The enthusiasm gathered strength as the evening progressed, and toward the close it became tumultuous. Hats and hankerchiefs were waved; there were cheers and shouts; there was no such thing as restoring order until the audience began to realize that it was imposing on the good nature of a lavishly generous artist.
— the Democrat and Chronicle’s review of Caruso’s May 13, 1908 concert in Rochester
I. And the nominees are ……
The annual induction of new members into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame is upon us. And thereby hangs this tale.
Recently, while paging through the online edition of City Newspaper, I ran across a chain of comments relating to how the Rochester Music Hall of Fame (RMHF) selects its inductees, with several questioning whether talented locals are overlooked in favor of outsiders who may have more “celebrity.” One somewhat overheated commenter argued that Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale” — one of the greatest sopranos of the 19th Century — should not have been chosen as a charter member of the RMHF. After all, Lind’s only connection to Rochester was stopping here for two concerts in the 1850s.
That thought crossed my mind as well. But not from the perspective of “locals’ versus “outsiders. ” Rather, I wondered why stellar musical artists such as Enrico Caruso, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Gustav Mahler, Jascha Heifetz, and George Gershwin — all far better known today than Miss Lind and all also having a Rochester performance on their resume — had been overlooked year-after-year by the RMHF’s selection committee.
As luck would have it, Karl LaPorta, one of the founders of the RMHF and former member of its board of directors, was party to the discussion. Karl pointed out that, as far as he knew, none of those celebrities had ever been nominated!
Karl also explained that the RMHF had not inducted Miss Lind herself into the hall, but rather her Rochester performances were recognized.
To rectify this glaring omission, and as a life-long fan of Caruso via a collection of scratchy 78rpm records, I immediately went to the RMHF website and nominated Enrico.
Given his legendary abilities, Caruso towers over any other performer who ever appeared in Rochester. If the RMHF selection committee applies the same criteria to his nomination as applied to Ms. Lind’s — or rather to her performances — then the induction of Caruso’s performance should be a foregone conclusion. But we’ll have to see.
So to some extent, this article can be viewed as a commercial advocating Caruso’s selection.
II. The Man with the Orchid-Lined Voice
Considered by many the greatest tenor who ever lived (sorry Luciano and Plácido), Caruso began as a street singer in Naples, making his professional singing debut there in 1895 at age 22. He was booed by the audience and never again sang in his hometown. (1)
Plunging ahead — although his formal voice training only amounted to about three years and he never did learn to read a score without a great deal of difficulty — Caruso worked to perfect his singing until by 1897, while auditioning for Giacomo Puccini, the composer exclaimed, “Who sent you to me? God himself?”
By 1900 — now a rising international star — Caruso was performing at La Scala in Milan, one of the world’s great opera houses. His “verismo” (realism) singing contrasted with the more traditional style with its emphasis on vibrato and vocal ornamentation. And while Caruso’s vocal range did admit of a few limitations, the sheer power of his voice astounded many an opera goer in that pre-electronic amplification age. (2)
Around this time, Caruso attracted the attention of the fledgling recording industry. The two were made for each other, and to a large extent made each other. Very few people would ever hear a live operatic performance. But phonograph records made it possible for millions to experience a touch of the beauty and majesty of the operatic stage. While sales of records and phonographs were already building, the industry needed a spark to really set it off. Caruso was that spark and was soon on his way to becoming the recording industry’s first superstar; his 1902 recording of “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci being the first record to go “gold” by selling over 1,000,000 copies (and at $.75 a piece).
Although Caruso favored operatic pieces, he didn‘t balk at recording popular songs of the day, eventually even recording a unique, phoneticized-English version of George M. Cohan’s “Over There” during WWI. (3) All told, in a recording career only lasting from 1902 to 1920, Caruso would make more than 400 recordings, 266 of them released by the Victor Talking Machine Co., in the process earning more than two million dollars in royalties. But, most important, those recordings, and Caruso’s advertising endorsements of their phonographs, are widely credited not only with establishing Victor’s “His Master’s Voice” label as the most recognizable in the world, but also with spurring the growth of the record industry as a whole. (4)
And as his recording career blossomed, so did his operatic career. On November 23, 1903 Caruso made his debut withthe Metropolitan Opera in New York, the venue he thereafter considered his professional home. During the next decade and a half he gave over 700 performances at the Met, averaging 40 a season and, with but one exception, starred in every opening-night production, always to sell-out crowds. Scalpers routinely sold his tickets at up to 500% above box office prices.
The financially-troubled Met was almost single-handedly (single-voicedly?) saved by Caruso. And through his recordings he brought an appreciation of opera to small-town America, helping to expand what had been viewed as a somewhat snobbish cultural attraction only of interest to the denizens of a few major cities, to over 1,000 opera companies and workshops nationwide.
