Enrico Caruso - Biography


Enrico Caruso the great Italian tenor was born on February 25th 1873 in Naples and died there August 2nd 1921. Caruso was one of seven children born into a poor Neapolitan family. Caruso at an early age was apprenticed to become a mechanic, his father’s profession. He sang in church choirs from his adolescence on. He received rudimentary musical training and become a cabaret and street singer. Caruso first methodical study was with two teachers Vergne and Lombardi. His operatic debut was at the Teatro Nuovo in Naples, in a long forgotten opera by a musical amateur. He was soon to take on the major tenor roles of the Italian repertoire in at the Teatro Fonda in Naples This apprenticeship was not easy, he was booed by a claque who he hadn’t paid off. He vowed once he moved on to never sing in his hometown again (he kept that vow and only returned there to die).His big break occurred when he sang the title role in the world premiere of Giordano’s Fedora at Milan’s Teatro Lirico in 1898. He now toured Italy and even Russia with a touring company. He eventually reached the most important of Italian theatres La Scala in Milan singing Rudolfo in La Boheme December of 1900 and a month later participating in the world premiere of Mascagni’s Le Maschere. Verdi had died in January of 1901 and Toscanini who was then the musical director chose Caruso to participate in a Verdi memorial concert which gave Caruso world wide exposure. Caruso now became the leading tenor at La Scala. Fred Gaisberg a young executive with an English recording company that would eventually become EMI was to record ten sides of Caruso singing in a Milan hotel suite. Gaisberg’s superiors refused to authorize Caruso’s fee of 100 pounds, Gaisberg proceeded anyway and the recordings made back their money many times over. The popularity of these recordings helped Caruso in getting an engagement at London’s Covent Garden where he was partnered with famed soprano Nellie Melba.


Caruso in 1903 agreed to an engagement at the Metropolitan Opera which was to become his home base for the rest of his career. Even more important for posterity was his contract with the Victor Recording Company in 1904, this was a relationship that lasted for the balance of his career. Caruso went from triumph to triumph and also toured Argentina and Brazil. Caruso had an incident in 1906 that nearly ruined his career. A woman claimed that Caruso pinched her bottom at the monkey house in the Central Park Zoo. Caruso was arrested and the press ran with the story that had nasty ethnic overtones of swarthy Italians assaulting American women. Caruso who despite his homeliness and shortish rotund figure considered himself a formidable womanizer evidently thought the woman was interested in him. He paid a fine and the scandal eventually faded. A more amusing anecdote, Caruso was touring with The Met in San Francisco when he was awoken the morning of the 1906 earthquake, Caruso stuck in the Palace Hotel that was eventually destroyed by fire, he was terrified and showed police and firemen a signed picture of the current President, Theodore Roosevelt in order to get him on a ferry to Oakland and a train to New York. The Metropolitan opera brought in a new regime in 1908 importing La Scala’s team of General Manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza and Toscanini as musical director. Toscanini who was a terrifying fanatical disciplinarian had respect for Caruso but wanted him to conform to his musical vision and this sometimes caused conflicts but they had a terrific collaboration until Toscanini left the Met in 1915.


In 1910 Puccini a great admirer of both Toscanini’s and Caruso wrote an American opera for the Met about California’s Gold Rush days, La Fanciulla del West (Girl of the Golden West); Caruso sang the role of the outlaw Dick Johnson and Toscanini. Caruso was a hero to New York’s half a million Italians he was also worshipped by its Jewish immigrant community particularly when he took the lead role in Saint-Saens Samson et Delilah and Elezar in Halevy’s La Juive (The Jewess). Caruso besides the fantastic fees he received particularly in opera houses outside the Met made even more in royalties from his many recordings. Caruso was also fervently behind the American effort in the First World War (Italy was also fighting Germany and Austria) besides his ceaseless efforts in Liberty Bond Rally’s made a famous recording of George M Cohan’s Over There. Caruso who had a liaison with an Italian soprano that produced two sons twenty years earlier married Dorothy Park Benjamin in 1918 a socially prominent 25 year old New Yorker. Her aristocratic father objected to the marriage (this was to form the basis of the plot to Mario Lanza’s hugely successful 1951 movie The Great Caruso). Dorothy and Caruso were to have a child in 1919 Gloria. Caruso after many years of overuse of his voice was having problems with his throat, during a performance of The Elixir of Love at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on December 11th 1920 suffered a throat hemorrhage and the performance was suspended. A few weeks later he was to sing his last performance, in La Juive. Caruso returned to Italy where he was diagnosed with pleurisy and had several operations to drain his lungs. He seemed to be recovering when a un orthodox medical procedure seems to have induced peritonitis and with the inability to fight infections at the time he soon died in hotel room in Naples on August 2nd 1921. Universal mourning broke out in Italy and initially his body was preserved under glass in a Naples cemetery as if he was a pope. Eventually his remains were transferred to an enclosed tomb.


It is difficult to calculate Caruso’s popularity in modern terms. He died before commercial radio and though he made a few silent films most of his universal fame came from his recordings. Caruso was in fact the first recording superstar and was responsible for the sale of untold numbers of phonographs and his recordings sell to this day. His death even had Tin Pan Alley create pop songs like God Needed an Angel in his memory. He himself recorded popular songs particularly Neapolitan ones. Besides his great singing he was also a very talented caricaturist (many of them have been published) who never showed them to his subjects ‘they always say they won’t mind but they always do’. Caruso was a fine colleague and was beloved in New York by the common man as much as the opera connoisseur.  

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