|This small bust of Enrico Caruso stands in Piazza Ottocalli, not far from the old Hospice for the Poor, and about 50 yards from a very anonymous-looking building where the great tenor was born. The house is marked by a plaque.|
2012: First paragraph revised from earlier
If you like rags-to-riches stories, you will find few as compelling as that of Enrico Caruso (1873-1921). The tale still circulates that he was the youngest of 21 (in some sources, it's only 18!) children, only three of whom survived infancy. That is apparently an embellishment of the "rags" part of Caruso's life by a person or persons unknown (possibly Caruso, himself, who was always up for a gag!). I, myself, helped perpetrate that story until kind Jan de Turovski wrote me recently to tell me that the story was debunked some years ago. "Caruso was the third of seven children." (Sigh. I hate revisionist history, especially when it gets in the way of a good story! I feel up for a trip to the labyrinth of the Naples Hall of records just to be on the safe side.)
Born into grinding poverty, Caruso was saved from the life of the scugnizzo (street urchin) by two things: one, he went to work at the age of ten in the factory where his father worked in Naples, and, two, even as a child it was evident he could sing. By the end of his life, he had become the highest paid singer in the world and was generally acknowledged to be one of the greatest operatic tenors ever, a judgment that subsequent history has had little reason to amend.
working as a lad, Caruso was encouraged by his mother,
then his loving stepmother, and a local parish priest
to pursue his singing. He joined a church choir and by
his mid-teens was taking singing lessons in his spare
time and singing at every available opportunity, in
cafès, at weddings, even hiring himself out as a kind
of singing Cyrano de Bergerac, standing off to the
side and singing for tone-deaf swains, who would
lip-synch and pretend to be serenading their lady
loves. He sang anything, anywhere and anytime, just to
other singers of his day, Caruso's voice was a
strange combination of tenor and baritone. He had
considerable trouble in his early career with the high
tenor register, for example, causing a number of early
teachers to tell him that he would never make it. The
winds of cultural change were blowing in his favor,
however. By the 1880s the age of the light, almost
effeminate tenor was over; the new more realistic
operas of verismo (realism) such as I
Pagliacci and Cavalleria
Rusticana called for an earthier male
voice. In retrospect, it is now obvious that Caruso's
voice was the ideal vehicle for this new kind of tenor
vocalizing. And since Caruso has influenced every
tenor since him, even earlier operas, say by Bellini or Donizetti, undoubtedly
sound huskier today than they did when performed in
the 19th century.
1896, the not-yet Great Caruso
sings at a wedding reception
He started his professional career in Caserta in 1895 and for the next few years sang in the provinces and in various secondary operas in Naples—but not at San Carlo, which was strictly for stars. Playing in the Campania outback in those days was rough. During one performance of Faust, in Caserta, the appearance of the "devil" on stage so terrified the peasant audience that they shouted the performance to a close and chased Caruso and the whole company off the stage and through the streets with sticks and brickbats! Caruso traveled abroad to Egypt, South America, and even Russia slowly building his reputation. His "break" in Italy came in 1900 in Milan at La Scala, by then the opera house in the world. He was a success.
Then Caruso did something he had always wanted to do: he came back to Naples to 'wow' the hometown crowd at San Carlo. He undoubtedly envisioned coming home in triumph, and if the public had had their way, maybe he would have. Caruso, however, had neglected to butter up the right music critics with invitations and tickets. Add to this the fact that his choice to go to Milan first and then come south was seen by some as an affront to Naples, only recently, and reluctantly, part of a unified Italy. It had all the makings for a hostile reception —and it was, at least on the part of the critics. So, although the public was generally receptive to Caruso, the critics in the local papers panned him, saying his voice was a hybrid of tenor and baritone, and that, dramatically, he was uncouth. He sang in Naples in the winter of 1901/02 and then left, bitterly disappointed, saying he would return to Naples only "to see my mother and eat vermicelli alle vongole." He kept his word and never sang again in the city of his birth. Whenever he came home to visit, instead of giving a benefit performance for the poor, he would simply donate to charity more money than even one of his performances would have brought in.
