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Enrico Caruso
1873 - 1921
 


Enrico Caruso was an Italian tenor who was an early recording artist and the foremost Metropolitan Opera attraction for a generation. For power, sweetness, and versatility his voice was without peer.
 

 

Born on Feb. 25, 1873, in Naples, Enrico Caruso was the eighteenth child of a poverty-ridden machinist. Early encouragement came from fellow workers who heard him sing Neapolitan ballads. Guglielmo Vergine, his first teacher, held small hopes for him as a professional, and Caruso's early efforts were not promising. He made his debut in L'Amico Francesco at the Teatro Nuovo, Naples, in 1894, and his apprenticeship was in small Italian theatres singing a variety of roles.

Selected for the tenor lead in the premiere of Umberto Giodano's Fedorain Milan in 1898, Caruso scored an electrifying success. Engagements at St. Petersburg, Moscow, Buenos Aires, and Bologna were climaxed by an invitation to sing at La Scala, the great opera house at Milan, directed by Giulio Gatti-Casazza and Arturo Toscanini. After triumphs with soprano Nellie Melba in La Bohème at Monte Carlo and Rigoletto in London in 1902, Caruso was engaged by the Metropolitan Opera Company. He made his New York debut in Rigoletto in 1903, and was connected with the "Met" for the rest of his life.

Idolized in every operatic centre, the flamboyant Neapolitan was the subject of almost unprecedented publicity. In Berlin and Vienna "Caruso nights" were celebrated, and in Mexico City he received $15,000 for a single performance. At the peak of his career, his performance fees exceeded $500,000 annually. The earliest of his nearly 250 recordings dates from 1902, and his annual income from this source alone reached $115,000.

Caruso's liaison (never legalized) with Ada Giachetti, by whom he had two sons, was painfully ended by court proceedings in 1912. In 1918 he married Dorothy Park Benjamin, daughter of a wealthy New York industrialist. Stricken with a throat hemorrhage during a performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Caruso sang only once more - a performance of La Juive at the Met in 1920. He died in Naples on Aug. 2, 1921.

Supremely gifted for opera by temperament and physique, Caruso was also single-minded, hard-working, and self-critical. An awkward actor in the beginning, he developed into a superlative artist. Certain roles, such as Canio in Pagliacci and Radames in Aida, became so indelibly his that all other tenors suffer by comparison. He had a remarkable range, but when the lighter quality of his early years darkened, his voice was less suitable for some of the lyric roles. In power and expressiveness, however, his abilities suffered no impairment despite a temporary loss of voice during the 1908-1909 season.

Among Caruso's many honours were commendatore in the Order of the Crown of Italy, the French Legion of Honor, and the Order of the Crown Eagle of Prussia. He was totally free from professional jealousies. A natural comedian, he was also a gifted caricaturist. His warm-hearted generosity made him genuinely loved by his associates and the public at large to a degree almost unique in the lyric theatre.
 


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The most famous operatic tenor of all time, Enrico Caruso (né Errico Caruso) was born on February 25, 1873 (not on February 27, as given in many reference books). He was the third child of his relatively poor parents -- not the 18th, as is often repeated in popular myth. He began serious vocal studies with Guglielmo Vergine in 1891 and later studied with Vincenzo Lombardi. In 1895, he made his debut in L'amico Francesco by Domenico Morelli. That fall in Cairo, he sang Cavalleria rusticana, La Traviata, Lucia di Lammermoor, La Gioconda, and Manon Lescaut, all in less than four weeks.

His international fame began when he sang Loris in the premiere of Giordano's Fedora in 1898. In the following seasons, he sang at St. Petersburg, Moscow, Buenos Aires, Milan, Monte Carlo, and London. Arturo Toscanini conducted his Teatro alla Scala debut when he sang Rodolfo in La bohème. Nellie Melba was his partner at his London debut in Rigoletto.

After making his very successful debut at the Metropolitan Opera as the Duke in Rigoletto, Caruso made the United States his primary operatic home. He spent the major part of each year singing there and usually had the honour of singing opening nights. He also took part in the annual Metropolitan Opera tour of the U.S., and in 1906 was caught in the great San Francisco earthquake right after his performance in Carmen. It was at the Metropolitan Opera that he sang the premiere of Puccini's La fanciulla del West.

As he aged, Caruso began to take on heavier roles including Samson, Eleazar in La Juive, and Vasco in L'africaine. After the tour each season, Caruso would travel to South America and/or Europe to sing and vacation. He never sang in his native city of Naples after 1902 because of a particularly nasty reception to his performances of Massenet's Manon. In 1920, he underwent several operations for pleurisy, but his health continued to decline afterwards. He returned to his native Naples, where he died in 1921.

Caruso's voice had a warmth, and an almost baritonal quality, which was different from the bright, ringing sound favoured by most of the colleagues. The voice was extremely beautiful and he had an excellent feeling for the shape of a phrase. His sound recorded very well which helped to make his recordings among the most popular of his time; many of these selections have been available in one format or another since they were first issued. He was for many years the best selling classical performer in America.

Known as a generous colleague as well a great practical joker on stage, Caruso was welcome everywhere. He was a firm believer in good food, good wine, and a good cigar. However, whenever a friend was in a difficult situation, he was the first to offer help. One evening in Philadelphia when a colleague playing Colline became hoarse during a performance of La bohème, Caruso sang the bass aria for him to save the performance. During World War I, he sang in many benefit concerts to raise money for the war effort. To this day Caruso is imprinted in the imagination as the archetypal operatic tenor.
 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 21 December, 2008