They called him the “Caruso Secondo,” a title he disliked saying that he preferred to be known as the “Gigli Primo.” In truth he was unlike Caruso in many ways, not least because Caruso’s voice was larger, darker, and more dramatic with what Italians referred to as “squillo” – that full-bodied sound that is the hallmark of a spinto tenor and can thrill an audience.
Music critics, especially those outside Italy, often complained of his sloppy musicianship and careless interpretations, especially his habit of interjecting sobs at dramatic moments but, much like his later Italian counterpart Luciano Pavarotti, his overt emotionalism and the unequalled beauty of his voice delighted his fans and he is undoubtedly one of the very finest tenors in recorded history.
Beniamino Gigli was born in Recanti, Italy. His father was a shoemaker who loved opera but felt his son needed to learn a trade. So young Beniamino was apprenticed first as a carpenter, then a tailor, and finally as a pharmacist’s assistant while he sang in the local choir and attended school, studying voice and saxophone. When his voice changed he won a scholarship to the Liceo Musical but with the onset of World War I he was drafted into the Italian army. Luckily, as also later happened to the bass Ezio Pinza, a music-loving officer saw to it that he was posted to a non-combat position in Rome.
Gigli auditioned at the Academia di Santa Cecilia and upon graduation won the famous Parma vocal competition. One of the judges wrote: “Finally we have found the tenor.” He made his opera debut in 1914 and after the war ended, made his La Scala debut in 1918 as Faust in a performance conducted by Toscanini. He began his recording career that same year.
Three years later, already a world-famous star, be appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, at the opening night of La Traviata in 1921. He made his film debut in 1927.
Gigli continued at the Met as Caruso’s successor until 1932 when he left in a dispute over salary cuts. After leaving the Met, Gigli made his Covent Garden debut in 1930 and sang in Italy, the rest of Europe, and South America for the rest of his life. Gigli did return to the Met for five performances of Aïda in 1939 and critics wrote that while his voice had lost some sweetness and freshness, it had gained in range, richness of expression and dramatic power.
Gigli made over 400 recordings in his lifetime and appeared in twenty films from 1935 to 1953. He continued to sing, ultimately performing in 2249 opera performances, but after World War II he restricted his singing to concerts and benefit performances. His last public appearance was in May 1955, at a concert in Washington, D.C., ending a professional career of 41 years.
Gigli could be careless in his musicianship. He told a story in his autobiography of asking a famous conductor (Rosati) for help with the concluding high B flat in “Cielo e Mar.” They practiced for a week and at the end the Maestro asked him how felt and Gigli said that he felt pretty confident. “You can be confident not only of B flat but of B natural and high C as well.” Gigli asked what he meant and the maestro told him that before they had started practicing, he had the piano tuned a tone higher so that every time Gigli thought he was singing a B flat, he was really singing a high C! Of course, a singer with better musicianship would have known instantly what note was being played.
His personal life was flawed and contradictory as well. He gave close to one thousand benefit concerts and large amounts of money to charity. But in addition to his two children with his wife, he had three children with his mistress. To his credit, he supported both of these families, although he was rumored to have fathered at least three more children by other women..
His most damaging flaw however, was his support of Mussolini and Facism. Mussolini said that Gigli was his “favorite tenor” and Gigli published a book in which he wrote that “Adolf Hitler and the ministers Goebbels and Goering have honored me with their friendship.” When the Germans occupied Rome he collaborated with them. After the war authorities forbade him to perform for fear of public reaction and he was barred from entering both the Iron Curtain countries and the U.S. Eventually the public forgave him and he returned to the stage to greater acclaim than before.
On his tombstone are carved words from his favorite role, Chénier: “Con la mia voce ho cantato la patria”–With my voice I sang the fatherland.