[For more on Caruso's critic and the offending review, see the item below this one.]
Caruso was a
generous, highly idiosyncratic, superstitious man. He
refused to travel on certain days of the week, or
without consulting his astrologer; he used home
remedies for his vocal cords such as garlic and ether
spray, much to the dismay of his singing coaches; he
smoked, drank and ate to excess; and downed a large
glass of whiskey before going out on the stage for his
opening number at each performance. One of the
strangest stories about him is that, though caught in
the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and
terrified like everyone else, he managed to calm down
enough to start singing in the corridors of his hotel.
This free performance by the Great Caruso had a
calming influence amidst all the confusion going on
From 1903 until
his death, his home was the Metropolitan Opera in New
York, during which time he sang 622 leading roles.
(That works out to 37 major performances each season
—phenomenal by today's standards!) His stamina and
vocal powers were legendary. On a few occasions, his
natural baritone register and perhaps his teenage
experience as substitute serenader came to the
company's rescue, as Caruso would stand behind a set
and sing a baritone aria while the baritone, himself,
with a headcold or hangover, would move his lips and
Caruso is at
least partially responsible for the great popularity
of the Neapolitan Song
abroad, as he would often include songs such as 'O
sole mio or Santa Lucia as encores
after the opera at the Met. (This practice of operatic
tenors, Italian or otherwise, singing Neapolitan
Songs survives to this day; witness The Three Tenors.)
As a Neapolitan in America, his presence worked magic
in the lives of the entire community of his fellow
"immigrants". Here was one who had made it, and
through him their own lives gained that much more hope
for the future.
combined poverty, incredible hard work, determination
and, ultimately, fame and wealth. He was a gifted
artist, as well, and enjoyed drawing caricatures of
himself in various operatic poses (image, below,
right). Indeed, his life, itself, was a caricature of
The Artist as Fatalist Disdainer of Caution. He chose,
instead, to ride his great talent as fast and as far
as it would take him. He died in Naples at the age of
|Caruso had a knack for
sketching caricature. This is one he drew of
I've been reading a bit about Saverio Procida. He was a well-known Neapolitan journalist and critic who passed away in 1940 after a 50-year career dedicated primarily to literature and music. He was in the forefront of those who welcomed to Italy the new and difficult music of Richard Wagner; he also stood up for the obscure theater of Luigi Pirandello well before it was fashionable to do so. All in all, Procida seems to have been a reasonable critic. Unfortunately, he is primarily thought of today as the one who drove Enrico Caruso away from Naples. He reviewed Caruso's debut at San Carlo in the tenor role of Nemorino in Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore, performed on the evening of 30th December 1901.
I decided to read the actual review and found it duly tucked away in the December 31, 1901, edition of il Pungolo (The Goad), (an appropriately provocative name for a newspaper!) I had read that the review was "scathing". Well, it isn't very kind,true, and may in fact have been enough to "goad" Caruso —a temperamental fellow, anyway, by all accounts— into leaving his native city.
Caruso was not totally unknown in Naples before his debut at San Carlo, as some think. The critic, Procida, welcomes Caruso back to the city where he performed at the Mercadante theater five years earlier. The review also acknowledges Caruso's growing reputation and his recent success at La Scala in Milano in the same role in L'elisir d'amore. The critic then starts with some deft left-handed compliments (warming up for the strong rights to come). Caruso has a "fine, baritone voice..." Caruso was a tenor, so this, in itself, is a sharp left jab. (On the other hand, it is the normal reaction of anyone who has ever heard a recording of Caruso. He was, in fact, a natural baritone who developed a tenor register.) The singer's voice has "good volume... it is even and broad... energetic... displays rare power.. with a silver-like quality." So far —to continue chasing a metaphor clearly much faster than I am— if the critic were a boxer, he is still sticking and moving ... sticking and moving.
|...but even given the
natural quality of a gifted voice, it
doesn't seem to me that he has the technical
skills that might add some discipline to his
natural gift, might put some more substance
in his voice, improve his sense of how
melody should move, add the agility one
needs for light music such as that of
Donizetti, straighten out his uncertain
intonation (perhaps —I hope— this was just
opening-night nervousness). In short, I do
not yet discern Caruso as living up to the
reputation provided him by his remarkably
gifted natural ability...
