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Lost and found

A journalist stumbles across a lost opera in London. Next month, he gets to conduct its debut.

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Will Crutchfield didn't set out to find a missing opera. It just turned out that way.

In 1984, the journalist spent three days crawling around the basement of the Covent Garden opera house in London.

In the back were stacks of dusty 19th-century manuscripts, maybe 500 in all, wrapped in cloth covers. Rummaging through them, he found one signed on the front page by Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti.

"It was obviously a different animal entirely," says Mr. Crutchfield, now an opera conductor. "It was obvious that someone had started preparing a production of this opera and it had been broken off" for some reason.

The manuscript was a jumble. Some pages had singed edges, indicating the piece had been in a fire. Some of the libretto was in French, some in Italian. Was there one opera here or more? The manuscript was looking curiouser and curiouser.

"That was the beginning of a long, long detective story," he says.

It didn't take long to discover the pages were in fact a lost opera. But it took nearly two decades, and return trips to Europe, to piece together a version capable of being produced. On July 17, that big step in this ongoing detective story will be taken at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Katonah, N.Y., when Crutchfield himself will conduct "Elisabeth," the never-produced Donizetti opera he rediscovered, in a semi-staged production (costumes and props, but no sets).

Whether "Elisabeth" is an entirely "new" opera may be the source of some continuing debate, since it's based on an early 1827 Donizetti opera of another name. Evidently, illness impeded Donizetti, who died in 1848, before this new version could reach the stage.

The Donizetti find "is unusual, but it is by no means unique," says Philip Gossett, a professor of music at the University of Chicago and an expert on Italian opera, in a phone interview. People do unearth new opera manuscripts from time to time. "It does happen," he says.

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