Enrico Caruso’s ascendancy coincided with the dawn of the twentieth century, when the world of opera was moving away from the contrived bel canto (“beautiful singing”) style, with its emphasis on artifice and vibrato, to a verismo (“realism”) approach. The warmth and sincerity of his voice—and personality— shone in this more natural style and set the standard for contemporary greats like Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and José Carreras. Through his exploitation of the nascent phonograph industry, Caruso is also largely responsible for the sweeping interest in opera of the 1910s and ’20s. And for this, Stanley Jackson wrote in his book Caruso, he may never be rivaled, for later tenors could not hope to find themselves in a similarly fortuitous position and thus would most certainly “find it more difficult to win such universal affection as the bubbly, warm-hearted little Neapolitan whose voice soared and sobbed from the first wheezy phonographs to bring a new magic into countless lives.”
Born in Naples, Italy, in 1873, the third of seven children (early sources erroneously state that he was the 18th of 21), Caruso was raised in squalor. His birthplace, according to Jackson, was a “two-storeyed house, flaky with peeling stucco, [accommodating] several families, who shared a solitary cold-water tap on the landing, and like every other dwelling in that locality it lacked indoor sanitation.” As a boy, Caruso received very little formal education; his only training in a social setting came from his church choir, where he displayed a pure voice and a keen memory for songs. More often than not, however, he skipped choir practice to sing with street minstrels for café patrons.
At the age of ten Caruso began working a variety of menial jobs—mechanic, jute weaver—but his passion for singing often led him back to the streets. Eight years later, an aspiring baritone named Eduardo Missiano heard Caruso singing by a local swimming pool. Impressed, Missiano took Caruso to his voice teacher, Guglielmo Vergine. Vergine on hearing Caruso, compared the tenor’s voice to “the wind whistling through the chimney,” Michael Scott recounted in The Great Caruso. Although he disliked Caruso’s Neapolitan café style, flashy gestures, and unrefined and unrestrained vocalizing, Vergine finally agreed to accept Caruso as his student. But “the lessons ended after three years,” John Kobler wrote in American Heritage, “and Caruso’s formal musical training thereafter remained almost as meager as his scholastic education. He could read a score only with difficulty. He played no musical instrument. He sang largely by ear.”
On March 15, 1895, Caruso made his professional debut in L’Amico Francesco, a now-forgotten opera by an amateur composer. He was not an immediate sensation.
Bom Errico Caruso (adopted more formal Enrico for stage), February 27 (some sources say 25), 1873, in Naples, Italy; died of pneumonia and peritonitis in 1921 in Naples; son of Marcellino (a mechanic) and Anna (Baldini) Caruso; married Dorothy Park Benjamin, 1918; children: Gloria; (with Ada Giachetti) Rodolfo, Enrico Jr. Education: Studied voice with Guglielmo Vergine, 1891-94, and Vincenzo Lombardi, 1896-97.
Worked as laborer, including jobs as mechanic and jute weaver, beginning c. 1883; debuted in L’Amico Francesco at Teatro Nuovo, Naples, 1894; expanded repertoire to include La Traviata, Rigoletto, Aida, and Faust, among others; first sang Canio in I Pagliacci, 1896, and Rodolfo in La Bohème, 1897; debuted in La Bohème at La Scala, Milan, 1899; performed internationally, including appearances in Moscow, Buenos Aries, Monte Carlo, and London, beginning in 1899; made first recordings, 1902; debuted in U.S. at Metropolitan Opera, New York City, 1903. Appeared in silent films My Cousin and A Splendid Romance, 1918; subject of fictional film biography The Great Caruso, 1950.
His vocal range was limited; he often had to transpose the musical score down a halftone since he had trouble in the upper register, especially hitting high C. But impresarios who heard Caruso recognized his innate gift and cast him in significant productions such as Faust, Rigoletto, and La Traviata. With stage experience and brief training with another vocal teacher, Vincenzo Lombardo, the singer made steady progress, refining the natural beauty of his voice.
In 1897, studying for the part of Rodolpho in Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème, Caruso went to the composer’s villa to secure Puccini’s consent of his interpretation. As told by author Jackson, after Caruso sang a few measures of the first-act aria, “Che gelida manima,” Puccini “swivelled in his chair and murmured in amazement, ’Who has sent you to me? God?’”
Caruso’s instrument was “a voice of the South, full of warmth, charm, and lusciousness,” described a commentator of the era who was quoted in Howard Greenfeld’s book Caruso. But what truly set Caruso apart—from his predecessors, contemporaries, and successors—was his ability to eliminate the space between singer and listener, to intensify “the emotional effects upon his audience,” testified American Heritage contributor Kobler. “His vocalized feelings, variously spiritual, earthy, carnal, seemed to resonate within the hearer’s body. Rosa Ponselle, the American soprano who made her debut opposite Caruso, called it “a voice that loves you.’”
