The Italian Almanac

Enrico Caruso

More about Caruso

The voice of Caruso:
Che Gelida Manina
E Lucevan le Stelle
Vesti la Giubba


Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

Life for the most famous operatic tenor of all began at 7 Via Giovanello Agli Ottocalli in Naples, Italy, on February 25, 1873. It ended in the same city, August 2, 1921. He had gone there to recover from an infection of the lungs. In his short 48 years, Enrico Caruso became the highest paid singer in the world. So great was the demand that seats for his performances in Germany and Austria were auctioned to the highest bidder. In America, his tremendous drawing power built the Metropolitan Opera Company's box-office receipts to a staggering $100,000 per season, and made Caruso a millionaire.

Caruso began his career in 1891 when, as a promising 18-year-old, he was accepted as a pupil by Vergine. The canny voice teacher promptly signed him to a contract that Caruso had extreme difficulty in breaking 8 years later. Vergine was to receive 25% of all earnings for the 1st 5 years of actual singing, conditions which, in effect, snared Caruso for life. While bound by this contract, he made his official Naples debut on February 16, 1894, in L'Amico Fritz. In sitting for his 1st professional photograph, Caruso appeared with a bedspread draped about his shoulders--his only shirt was being laundered.

Recognition came rapidly. By 1898, he had created the tenor roles for Adrienna Lecouvreur and Fedora at Milan's Teatro Lirico. Three years later, he became a member of a La Scala, where he was featured in leading roles. In 1902, his fame widened, with contracts to sing 1st with Melba at Monte Carlo and then at Covent Garden, London. The Metropolitan's manager, Heinrich Conreid, brought him to America a year later.

Caruso's success came partially from the warm affection he maintained for his fans. To those without the admission price, he passed out complimentary tickets by the thousands, and scrupulously paid for every one, a bill which often came to over $9,000 per season. The more money he earned the less it mattered for him. Hearing that his home had been robbed of nearly $500,000 in jewelry while he was singing in Cuba in August of 1920, his only concern was that his wife and child had not been hurt. "Lots of jewels will come," he said. Caruso achieved even greater rapport with the public that same August, due to a La Boheme performance. In singing "Rodolpho's Narrative" to Mimi, he rendered the line, " ... your lovely eyes have robbed me of my jewels." Then he stopped, turned to the audience, and gave an expressive Italian shrug, with outspread hands, that brought down the house. In another Boheme performance, his comrades across the footlights were treated to the sight of Marcello struggling unsuccessfully to put on his overcoat before going out to buy medicine for a dying Mimi, the fun-loving Caruso had sewed the sleeves closed before the performance.

In his 18 years at the Met, Caruso appeared in 36 roles. He understood 7 languages, and sang in 4. Continually, he evaluated his performance, writing comments such as "great ovation" and "ultimo" on the pay vouchers he received later. An extremely talented caricaturist, he frequently did sketches of fellow performers in costume. On the practical side, remembering his early poverty, he maintained complete books on everyday expenses, and solemnly entered the cost of his marriage to Dorothy Benjamin in 1918 at $50. Intensely superstitious, he would not start trips on Tuesdays or Fridays. He sang Rhadames in Aida, which he introduced at the Met, a total of 64 times. By contrast, he performed in Carmen at San Francisco only once. Caught in the disastrous April 18, 1906, earthquake, he swore never to return, crying "Give me Vesuvius." Toward the end of his career, he ventured briefly into motion pictures, cast in the dual role of famous singer and impoverished sculptor for My Cousin Carus'. The reviews were so bad that his 2nd picture was never released.

With Caruso's death in 1921, the world afforded him a funeral usually reserved only for royalty. He was laid to rest at Del Pianto Cemetery in Naples, in a chapel to which the faithful pilgrimaged for years. Not until 1929, 8 years later, was his widow able to obtain permission for the lid of his coffin to be closed permanently.