By 1905 the Met was paying Caruso $2,500 per performance. He could have asked for, and received, far more. But even when the rival, Manhattan Opera, offered him twice that amount and the management of the Met presented him with a new contract, leaving the salary line blank, Caruso simply wrote in “$2,500”, later explaining:
“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…”
Which brings us to the night Caruso sang in Rochester.
III. Convention Hall – May 13, 1908
While Caruso was resigned to the road tours occasionally staged by the Met in major cities, he was reluctant to undertake a solo concert tour, not the least because of the limitations smaller communities would impose on his consumption of fine wines and haute cuisine. Plus, as a man of precise habits, such a tour would interfere with his two baths a day, and his penchant for changing his shirt every few hours. His morning ritual of a half hour inhaling a mist composed of glycerin and sodium borate to sooth his throat, and a few more minutes using a dentist’s mirror to examine and spray his vocal cords, would also be difficult to perform. (Unknowingly, he negated the benefits of all that work by smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.)
Caruso was also nervous about performing outside of the formal operatic structure. Standing on an empty stage singing an aria, sans costume, made him uncomfortable. So when the Wolfsohn Musical Bureau proposed a personal appearance tour, Caruso tried to scare them off by demanding the outrageous sum of $6,000 per concert which, to Caruso’s shock, was immediately accepted. “E pazzo!” (He’s crazy“) Caruso said of the tour’s impresario. But he took the money.
After being booked for concert dates in Columbus, Cleveland, Toronto, Detroit, Buffalo, Rochester and Montreal, Caruso was annoyed to discover that the vocalists and musicians signed to accompany him were a bit second rate. (5)
In Columbus, billboards proclaimed, “Posterity Will Envy You the Privilege of Hearing the Most Glorious Voice of This Generation.” Although crowds were enthusiastic (paying unheard of ticket prices of up to $5 and more), Caruso was obviously so uncomfortable simply walking on and off stage to perform that even a friendly critic commented that, “The only approach to levity in his stage demeanor is the few dog trot steps he occasionally adds to his exits.”
As Caruso arrived in Rochester on May 12 via a private car on the New York Central, the Democrat and Chronicle noted of the welcoming crowd that, “the air was full of the murmur of musical Italian.” The paper reported that as Caruso was leaving the station a man who had pushed to the front of the crowd cried out, “Caruso! . . . Enrico! . . . Welcome dear one!” Caruso turned and, “threw his arms around the man and kissed him warmly on both cheeks. In Italian he bade him come to the hotel later in the evening. The two had been childhood friends.”
Later, in his suite at the Powers Hotel, a reporter took down Caruso’s views on America’s male singers:
“You have in this country great prima donnas, but your men can’t sing….It isn’t for me to say, so, but it is generally believed abroad that the reason there are so few great American male singers is because your men will not devote years to study without some income.”
The concert was held at Convention Hall, Rochester’s premiere musical venue from 1908 until the opening of the Eastman Theater in 1922. The building, which had previously been a state militia arsenal, was many years later converted to the GEVA Theater. (6)
Patrons were promised, “The greatest tenor in the world. His voice has a thrill that is electric, and a splendid physique gives it power enough for the largest halls.” The hall could seat two thousand, with reserved seats priced from $2.00 to $5.00, and general admission for $1.00. The program consisted of a dozen vocal and violin pieces, with Caruso singing just three arias.
Nevertheless, the next day’s Democrat and Chronicle gave Caruso a rave review:
“Caruso was greeted by one of the largest and most thoroughly delighted audiences that ever assembled in Rochester. … (Given the type of music performed) it was what might be called a ‘popular’ concert in a high and excellent sense of the term….Caruso’s voice, like Caruso himself, is manly, vibrant and robust. It rings true. It is superrefined, and yet vigorous; it proclaims the temperament, the abounding good nature, the musical fervor and the magnetic personality of the man….Caruso was on the programme for three solo numbers…and he sang six encores…. The enthusiasm gathered strength as the evening progressed, and toward the close it became tumultuous. Hats and hankerchiefs were waved; there were cheers and shouts; there was no such thing as restoring order until the audience began to realize that it was imposing on the good nature of a lavishly generous artist…It was an immense triumph for this incomparable singer… .”
Even the Convention Hall, newly opened, with Caruso’s being the first musical production, received praise as having, “first class acoustic properties. It is so arranged that every seat is desirable, and the decorations last night gave it a handsome appearance.” (7)
Years later, “Captain” Millard Morse, custodian of Convention Hall for almost 20 years, recounted his experience with Caruso. Asked what sort of a fellow the famous tenor was, “Cap” replied:
“A wonderful fellow…When he came here I fixed up the room at the other end of the stage. I had a swell rug put on the floor, and a dresser, an easy chair and a big mirror. Caruso went in there, got dolled up, and came strolling over to my office. ‘Where does the gang hang out’ he asked. ‘Right here’ I told him. He plunked himself down in one of the chairs and stretched his legs. ‘Well, this is where I stay then’ he said. And we chinned there together, about everything almost, for half an hour or more. He was one regular fellow was Caruso.”
