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.
Earlier this month, he had learned of the discovery of a previously unknown version of a Rossini opera. Dr. Gossett himself reconstructed the original version of Giuseppe Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball)," called "Gustavo III," which premièred at the Göteborg Opera in Sweden last September.
Earlier this month, the Boston Early Music Festival staged Johann Georg Conradi's "Ariadne" for the first time in nearly 300 years. It had premiéred in 1691, but the manuscript had been lost until a copy was discovered in the Library of Congress in 1972.
Elsewhere in the arts, discoveries of lost works - or information about known works - keep welling up (see related story on John Singer Sargent's "Madame X"). Sometimes, forgotten masterpieces emerge when old houses are sold.
For 250 years, the Michelangelo drawing "Mourning Woman" was stuck inside a scrapbook at Castle Howard in Yorkshire, England, until an inventory in 1997 revealed it.
"The Taking of Christ" (1602), a painting by the Italian master Caravaggio that was presumed lost, was found at a Jesuit college in Dublin, Ireland, in 1993.
And just last year, London's Tate Museum put out a worldwide plea for missing works by J.M.W. Turner, perhaps Britain's greatest painter. In just a year, 500 have been located. But 400 more are still unaccounted for.
In Crutchfield's Donizetti manuscript, it turned out, much of the plot and some of the music of the first and second acts had appeared in an 1827 Donizetti opera called "Otto Mesi in Due Ore (Eight Months in Two Hours)." The plot is based on a well-known story about a young woman who braved hardships to travel alone from Siberia to Moscow (or St. Petersburg in some versions) to win a pardon from the czar for her falsely accused father.
But what excited Crutchfield was how much of the manuscript was new and unknown, including an entirely different third act, a new language (French), and a new name ("Elisabeth" was one of three possibilities marked on parts of the music).
"[Donizetti] wanted for a long time to come back to this story with his more mature musical style, to keep the best bits from his 1827 opera, but to flesh out the whole thing with more mature music," Crutchfield said in an interview conducted at Caramoor, a private estate an hour north of New York City that has been converted into an idyllic summer-music venue.
The Italian translation of the manuscript, Crutchfield finally determined, was made hastily for a production requested by a still unknown English opera house.
Apparently, it was never performed, but that was how the music had traveled from Paris to England, a country Donizetti never visited.
The Italian version, as edited by Crutchfield and British scholar Roger Parker, was finally given its première at Covent Garden in 1997. But Crutchfield says he feels the quite different French version will reveal the opera at its best - and closest to the way Donizetti intended.
"The Italian version is a bit of a mishmash," he says, thrown together by Donizetti in great haste. Neither the music nor the plot hangs together very well.
Other scholars agree. "This French-language version displays Donizetti at his most accomplished" ... "at the very apex of his powers," says Alexander Weatherson, chairman of the London-based Donizetti Society, in an e-mail message. It was probably still on Donizetti's desk when the composer fell ill in the mid-1840s and never recovered.
Though 75 percent to 80 percent of the French opera was in the Covent Garden manuscript, some key parts were missing. For years, Crutchfield was unsure that a full French production could ever be mounted.
Then last year, he visited the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and discovered more "crucial" material designed for use in the French version of "Elisabeth" - about eight pages in all.
He had nearly put together the jigsaw puzzle. Only two small gaps remained: An eight-bar segment in a duet in the last act had been torn off, and one of the heroine's entrance arias had a gap of a minute or 90 seconds.
Using the surrounding context and the existing libretto, Crutchfield says that he's found "a logical way" to fill in the gaps with surmised material.
Crutchfield, who played his first Donizetti opera as a rehearsal pianist when he was 14, says next month's première is important partly because Donizetti is a composer "who has still not been fully measured by the musical world, partly because he wrote so much."
Donizetti produced 70 operas, 18 string quartets, hundreds of sacred compositions, more than 200 songs for voice and piano, and several other chamber works.
His other operas are either serious tragedies or outright comedies, Crutchfield says.
"This is neither one. It's a spirited, upbeat adventure story.... It has a flavor all its own. It's not just one more of what we already have 15 of."
Among Crutchfield's favorite moments in it is a lamenting chorus sung by the Siberian exiles that is "gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous music. Heart-rending. Real prime Donizetti."
Italian opera scholar Gossett surmises that if there's going to be a problem about this work joining the Donizetti canon, it will be because it was never rehearsed under the composer's guiding eye.
When Gossett edited the Donizetti opera "Don Pasquale," he says, he saw firsthand how many changes Donizetti wrote onto the score during rehearsals. "We have no idea what he might have come up with had he taken it through a rehearsal period," Gossett says.
But even in this form, Gossett concedes, it's a significant achievement.
"We're talking about a mature composer, a composer at the height of his powers who can do anything he wants. And he chooses to do this," Gossett says. "That makes it interesting."