The next paragraph
is a recipe, the critic's overbearing, even obnoxious,
prescription for Caruso: what music Caruso should sing
and what music he should avoid until his voice can
handle it. In the latter category are difficult roles,
such as Tosca and all modern music.
After all, says the critic, bringing down the house
(as Carusuo did) with "Una furtiva lacrima" in
L'elisir d'amore is not really that difficult.
An encore of that aria is a given, anyway. In short,
an untamed voice with potential. The critic hopes that
"Caruso will not be offended by my affectionate
frankness". Ho-ho. Caruso was. Caruso left after the
As a small point of
order, as I noted, Caruso was not entirely unknown in
Naples before that. I have in my possession an
invitation (left) to the wedding of Di Marzo and
Capozzi, the latter being my mother-in-law's aunt
(kinship anthropologists among you are free to invent
your own name for that— grand-aunt-in-law?). The
wedding was on August 26, 1896. There was music of
Wagner, Bizet, Gounod, and Faure. There was a 6-piece
orchestra, two of whom were singers. The tenor was
21-year-old Enrico Caruso. Ominously, the program also
tells us that the harmonium player and conductor was
Vincenzo Lombardi. The band-leader was Vince Lombardi!
(And they thought Toscanini was tough.)
For no good reason that I can think of, I decided to dig around in some old newspapers, magazines, and books for a few items about tenor Enrico Caruso, Naples' "favorite son."
the occasion of the marriage of Caruso's daughter, Gloria,
a 1943 copy of Time magazine recounts a
bit of the singer's life decades earlier, saying that "…
his Metropolitan debut in 1903 was no smash. Critics found
his acting inferior and his vocal style coarser than that
of his great, aristocratic predecessor, Jean de Reszke..."
is a distortion. On November 24, 1903, Caruso's debut
received an excellent review in the New York Times
(NYT). The paper said of his singing in Rigoletto
that " …[Caruso]… made a highly favorable impression, and
he went far to substantiate the reputation that had
preceded him to this country…His voice is purely a tenor
in its quality, of high range, and of large power…Mr.
Caruso appeared last evening capable of intelligence and
of passion in both his singing and his acting, and gave
reason to believe in his value as an acquisition to the
company." That's not too shabby.
months later, on January 31, 1904, a NYT review says that
Caruso's voice is an "unceasing delight in its smoothness
, purity and translucent clearness and warmth." True, the
reviewer has to namedrop for comparison (because that's
what critics do). This one compares Caruso favorably to
two other Italian tenors of the preceding decades known to
New Yorkers: Francesco Tamagno [the most famous tenor of
the pre-Caruso era and the creator of the lead role in
in 1887] and Italo Campanini. The review does fault Caruso
for overacting, and, indeed, does compare Caruso to Polish
tenor, Jean de Reszke; however, far from finding Caruso's
vocal style "coarser" than that of de Reszke, the reviewer
speaks of the "greater beauty and purity" of Caruso's
voice. He finishes by saying that the "New York public
will no doubt rejoice at hearing a real Italian tenor
again of the finest kind and to know that such have not
vanished from the face of the earth."
