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Caruso, Enrico (1873-1921)

Caruso, Enrico (1873-1921)

Enrico Caruso, the quintessential Italian tenor, was the most beloved singer of his day. Critics agreed that he was also probably the best. Known throughout the Western world for his interpretations of operatic roles, he also captured the popular imagination with Neapolitan songs, sentimental period ballads, and that patriotic favorite of World War I, Over There, rendered in his unique variant of the English language. The emergence of the phonograph made Caruso an entertainer as well as an artist, and he, perhaps more than anyone else, demonstrated its potential as a creative medium.

Born in Naples near the end of Europe's most placid century, Caruso was one of 18 children of working class parents. At considerable financial sacrifice, he studied voice with Vergine, a noted Neapolitan teacher, who, nevertheless, envisioned for him only a modest future. Singing first in provincial theaters and later with touring companies, Caruso gradually made his way to important opera houses in Monte Carlo, Milan, and London. Though his initial reviews were not always good, audiences responded to him. Despite his increasing girth and a slightly comical stage appearance, his exuberance and dramatic sense well complemented a voice that was soon being described as "golden." With little formal education, Caruso was a dedicated artist, who continued to refine his theatrical skills and musicianship throughout his life.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, Caruso had developed from a lyric into a dramatic tenor. Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and Russia, along with Western Europe, clamored for his appearances, but it was the United States that made him a true national hero. First engaged by New York's Metropolitan Opera in 1903, he made this house his home base for the rest of his life. Together with his fellow countryman Arturo Toscanini, he established "the Met" as America's premier company and one of the great opera houses of the world. He performed the full Italian repertoire, distinguishing himself as Canio in Pagliacci, the Duke in Rigoletto, Radames in Aida, and Samson in Samson et Delila. He visited synagogues and studied Jewish life in preparation for his role as Eleazar in La Juive. But his special love for things American was evident in his odd interpretation of Dick Johnson in Puccini's La Fanciulla del West. The composer himself attended the Met opening. With his broad Mediterranean gestures and throaty sobs, Caruso was not entirely convincing as a Wild West outlaw hanged for his crimes, but audiences applauded nevertheless.

Like other Italians successful in the New World, Caruso suffered brushes with New York's Black Hand, which attempted to extort money from him. Rather than comply with their demands, Caruso cooperated with authorities and two gangsters were apprehended. A more embarrassing episode occurred in 1906 when the singer was visiting the Central Park Zoo. A mysterious woman, who later disappeared, accused him of molesting her in the monkey house. Caruso denied the charge; at the most he was probably demonstrating a Southern Italian mode of admiration for an attractive woman. Despite extensive newspaper coverage, the public soon chose to forget the incident.

Two sons were born from Caruso's long liaison with Ada Giacchetti, an Italian soprano whose earlier marriage prevented a regularization of their union. After deserting him in favor of her chauffeur, Ada caused Caruso further suffering by publicly announcing that she had never loved him. Near the end of his life, the singer finally found domestic happiness in his marriage to Dorothy Park Benjamin, a shy woman 20 years his junior. Formerly relegated to the role of housekeeper and recluse by her wealthy and overbearing father, Dorothy Caruso blossomed as the cherished wife of this demonstrative man. The birth of a daughter, the only thing Dorothy said she could give her husband that he had never had or could not buy, brought further happiness to the last two years of his life.

Caruso's generosity was legendary; he once hired a valet for his own valet. Even rival singers invariably warmed to his personality. They treasured the friendly caricatures he drew of them during rehearsals. John McCormick, the Irish tenor of almost equal acclaim, said: "I never loved any other man so much as Caruso." America and the world richly rewarded its favorite Italian with wealth and affection. But his obsession with honoring his commitments and fear of disappointing his fans probably led to his premature death. Worn out by exhaustion and lung ailments, he died at the age of 48, still in his vocal glory. Headlines in American newspapers sadly announced "The Golden Voice Is Stilled."

When asked what makes a superb singer, Caruso liked to answer: "A big chest, a big mouth, ninety percent memory, ten percent intelligence, lots of hard work and something in the heart." Clearly, he had these requisites in the proper amounts. Henry Pleasants observed that in this singer a beautiful voice and a beautiful nature seemed perfectly united, that his radiance did not originate merely in his throat but in the man himself. Decades after his death, the highest compliment that could be given a tenor was to suggest he might be "the New Caruso." His Victor recordings, available in remastered compact disk format, endure. Finally, the mega-concerts of leading tenors of the 1990s, which blended classical and popular songs, continued to perpetuate the legacy of Caruso in bringing the highest musical artistry to the masses.

—Allene Phy-Olsen

Further Reading:

Caruso, Dorothy. Enrico Caruso, His Life and Death. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1945.

Greenfeld, Howard. Caruso. New York, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1983.

Pleasants, Henry. The Great Singers. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1966.

Robinson, Francis. Caruso, His Life in Pictures. New York, Bramwell House, 1957.

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