Bravo Caruso!


WHEN, ON COLUMBUS DAY OF 1980 , the operatic superstar, Luciano Pavarotti, sitting on a bay horse, his massive bulk arrayed in fancy dress, jounced up New York’s Fifth Avenue at the head of the annual parade celebrating the discovery of America, some elitist opera patrons were dismayed. A primo tenore , they believed, should stand aloof from the common run, should maintain an inaccessibility, a certain mystery. But there is lofty precedent for Pavarotti’s extracurricular capers, set by a man who was probably the greatest singer ever heard and almost certainly the best loved, who made his American debut at the Metropolitan Opera House eighty years ago last November—Enrico Caruso.

Caruso was known, when about to sing Canio—the sobbing cuckold of I Pagliacci —to walk the three blocks from his Times Square hotel, the Knickerbocker, to the opera house, wearing his clown costume, followed by a cheering, laughing, adoring crowd.

Caruso’s antics—as well as the voice that one critic described as “gold swathed in velvet”—greatly stimulated the popularity of opera in America. Before Caruso came, American opera had been a small, special world; today there are more than one thousand companies in existence, ranging from university workshops to such institutions as the Met, the Chicago Lyric, and the San Francisco Opera.

Quick to laughter and to tears, amorous, buffoonish, with little formal education, speaking a comically fractured English, round and paunchy, Caruso presented an image that appealed enormously to multitudes of ordinary Americans. A gifted caricaturist, he would, during a newspaper interview, dash off a likeness of the reporter and hand it to him. (He was once very insulted when Mark Twain failed to invite him to a dinner Twain was giving for cartoonists.) The American press reported his every word and deed, from the practical jokes to which he subjected his fellow artists on stage to the gargantuan repasts he consumed after a performance.

Though relatively few Americans would ever hear him in person, Caruso and grand opera were synonymous to millions of them. They collected the Red Seal records he made for the Victor Talking Machine Company, a total of 266 titles, which yielded royalties of $1,825,000 during his lifetime and considerably more than that after his death. They sat enchanted before their crystal radio sets listening to his broadcasts. (Caruso was the first opera star on the air when, on the evening of January 13, 1910, Lee De Forest, the inventor of the radio amplifier, transmitted portions of I Pagliacci from the stage of the Met to the Victor Company in Camden, New Jersey.) Generations of bathroom tenors attempted to render such Carusoassociated standards as “Vesti la Giubba” from I Pagliacci and “La Donna è Mobile” from Rigoletto .

Caruso preferred American audiences to all others and spent the major part of his professional career on this side of the Atlantic. Often called upon to sing The Star-Spangled Banner at patriotic or fund-raising rallies, he concocted a phonetic version of the lyrics, his Italian accent being otherwise impenetrably thick. It went like this:

O seiken iu su bai dhi dons erli lait Huat so praudli ui heild At dhi twailaits last glimmin …

Caruso began his singing career early. Born in 1873 to a Neapolitan mechanic, the eighteenth of twenty-one children, only three of whom survived infancy, he was already roaming the city at the age of fifteen, picking up coins as a street singer. A wealthy opera addict named Eduardo Missiano chanced to hear Caruso perform outside a public swimming pool and took him to a renowned voice teacher, Guglielmo Vergine. Unimpressed, Vergine compared the youth’s voice to “gold at the bottom of the Tiber—hardly worth digging for.” He nevertheless agreed to take him on in return for a 25 percent share of any money he might earn singing during the next five years. The lessons ended after three years, 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.

Caruso was twenty-one when he made his operatic debut in Naples at the Teatro Nuovo in an obscure role in an obscure work by a wealthy amateur, L’Amico Francesco . He received fifteen lire per performance and a fifty-lire bonus of which Vergine doubtless exacted his 25 percent. During the next year, 1895, he sang the lead in Cavalleria Rusticana in Caserta and principal roles in several operas with a touring company in Egypt. By 1898 every European impresario knew his name.