Enrico Caruso: The New York Years September 30 2020
Enrico Caruso: The New York Years
From the golden age of opera in the early years of the twentieth century, few voices define their era better than that of Enrico Caruso. One of the first great star tenors in a time that otherwise worshiped coloratura sopranos and their music, Caruso's life - a breath-taking rise from extreme poverty to international celebrity - seems almost to be the stuff of opera itself. The fact that the market for music memorabilia connected with him is as lively today as it was during his lifetime is a testament to his enduring appeal.
Born in Naples in 1873, Caruso was the third of seven children, but one of only three to survive beyond infancy. Caruso and his brother Giovanni were responsible for the urban legend that they were two of twenty-one children, but records and research show this to be nothing more than a good story! The 11-year-old Enrico was apprenticed to an engineer whose job was to construct public water fountains - Caruso liked to point out his handiwork in later visits home to Naples - and received a basic general and music education at the local school and from a priest. He also sang in the church choir, showing some promise. Working as a street singer, he learned that a price could be put on his skills, and he earned money for his family. His early musical development was only interrupted by his 45 days of compulsory military service.
Early Career and Creations
Lessons from Vincenzo Lombardi polished his vocal technique, and successes at La Scala - notably Rodolfo in 1900 - and the Bolshoi in Moscow cemented him as a big star. He created the roles of Federico in L'arlesiana, and also Maurizio in Adriana Lecouvreur, but narrowly missed out on creating Cavaradossi in Tosca as Puccini didn't consider him established enough to be entrusted with the role.
Unfortunately, Caruso's career in Naples, his home city, was a sad experience. He already had success at La Scala to his name, but his performances of L'Elisir d'Amore and Manon were met with boos by the sicofanti - still short on money, Caruso had failed to pay the claque to cheer and applaud, and he paid the price as a consequence. After that, his visits home were to "eat spaghetti" rather than to sing.
Caruso's recordings are essentials for music lovers and those that love great singing of the past, and who are keen to obtain music collectibles. These items are the kind of music memorabilia that make the early days of recorded sound so fascinating.
His first recordings were made in Milan in 1902 at the age of 29, and they are full of minor errors (he did them all in one take, so this is perhaps forgivable!). The recordings were a massive financial success and led him to make more in November of that year, two of which were repeated from the session earlier that year.
This set of recordings is notable for his first recording of Vesti la giubba, Canio's aria from I Pagliacci, and the role and aria with which Caruso is most identified. It was an aria Caruso recorded three times, returning to it in 1904 and 1907, each subsequent reading of the music displaying the development of the baritonal qualities of his voice. One of the items of memorabilia most associated with Caruso is the iconic photograph taken by Hermann Mishkin, where the tenor is dressed for the role - so iconic, it was later recreated with the great tenor of the latter half of the twentieth century, Luciano Pavarotti, for his opera arias album.
Those recordings weren't just a financial success - they marked the start of Caruso's international career, gaining him engagements at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
They also put him on the radar of the Metropolitan Opera, New York, where he made his debut the following year.
America, New York and the Met
In the year between making his first two sets of recordings and his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Caruso had sung in Europe and South America, cementing his legendary status.
His agent, Pasquale Simonelli, had negotiated the kind of contract that would make both of them rich, and Caruso's Met debut was as the Duke in Rigoletto on 23rd November 1903, with Marcella Sembrich singing the doomed Gilda. It was an opera house where he was to give an astonishing 863 performances between 1903 and 1920.
The idea of getting music down on disc still hadn't left him, and Caruso made his first recordings in America in February 1904, having signed and exclusive deal with Victor. It cemented his position as the first big recording star. His recordings weren't the only pieces of Caruso music memorabilia dating from this period, as he also had a medal cast for his agent, with Euterpe, the muse of music, on the reverse. Made from 24-carat gold, this Tiffany & Co medal was to thank Simonelli for the excellent contracts he'd managed to negotiate for him at the Met.
In addition to his luxurious country home near Florence, Caruso's address of choice in New York was a suite at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Manhattan. This extraordinary hotel was well-known for its customer service and was Caruso's residence until it was sold in 1920. Taking all his meals in the hotel, Caruso always used the same set of cutlery, and once gave his coat to a homeless man outside the hotel, no doubt reminded of his own previous poverty.
Caruso gave recitals and performances across America, and was on tour in San Francisco in 1906 when the great earthquake struck. An avid skietcher, Caruso's own drawings accompanied his account of what he saw and experienced - "...on Wednesday morning early I wake up at about 5 o'clock, feeling my bed rocking as though I am in a ship on the ocean...I see the buildings toppling over, big pieces of masonry falling, and from the street below I hear the cries and screams of men and women and children". Caruso was apparently composed enough by breakfast time to walk to the St. Francis Hotel for bacon and eggs.
In 1910, Caruso premiered some of Puccini's music at last, creating the role of Dick Johnson in Fanciulla del West. This time, the role had been written specifically with him in mind.
Caruso's life in America wasn't restricted to opera. He also made a charming silent film, "My Cousin", where he plays both the poor artist, Tommasso Longo, and the wealthy and famous tenor Caroli. Released by Paramount, it is very much of its time, but the artist does "get the girl" in the end.
Final year and death
Caruso's wife Dorothy noted that his health was failing during late 1920 after he returned from a long concert tour. An onstage injury led to a month of illness in December of that year, and he gave his final Met performance on Christmas Eve. His health deteriorated further during the New Year, and he travelled to Naples to recuperate from what had been a series of medical procedures. He died at the Vesuvio Hotel in Naples, probably from peritonitis, on August 2, 1921. He was only 48.
Memorabilia relating to Caruso is highly sought-after from those that love him
and his music; signed photographs and other items regularly reach high prices at music auctions and other sales. A keen artist, his own sketches of colleagues are memorabilia as popular with fans as his own photographs and music posters, and regularly appear on auction sites and other music memorabilia sales sites loved by collectors.
We are truly lucky that such a music legend left such a legacy of memorabilia.