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It has been over ninety years since the death of the man known as the “greatest tenor of the century:” and to this day, fourteen years into the next century, the title still invokes the name Enrico Caruso. Every tenor heard today, no matter how rich the quality of his voice, is compared to Caruso. Caruso’s recordings, ninety-three years after his death are still selling. It is said that there are more books about the life and art of Caruso than any other singer.
As well, there are certain milestones in his life of which most people may not be aware. What is most interesting is the fact that Caruso’s baptismal name was not “Enrico,” but “Errico.” Errico was born to Anna and Marcellino Caruso, on February 5, 1873, in the city of Naples, Italy, the third of seven children.
They were a poor, working class family and for a while, Errico worked alongside his father in a factory.
His mother, however, wanting something better for her son, insisted that he get at least a basic education.
When he was not involved in his studies, he sang in the church choir and it was here that those around him began to take notice: In their midst stood an eleven-year-old boy who possessed a voice of distinct quality and potential promise. Anna perceived her son’s talents to be a blessing and she encouraged him to pursue a life of music. He was still quite young when his mother died, but her words remained with him and served to strengthen his determination.
To help support his family, Errico worked as a street singer and performed in cafes and private parties as well. It was at this point of his life that he met and befriended Eduardo Missiano, another singer with a baritone voice. Missiano happened to be the son of wealthy parents while Caruso was not so fortunate.
Another version as to how the two young men met describes them as being swimming buddies who did their swimming in the Bay of Naples. The manner in which they met is seemingly unimportant. The fact is that these two future opera singers were about to forge a lifetime friendship based on mutual support. The drama which destiny had intended for them would not be one performed before the footlights of a stage.
One day, for no apparent reason or simply goofing around, Errico began singing. Eduardo was amazed at the quality of his friend’s voice and asked him if he had ever taken singing lessons. Errico responded that he didn’t have the money to pay for lessons.
“Don’t worry,” said Eduardo, “I know a teacher who takes pupils for nothing. I’m one of his paying pupils and he’ll take you if I ask him.” So, Eduardo took his companion to his teacher, Guglielmo Vergine. After hearing Errico sing, the voice coach’s remarks were less than flattering, saying that Errico had only a “small voice” and that he was not interested in teaching him.
Eduardo, who would not take no for an answer, argued, “But he has been singing all day and he’s nervous. Won’t you let him come back and try again?” The teacher refused. Eduardo could not let it rest. He went to his father, who was quite influential, and arranged a second audition for Errico. This time, the teacher thought better of Errico’s voice after hearing him sing Siciliano from the opera, Cavalleria Rusticana. After the second audition, Guglielmo Vergine reconsidered.
Since Errico had no funds with which to pay for his lessons, Vergine suggested that in lieu of payment for lessons, Errico sign contract to pay Vergine 25% of his earnings for “five years of actual singing.”
Between the two signatories to this contract, Vergine knew exactly what he was doing, while Errico did not. At the age of eighteen, Errico was not familiar with the ways of the world and, as the saying goes for many contracts, “the devil is in the details.” In this case, the details would later come back to haunt him.
And so began the voice lessons under Guglielmo Vergine who suggested that Errico start by changing his name. “Errico,” said Vergine, “reflects too much of a Neapolitan dialect and Enrico will be better received by the public.” Hence forth, Errico would be known as Enrico: Enrico Caruso.
Young Caruso’s voice was not the manly, natural and lyrical sound that we have come to know. His voice extended up to high “C” in its prime and grew in power and volume as he matured, made strong by years of hard work. After the first three years of training filled with exercises, he began his work on repertoire. Enrico went on to sing in the major opera houses of Europe for several years, portraying an array of roles in Italian and French, ranging from lyrical to dramatic.
In good faith, Caruso fulfilled his obligation to Guglielmo Vergine, paying the agreed upon amount of 25% of his earnings for the first five years of his professional career. Everything seemed to be going so well when suddenly the inevitable happened: That unusual clause in the contract, “five years of actual singing,” had raised its ugly head to confront Caruso with a vengeance.
It was only then, he learned, that the meaning of the clause, “five years of actual singing” did not refer to a calendar period, but to actual performance days. In other words five years, including one leap year, would amount to 1,826 days for which Caruso would actually be required to perform. Under this interpretation, Caruso would be indebted to Vergine for practically the rest of his life.
Like any disputed contract, this one found its way to a courtroom where the matter was settled by a judge who ordered Caruso to pay 20,000 francs to Vergine. This final payment made by Caruso to Vergine, in effect, terminated the contract and settled the case. Caruso was now free to perform without contractual encumbrance and subsequently went on to sing at a number of theaters throughout Italy.
There are some who believe that the nightmarish contract he signed as a naïve young man had the beneficial effect of heightening his business acuity, for it soon became apparent that Enrico’s skills were not limited to his stage performances, but to his keen business sense as well.