And his timbre was matched by sheer power; at the height of his career, Caruso gave concerts in venues as large as New York City’s Yankee Stadium without microphones and was clearly heard by all. Still, he reached his greatest audience, across both distance and time, through the small, recorded medium of the phonograph. “Few performers deserve . . . recognition more than Caruso,” David Hamilton proclaimed in the New York Times. “[His] records made him the universal model for later generations of tenors, while his reputation played a major role in establishing the phonograph socially and economically.”
Caruso made his first recording on April 11, 1902, in a hotel suite in Milan, Italy. Over the remaining 19 years of his life he made an additional 488 recordings, almost all for the Victor label. He earned more than two million dollars from recording alone, the company almost twice that. But, most important, his recordings brought grand opera to the uninitiated. Millions cried along with his version of Canio’s sobbing “Vesti la giubba,” from/Pagliacci. The development of the American opera audience from a rarefied community at the turn of the century to a diverse populace in modern times can be directly attributed to Caruso’s recordings.
But Caruso’s allure was not solely the result of his singing. “Quick to laughter and to tears, amorous, buffoonish,... speaking a comically fractured English, round and paunchy, Caruso presented an image that appealed enormously to multitudes of ordinary Americans,” Kobler pointed out. Indeed, his offstage behavior was as interesting to the public as that of his onstage personas. He had numerous affairs with women, which often ended in court. He had an 11-year relationship, beginning in 1897, with soprano Ada Giachetti, who had left her husband and son for the much younger tenor. She bore Caruso two sons, then ran off with the family chauffeur. Three years later, Giachetti sued Caruso for attempting to damage her career and for theft of her jewelry. The suit was eventually dismissed.
Caruso was not exonerated, however, in what became known as the “Monkey House Case.” On November 16, 1906, Caruso went to the Monkey House in the Central Park Zoo, one of his favorite retreats in his adopted hometown of New York City. There a young woman accused him of pinching her bottom. A policeman on the scene immediately took Caruso—confused and sobbing—to jail. The woman failed to appear at the consequent trial, and police were unable to produce any witnesses other than the arresting officer, who turned out to have been best man at the accuser’s wedding. The judge found Caruso guilty of disorderly conduct and fined him ten dollars. The public, for its part, though initially unsure of Caruso’s innocence, soon returned to its thunderous approval of his performances.
Despite these episodes, Caruso’s life outside the theater was not entirely tumultuous. His marriage to Dorothy Park Benjamin in 1918 was happy and secure. His celebrated earnings allowed him to collect art, stamps, and coins. His clothing and furnishings were luxurious. He ate with gusto. And he was extremely generous. A gifted caricaturist, Caruso often gave drawings away. He would fill his pockets with gold coins and shower stagehands with them at the end of Christmastime productions. He also supported many family members, gave numerous charity concerts, and helped raise millions of dollars for the Allied cause during World War I. This remarkable man even paid his taxes early. “If I wait, something might happen to me, then it would be hard to collect,” Caruso reasoned, as recounted by Kobler. “Now I pay, then if something happen to me the money belongs to the United States, and that is good.”
Caruso’s expansive approach to life, however, rendered his own short. Constant recording and performance demands and the singer’s unchecked appetites took their toll on his health; he died in Naples, in 1921, from pneumonia and peritonitis. He was 48 years old. “Caruso may have been a greater master of comedy than tragedy,” Great Caruso author Scott wrote, “yet there was no levity in his approach to his art, for as each year passed and he became an ever more celebrated singer, his fame—ably demonstrated by frequent new issues of ever improving records—made increasing demands of him. In those last years he rode a tiger.”
Enrico Caruso: 21 Favorite Arias, RCA, 1987.
Enrico Caruso, Pearl, 1988.
Enrico Caruso in Arias, Duets, and Songs, Supraphon, 1988.
Caruso in Opera, Nimbus, 1989.
Caruso in Song, Nimbus, 1990.
The Compíete Caruso, BMG Classics, 1990.
Enrico Caruso in Opera: Early New York Recordings (1904-06), Conifer, 1990.
The Caruso Edition: Volume 1 (1902-1908), Pearl, 1991.
The Caruso Edition: Volume 2 (1908-1912), Pearl, 1991.
The Caruso Edition: Volume 3 (1912-1916), Pearl, 1991.
The Caruso Edition: Volume 4 (1916-1921),, Pearl, 1991.
Caruso in Ensemble, Nimbus, 1992.
Addio Mia Bella Napoli, Replay/Qualiton, 1993.
