Bravo Caruso!

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Though Caruso was still unknown to American audiences, Maurice Grau, the director of the Metropolitan Opera, offered him a contract at $200 a week for twenty weeks, beginning during the 1899 season. Grau retired (the contract unsigned) before Caruso arrived, and his successor, Heinrich Conreid, had misgivings about the Neapolitan’s drawing power. According to legend, he polled newly immigrated Italian bootblacks as to whom they considered their country’s greatest tenor. The response was unanimous—Enrico Caruso. So Conreid then offered him $960 a performance, and Caruso accepted.

It was aboard the S.S. Sardegna on November 11, 1903, that Caruso, at the age of thirty, first beheld New York Harbor. With him at the rail was Ada Giachetti, a voluptuously beautiful soprano ten years his senior, who had become his mistress not long after they sang together in a Palermo production of La Bohème . She had borne him a son they named Rodolfo, after the hero of the opera, and she would bear him another, Enrico, Jr. They registered at the Hotel Majestic on Central Park West as Mr. and Mrs. Caruso, a fiction that probably deceived no one.

When on November 23, 1903, at the Met’s seasonal opening night, he sang his first role there (the duke in Rigoletto ), the applause was feeble. Although custom then permitted encores—Toscanini would ban them upon becoming the Met’s chief conductor in 1908—the audience called for only one repetition of “La Donna è Mobile,” an aria Caruso was accustomed to deliver at least three times. The critics did not express much enthusiasm either, in part perhaps because the short, dumpy tenor seemed grossly miscast as the dashing duke. The following week, however, he sang Radamès in Aida and drew a warm reception from both audience and critics; three nights later, on December 3, his Rodolfo brought down the house.

 
The Met paid him $2,500 for each performance. He could have made more.

Thereafter un cuore ehe cantava (”a heart that sang”), as one fellow singer described Caruso’s voice, together with his highly publicized offstage activities, made him the most celebrated performing artist of the epoch. During the next decade and a half he gave 607 performances at the Met, averaging 40 a season and, with a single exception, starring in every opening-night production. “Caruso operas,” as I Pagliacci , La Bohème , and La Juive among others came to be known, were invariably sellouts. When Caruso sang, scalpers got as much as five times the box-office price for a ticket. The Met, financially troubled then as now, owed its survival in large part to Caruso. So did the burgeoning Victor Company. His recording of “Vesti la Giubba” alone sold more than a million copies.

Caruso grew to love New York so much that upon arriving for the opera season he once scooped up a bit of earth and kissed it. He never wearied of tasting the city’s common pleasures. With childlike glee he rode the horsecars, the Third Avenue El, the ferryboats. He luxuriated in the hot, aromatic baths then available in barbershops. A habitué of the Central Park Zoo, he would stand enthralled before the monkey cages, roaring with laughter. At the circus in Madison Square Garden, another favorite haunt, he would climb over the railing and, to the delight of the multitude, shake hands with the clowns. Wherever he went, he was recognized and adored.

Caruso favored two Italian restaurants—Pane’s on West Forty-seventh Street for lunch and, for supper after the opera, Del Pezzo’s on Thirty-fourth Street. Celebrity watchers, familiar with his habits, would crowd the doorways so that his private secretary and cherished friend, Bruno Zirato, had to clear a path for him as he advanced, burbling, “Hello, good morning, thank you very much.” He left a standing order at Del Pezzo’s: “Reserve for me every night until further notice a private dining room and prepare enough Italian food for me and half a dozen guests.” His legendary capacity for food inspired the establishment of a restaurant chain bearing his name. An addition to many New York menus was Spaghetti Caruso —spaghetti with chicken livers.

At the peak of his career the Met paid Caruso twentyfive hundred dollars a performance. He could have made more. When Oscar Hammerstein, who headed the rival Manhattan Opera, let it be known that he would go as high as five thousand dollars, the Met’s magisterial director, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, left the dollar line on Caruso’s new contract blank for him to fill in as he chose. Declining to demand an increase, the tenor observed: “I don’t think there is a singer in this world who can give in one performance more than $2,500 worth of singing. … If I ask you for one cent more than $2,500 the public will find out one way or another and want from me that cent more of singing, which I have not got. Therefore, leave matters as they are…”