellor Dr. David Carter, who served on the UConn faculty during the 1980s, recalled him as “a visionary, a hard worker and a caring spirit. He was brilliant, but never lost the common touch. His spirit will always be with those whose lives he touched.”

Students and faculty colleagues recognized the spirit Elias brought to the classroom as a professor of philosophy, specializing in the philosophy of literature, aesthetics and ethics, and as a professor of music who taught graduate seminars in opera. It was his intellectual and artistic interest in opera that many of his colleagues recalled with special fondness, Sherry Fisher wrote in the UConn weekly Advance.

“Elias was an opera aficionado,” Fisher said. “His friends and colleagues talk about his vast collection of opera records, tapes and DVDs, with multiple copies of a given opera performed by different singers.

“He translated about a dozen opera libretti for Columbia Records and other companies, gave graduate seminars in the music department on the major composers, and published articles on operas,” she noted. “After he retired in 1992, he continued to teach opera at UConn and at the University of Hartford, and he took groups to New York and to Europe and Australia to study opera.”

Stevens observed from his preliminary survey of the collection that it reflects the passion of an avid collector who acquired LPs widely not to specialize in a given recording label, singer or orchestra, but rather to build a comprehensive library of the opera performances of his time. He noted the collection also includes a small number of earlier 78 LP recordings dating as far back as the 1920s, which will require re-recording to preserve the performances given the fragility and wear of the original vinyl disks.

The Elias family’s decision to donate the opera collection to WestConn has provided a wide-ranging survey of 20th century operatic history that will be made available for future listening and research at the university. Stevens is compiling a finding-aid guide to enable the public to browse titles of LP holdings in the collection, and has begun work to archive items for the purpose of creating a formal library catalogue that will facilitate searches for a specific work, performance, conductor, orchestra and lead singers.

Stevens observed that the true value of individual recordings in the collection may become known only after music researchers have had time to explore the list of holdings for operatic gems. “The longer we have this collection, and the more people see the finding guide online, the better the chance that people will see a particular recording in the list and identify it as a rare find,” he said.

When the legendary soprano Beverly Sills died in July 2007, Elias offered a hint of the treasures in his collection in the remembrance he submitted to Sills’ online guestbook: “I have most of her recordings, but especially cherish some of the Strauss items: her Zerbinetta in ‘Ariadne,’ a rare video of a concert performance in Boston under (Eric) Leinsdorf, and the finest ‘Breit Uber Mein Haupt’ among the many I have.”

Access to the Elias collection may be arranged by appointment with Stevens, who may be reached in the archives department of the Haas Library by phone at (203) 837-8992 or by email at stevensb@wcsu.edu. Visitors may listen to LPs on the turntable available in the archives reading room. In the future, Stevens hopes that the library will be able to set up a separate listening room for recordings from the Cohen and other university collections, which also would feature equipment to view video tapes and listen to digital recordings.

 Western Connecticut State University offers outstanding faculty in a range of quality academic programs. Our diverse university community provides students an enriching and supportive environment that takes advantage of the unique cultural offerings of Western Connecticut and New York. Our vision: To be an affordable public university with the characteristics of New England’s best small private universities.

 

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