non-singing front, you can follow Caruso through six
weeks of low soap-opera in the pages of the NYT as he gets
arrested in Central Park on Nov. 17, 1906, for allegedly
annoying a woman who stood near him in the monkey house. He got thrown in the pokey for a
few hours, finally being bailed out for 500 dollars by the
head of the Met. He wound up being fined 10 dollars for
misdemeanor disorderly conduct. He professed his innocence
and appealed. (He lost the appeal.) Passion mounted in the
Nov. 29 edition when "Italians of St. Louis, rich and
poor, formally voted their sympathy for Enrico Caruso this
afternoon, and declared that the tenor is being persecuted
and maliciously handled by New Yorkers. The resolutions
condemn the Judge who tried him and fined him, and
declared the trial a travesty on justice and an insult to
a man of noble principles." Actually, the case is a bit weird since the woman who accused
him gave a false name and address to the cop who took the
initial complaint and then failed to show up in court to
press her case. The judge fined Caruso on the say-so of
the cop and a witness. (Hmmmm. A few problems there, Mr.
Judge: in most democracies, the accused have the right to
confront their accusers.) The case left the city fathers
and mothers puzzling over whether or not they should close
the monkey house permanently. (They didn't.)
There is a charming article in the June 12, 1912 edition of the NYT in which Caruso tells of his beginnings as a singer in Naples and the help he got from a local priest and even, when he did his military service, from a captain in the artillery. The captain heard Caruso singing aloud on duty and called him in for a modest chewing out. Later, the captain took Caruso to a café, had him sing for the people, then told him to "Be off and study your music…and do not let me see you at the barracks any more than is necessary."
There are many, many other items about the great singer. There is one about how distraught he was in 1911 at the death of one of his closest friends, Edoardo Missiano, the person who had "discovered" him in Naples and got him his first singing coach. Also, an item about how he once sang a bass aria in La Boheme because the bass who was supposed to sing it lost his voice. (Caruso was present in the scene, anyway; he just turned his back so the public couldn't see his mouth move and Mr. Laryngitis lip-synched it.) And everyone's favorite—how he could really hold a grudge and be generous at the same time. He appeared in Naples during WWI for personal reasons, but refused to sing. (Years earlier, he had been slighted in his home town and had promised never to sing there again.) But it's for charity! The Red Cross! Caruso wrote them a check for 50,000 dollars.
calculators of comparative purchasing power over time tell
me that that is almost one million dollars in today's
terms (2012). He was a generous guy; he just knew how to
hold a grudge.
He had one old friend to whom he was devoted and whom he worshipped from afar with a pathetic sort of adoration. This was Marie Sophia of Bourbon, the former queen of Naples. She had been his benefactress in the early days of his career. Even though her reign was over and she lived in exile in France, she was still his queen, the sovereign of his native city. He never failed to visit her when he went abroad, and on his last visit she presented him with a scarf pin, a medal carved with the head of a Madonna encircled with rubies. Through her secretary, Signor Barcelona, Caruso received regular reports of her, and each month he wrote his queen a regular and ceremonious letter, addressing her with all the formality due her former rank, to which she clung pathetically even in her old age. The exile of this venerable queen was one of the things he would brood over with tears in his eyes, but he would never discuss her with anyone. To him she was the sacred emblem of royalty.
This is not only
strange, but even incredible. The “venerable queen” in
question is Maria Sophia of
Bourbon, the last queen of the Kingdom of Naples
before it was absorbed into greater Italy, an event that
transpired in 1861, twelve years before Caruso was born.
After the fall of Naples, she went into exile in the
Vatican States and then France, dying in 1925 (see link,
above, for her complete story).
Caruso's tomb in Naples
Though there were certainly nostalgic
Bourbon hold-outs in the last few decades of the
nineteenth century who yearned for the “good old days” of
a sovereign kingdom of Naples, by the 1890s, most Italians
in the south had accepted their new status and shifted
their loyalties to Queen Margherita of Savoy, consort of
King Umberto I. She was the first queen of united Italy,
was wildly popular, and, indeed, filled the national need
for a benevolent “mother” of the new nation. It is hard to
see how Caruso would have attached his affection to a
person, very popular in her own time, but someone only his
parents had known. She had never really been “his queen.”