On December 26, 1900, Enrico Caruso celebrated the Christmas season with his debut at La Scala by performing the part of Rodolfo in Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème with Arturo Toscanini conducting. As his career advanced, he went on to please audiences in Monte Carlo, Warsaw, and Buenos Aires. He appeared before the Tsar and the Russian aristocracy at theMariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg as well as the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow.
In 1910, a landmark event occurred when he performed live from the stage of the New York Metropolitan Opera House in the first public radio broadcast to be transmitted in the United States.
He developed an enthusiasm for commercial sound recordings, which at that time were barely making an appearance in the music world. Many opera singers of his time rejected the phonograph or the gramophone because of the low fidelity, but Caruso exploited the new technology and consequently began reaping an abundance of financial returns.
Caruso’s voice possessed a richness of sound that was unexpectedly real on the scratchy gramophone of that period. Later recordings of slightly improved technology revealed even more of the golden timbre of his voice. He made more than two hundred and sixty recordings in America for the Victor Talking Machine Company, which later became known as RCA Victor. Caruso earned millions of dollars in royalties from sales of 78 rpm disks. In 1904, Caruso set the bar for record sales when the single recording of Vesti la Giubba from Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci sold over a million copies.
Only after Enrico’s opera-singer friends realized the amount of money which could be earned recording, did they have a change of heart. They virtually lined up to get their share of recording royalties.
With the passage of time, the youthful days of Enrico and Eduardo were all but forgotten. Each man had taken his own path in life and gone his separate way with no further contact between them. And in that time, the scale of fortunes had reversed. Enrico was now rich and successful, while Eduardo had fallen into a state of poverty.
Besides having wealth and influence, Enrico was known to be generous to his friends. He also possessed a long memory and was not likely to forget his friend. Upon hearing of Eduardo’s financial situation, Enrico went to his other friend, a gentleman named Giulio Gatti-Gasazza, who happened to be the general manager of theMetropolitan Opera in New York City, to ask that Eduardo Missiano be allowed to audition. Eduardo’s audition went well and he went on to sing the baritone parts in many operas at the Metropolitan.
Enrico Caruso was a person to be loved. He was adored by countless fans, many of whom acknowledged their admiration by mail. One day, however, among his fan mail, came an unusual note requesting payment of $2,000. The note depicted drawings of a hand and a dagger and included a threat that if the amount were not paid, he could expect to be the recipient of bodily harm, kidnapping, arson or murder.
Such notes were typically sent out by nefarious characters who crawled out of the woodwork at the first smell of money. They imprinted a hand in black ink signifying the nameLa Mano Nera (The Black Hand Society), and included drawings such as a dagger or a smoking gun or a hangman’s noose.
In this case, the nefarious character in question was one Ignazio Saietta, a Sicilian gangster in New York’s Little Italy who demanded that the money be delivered to a drop-off point. Caruso, who simply wanted to continue in his career with a clear mind, decided to pay the $2,000 and be done with it. Ignazio, however, got greedy. Probably figuring Caruso to be a soft touch because of his quick response to the first note, Ignazio decided to send him another, this time demanding $15,000.
Enrico didn’t need a crystal ball to see where this was going. Unless he took immediate action against the extortionists, the demands for money would never cease. This time the incident was reported to the police who arranged for the money to be delivered to the drop-off point, resulting in the arrest of two men.
Enrico and Eduardo, who had come to aid one another in their time of need, remained friends until one day when Eduardo died quite suddenly. Enrico told of a bizarre conversation he had with Eduardo shortly before his death:
“Two days before he died, Missiano had a dream. He dreamed he was back in Naples and a man approached him with five pieces of wire. ‘Three of these pieces are to go to Panazzi,’ the man in the dream said. ‘The two others are for you.’ Panazzi was a friend of Missiano and myself who had died three years before. Missiano and I talked about the dream and we could see no other interpretation except a reference to Missiano’s own death. Whether the two pieces of wire meant two days, two weeks or two years, we could not tell. Poor Missiano! They meant two days.”
Eduardo Missiano had a wife and three children living in Naples. Consequently, Enrico took charge of his friend’s body and arranged for it to be shipped back to Naples for burial. Later, Enrico Caruso and Pasquale Amato recorded a duet from La Forza del Destino and donated the entire proceeds from that recording to the family of Eduardo Missiano.
It wasn’t long after his friend’s death that Enrico suffered an on-stage injury when a falling pillar on the set of Samson and Delilah struck him on the back. This injury is believed to have triggered a growing illness. He soon suffered a chill and developed a cough which appeared to be bronchitis. His health continued to deteriorate.
After having undergone several surgical procedures to drain fluid from his chest and lungs, he returned to Naples to recuperate, only to suffer further complications and eventually pass away. Enrico Caruso’s career spanned 25 years from 1895 to 1920. He was considered to be one of the first examples of media celebrity throughout the world and continues to hold the title of “The World’s Greatest Tenor.”