Caruso, Enrico, Jr., and Andrew Farkas, Enrico Caruso: My Father and My Family, Amadeus Press, 1990.
Greenfeld, Howard, Caruso, Putnam, 1983.
Jackson, Stanley, Caruso, Stein & Day, 1972.
Scott, Michael, The Great Caruso, Knopf, 1988.
American Heritage, February/March 1984.
Economist, March 9, 1991.
New Republic, August 8, 1988.
New York Times, January 6, 1991.
Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) was an Italian tenor who was an early recording artist and the foremost Metropolitan Opera attraction for a generation. For power, sweetness, and versatility his voice was without peer.
Born on Feb. 25, 1873, in Naples, Enrico Caruso was the eighteenth child of a poverty-ridden machinist. Early encouragement came from fellow workers who heard him sing Neapolitan ballads. Guglielmo Vergine, his first teacher, held small hopes for him as a professional, and Caruso's early efforts were not promising. He made his debut in L'Amico Francesco at the Teatro Nuovo, Naples, in 1894, and his apprenticeship was in small Italian theaters singing a variety of roles.
Selected for the tenor lead in the premiere of Umberto Giodano's Fedorain Milan in 1898, Caruso scored an electrifying success. Engagements at St. Petersburg, Moscow, Buenos Aires, and Bologna were climaxed by an invitation to sing at La Scala, the great opera house at Milan, directed by Giulio Gatti-Casazza and Arturo Toscanini. After triumphs with soprano Nellie Melba in La Bohème at Monte Carlo and Rigoletto in London in 1902, Caruso was engaged by the Metropolitan Opera Company. He made his New York debut in Rigoletto in 1903, and was connected with the "Met" for the rest of his life.
Idolized in every operatic center, the flamboyant Neapolitan was the subject of almost unprecedented publicity. In Berlin and Vienna "Caruso nights" were celebrated, and in Mexico City he received $15,000 for a single performance. At the peak of his career, his performance fees exceeded $500,000 annually. The earliest of his nearly 250 recordings dates from 1902, and his annual income from this source alone reached $115,000.
Caruso's liaison (never legalized) with Ada Giachetti, by whom he had two sons, was painfully ended by court proceedings in 1912. In 1918 he married Dorothy Park Benjamin, daughter of a wealthy New York industrialist. Stricken with a throat hemorrhage during a performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Caruso sang only once more—a performance of La Juive at the Met in 1920. He died in Naples on Aug. 2, 1921.
Supremely gifted for opera by temperament and physique, Caruso was also single-minded, hard-working, and self-critical. An awkward actor in the beginning, he developed into a superlative artist. Certain roles, such as Canio in Pagliacci and Radames in Aida, became so indelibly his that all other tenors suffer by comparison. He had a remarkable range, but when the lighter quality of his early years darkened, his voice was less suitable for some of the lyric roles. In power and expressiveness, however, his abilities suffered no impairment despite a temporary loss of voice during the 1908-1909 season.
Among Caruso's many honors were commendatore in the Order of the Crown of Italy, the French Legion of Honor, and the Order of the Crown Eagle of Prussia. He was totally free from professional jealousies. A natural comedian, he was also a gifted caricaturist. His warmhearted generosity made him genuinely loved by his associates and the public at large to a degree almost unique in the lyric theater.
Enrico Caruso, His Life and Death (1945) is a beautifully written tribute by his wife, Dorothy Park Caruso. Pierre V. R. Key and Bruno Zirato, Enrico Caruso, a Biography (1922), lacks objectivity. T. R. Ybarra, Caruso: The Man of Naples and the Voice of Gold (1953), is packed with vivid reminiscences. More specialized works are Enrico Caruso, Caricatures (1906; new ed. 1914), and Aida Favia-Artay, Caruso on Records (1965). Other valuable sources are Frances Alda, Men, Women, and Tenors (1937); Giulio Gatti-Casazza, Memories of the Opera (1941); and Henry Pleasants, The Great Singers: From the Dawn of Opera to Our Own Time (1966).
Barthelemy, Richard, Memories of Caruso, Plainsboro, N.J.: LaScala Autographs, 1979.
Caruso, Dorothy, Enrico Caruso, his life and death, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987.
Caruso, Enrico, Enrico Caruso: my father and my family, Portland, Or.: Amadeus Press, 1990.
Greenfeld, Howard, Caruso, New York, N.Y.: Da Capo Press, 1984, 1983.
Greenfeld, Howard, Caruso: an illustrated life, North Pomfret, Vt.: Trafalgar Square Pub., 1991.
Mouchon, Jean-Pierre, Enrico Caruso: his life and voice, Gap, France: Editions Ophrys, 1974.
Scott, Michael, The great Caruso, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989, 1988. □