IV. “Bisogna soffrire per essere grandi !”(One must suffer to be great).
It was a saying Caruso often repeated and, following his 1908 concert tour, Caruso suffered in spades.
The year began well. As Caruso finished his tour in May, he was feeling on top of the world. His voice and health were good. His reviews at the Met and for his concert tour had all been boffo. His debut at the famous Opéra in Paris was coming up in June. The money was rolling in. Between his salary at the Met, his concert fees, and royalties from the booming sales of his records, Caruso had banked almost $190,000 in the past year. (8) Then the roof caved in.
On his way to Europe, he learned his beloved father had died. And a few weeks later his mistress of 11 years, Ada Giachetti, mother of his two children, deserted him to run off to South America with her handsome young chauffeur. She later sued Caruso, unsuccessfully, for support. That she was married to someone else the whole time didn’t help her case
Caruso was staggered. But he recovered. He was still relatively young, there were other women, and his operatic career and record sales continued apace. During WWI he sang at war bond rallies, helping to raise over $20,000,000. And in 1918 he married an American socialite (her father disapproved). (9)
Then in December 1920, coming down with what he thought was a cold, he collapsed on the stage of the Met while performing “Pagliacci.” Pneumonia and pleurisy followed, along with a series of surgical procedures. But in the spring Caruso had recovered enough take his wife and new daughter home to Naples.
On July 17 Caruso sent a postcard to a friend, “In the best of health thanks to the sun and sea baths. I have voice to sell for still a score of years. Whatever I do, I do with great vigor.”
Two weeks later, at the age of 48, Enrico Caruso was dead. (10)
V. The Star that Never Faded
Despite being recorded over a century ago, most of Caruso’s records have been re-mastered and are still available today on CDs or via downloads or streaming media. Considering that all his recordings were made acoustically — requiring him to sing into a metal horn as the sound waves were mechanically relayed to a stylus which cut the master disc — and considering that the recording quality is not the best, no matter how much digital enhancement is applied, the availability of the bulk of his work is testament to Caruso’s enduring popularity in the marketplace.
In 1987 the National Academy of Recording Arts and Science awarded Caruso, who had been dead for 66 years, a Lifetime Achievement Award. That same year the US Postal Service honored him with a postage stamp. And Caruso even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, although I’m not sure that’s an honor considering some of the entertainment industry lightweights he has to share the pavement with.
(1) Caruso would never again perform in Naples, later stating he would return, “only to eat spaghetti”.
(2) Reportedly, at a concert in Yankee Stadium, without any form of amplification, his voice could be heard clearly throughout the ball park.
(3) Going beyond recorded music, and taking a tentative step into the future, on January 13, 1910, the live voices of Caruso and other stars of the Met were broadcast by Lee De Forest over his primitive transmitter in New York City, where his signal was received by the public and press, using earphones and crystal sets to listen to the world’s first public radio broadcast.
(4) Caruso didn’t play favorites. He also endorsed pianos, cigarettes, and throat lozenges.
(5) On his tour Caruso brought along a recipe for the broth he consumed before each performance in lieu of a meal. The broth consisted of, “the juice of two fine steaks and a chicken.”
(6) In addition to Caruso, among the world-class performers who appeared on the Convention Hall stage were: George Gershwin (where he apparently performed “Rhapsody in Blue” for the first time outside of NYC), Fritz Kreisler, John McCormack, Gustav Mahler, Ignacy Paderewski, Geraldine Farrar, Nellie Melba, and Sergei Rachmaninoff. For obvious reasons, I’ve also nominated Convention Hall for inclusion in the Rochester Music Hall of Fame.
(7) Not everyone was impressed by Convention Hall, one detractor describing it as, “an armory converted into a barn, with folding chairs and hand-painted stage decorations.”
(8) By 1918, Caruso’s annual income tax bill was $154,000. He insisted on paying it early: “… if I wait something might happen to me, then it would be hard to collect. Now I pay, then if something happen to me the money belongs to the United States, and that is good.”
(9) After WWI, in what has to be one of the strangest attempts in cinematic history to play off a performer’s popularity, a man renowned for his singing was hired to make two silent movies…at a salary $100,000 each. In the first, Caruso played a dual role, as an Italian tenor (silently “singing” his famous aria Vesti la giubba) and as his cousin. A subsequent review of the movie stated that,“ few films ever enjoyed less success.” For those so inclined, it can be viewed on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BtDG_3o_1-E. The second movie was even worse. So bad that it was never released.
(10) As was later done with Lenin, Caruso’s embalmed corpse was kept on public display, in the Cimitero Del Pianto in Naples, where he was annually re-attired in a new suit. After eight years as a tourist attraction, his widow finally managed to get him buried for good.