Enrico Caruso (1873 – 1921) is, nearly a hundred years after his death, the standard by which all past, present, and future operatic tenors are judged. Recording standards in his time were primitive and we may never know exactly what his voice really sounded like, but people who have never seen or heard an opera, recognize and honor his name. All of his recordings remain available and continue to sell. He is, quite simply, the most famous opera singer who ever lived.
In 1902 a man named Fred Gaisberg who represented Emile Berliner’s Gramophone & Typewriter Co. was traveling through Europe and Russia looking for singers to record. He didn’t have much luck. Most of the established stars of opera laughed at him. Edison’s Cylinder Phonograph had been invented less than ten years before and records were still considered just a toy.
While in Italy, Gaisberg had seen a young tenor who was causing sensations wherever he sang. He had already created the tenor roles in Giordano’s Fedora and Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvruer and been signed to sing opposite the reigning Prima Donna, Nellie Melba, at Covent Garden. He had sung at La Scala where he was conducted by Toscanini and sung before the Tsar of Russia in St. Petersburg. The young man was clearly a rising star. Gaisberg signed him to sing ten songs and arias, all to be recorded in one session, for a fee of 100 English Pounds.
Gaisberg later wrote that when he cabled his company with the terms, they answered back, “Fee exorbitant. Forbid you to record.” He ignored the cable. Gaisberg clearly had no idea of the importance of this event. In his diary, he wrote only: “While in Milan … we saw two Scala productions, Germania by Franchetti. Produced for the first time with Sammarco – baritone, & Caruso – tenor, Pinto as soprano … Returning to Milan we made records of Caruso, San Marco, Pinto, and Bruno.”
Sales of those ten Caruso recordings eventually totaled over $2.5 million.
The Gramaphone Company merged with The Victor Talking Machine Company in 1903 and became the dominant record company. You know it today as RCA Victor. Caruso renewed his contract with Victor, but by now he knew his worth and insisted on royalties instead of a flat fee. He also became more comfortable and assured with the recording process and his voice developed as well, gaining in richness and control.
Caruso had much more than just a once in a lifetime voice. He brought a power of vocal production and a richness of sound that was completely new and, together with his charismatic personal style, simply overwhelmed his audience. He worked continually all his life to improve his vocal production, his musicianship, and his ability to communicate the meaning of what he sang. He could thrill with his sound but he was never satisfied with sound alone. All of which would certainly have made him successful in his time, but it was the advent of recorded sound that enabled him to reach an audience of millions. By giving of his own emotions and putting those emotions his recorded voice, he allowed millions to feel as if they knew and understood him.
Nine years after that first session in Italy, Caruso re-recorded “Celeste Aida” and the difference, both in the sound quality of the recording and in Caruso’s growth as a singer is astounding.
People bought Caruso’s records and the phonographs needed to play them by the millions and Edison’s cylinder system was doomed. It has been said that in that short afternoon recording session, Caruso made the phonograph respectable and the phonograph made him famous. Between 1880 and 1914, almost 5 million Italians immigrated to the United States, bringing with them a long tradition of opera as part of their lives. And Caruso, with his expansive personality and warmth appealed to those masses more than any other performer, not least because he recorded not only opera arias, but literally dozens of Italian songs familiar to them.
Caruso was a revolutionary. It wasn’t his intention to be one; all he wanted was to use the voice and the personality he had been given to sing and be successful, but in the process he changed not only the way all tenors of the future would sing and be expected to sing, but he brought an element of joy and super-charged emotion to his performances that, together with his recordings, created a whole new audience for opera. After Caruso, the public demanded full-throated, emotionally charged, singing and tenors of the old Bel Canto style soon found themselves unemployable.
He was born in Naples, Italy, in 1873 and began by singing on the streets as a teenager for money to help support his family and pay for his musical studies. There is a story, that the young Caruso went to the home of Puccini asking for an audition. On hearing him sing an aria from “La Boheme,” Puccini said, “Who sent you to me, God?” The story isn’t true – Caruso did audition for Puccini. Caruso wanted to sing Rodolfo in “La Boheme” and Puccini had the right to approve casting in his operas.
Puccini heard Caruso and Puccini said: “Tell the Impresario that Signor Caruso sings in my Boheme.”
Everyone who knew him said that Caruso was generous and caring, giving freely of his money and his talent. Caruso’s son, Enrico, Jr., wrote that “.. He was scrupulously honest in his business dealings, steadfast in his friendships … a handshake or a nod of his head was as good as a written contract. Yet privately, and especially in his love life, he was irresponsible and often callous.”
He was loving, generous, and kind – but unfaithful. In 1897, he sang opposite a well known dramatic soprano named Ada Giachetti who soon left her husband and child to move in with Caruso. She also served as his vocal coach, and bore him four sons, two of which died in infancy. He lived for 11 years with Ada. Divorce was illegal in Italy, so they could not marry,but he treated her as a wife, and often referred to her as such. He also continued to have romantic relationships with a series of women.
When Ada finally humiliated him by running away with his chauffeur, it was probably because she had just discovered Caruso was having an affair with her sister, Rina, who had loved Caruso since she was a teenager. Rina lived with him for six years and raised his two sons for him, but she only learned that Caruso had married an American woman (socialite Dorothy Park Benjamin) by reading of it in the newspapers.
I think, without question, Caruso’s most famous recording was “Vesti La Giubba.” And the role most associated with him in the public mind, was Canio in I Pagliacci. Caruso died before the arrival of sound films but in 1918 he did make a silent film called “My Cousin” in which he was filmed singing several arias. Without Caruso’s voice the film didn’t do well, but many years later some enterprising soul spliced his recordings onto a sound track and added it to the film. Caruso sang in the film as if he was in the huge Metropolitan Opera house, not playing intimately to a film audience, so his acting is embarrassingly exaggerated, at least by today’s standards.
But it’s our only chance to see him in a performance.
In 1920, Caruso decided to appear in Halevy’s La Juive. It would be his last performance on an opera stage. Caruso was an Italian Catholic, but he was determined to make an honest portrayal of Eleazar, a Jew who has seen his two sons executed and now is asked to save his adopted daughter (and himself) from being boiled in oil by converting to Christianity. He read books on Judaism and spent weeks attending services at Jewish synagogues to learn the rhythms and cadences of Hebrew laments and make his portrayal ring true.
During this time, he was also singing in Samson et Delilah at the Met,and during a performance one of the falling temple pillars struck Caruso on his left side. He soon began having pains just below his kidney. One shot of penicillin, had it been available, probably would have cleared his infection. Instead it worsened. On Christmas Eve of that year he sang for the last time, in a performance of “La Juive.” He was in agonizing pain and wiping blood from his mouth, but he finished the performance.
After five operations, Caruso left America for Italy and died in 1922 at the age of 48, probably from exhaustion as much as from his infection. Over 100,000 people, including the King of Italy attended his funeral.
When Caruso died, his voice had been heard by more people than any man in history.