Born: 1873 02 27 

(in Naples, Italy)

  Died: 1921 08 02





 CARUSO studied with Vergine and under conductor Vincenzo Lombardi. His first success came with his performance of La Gioconda in 1897. After a controversial reception of a performance at the Teatro S. Carlo in Naples,  CARUSO vowed to never sing in Naples again, and he never did. He sang at Covent Garden in London and also at theatres throughout Europe, but he performed most often at the Metropolitan Opera. Incomplete and irregular training caused CARUSO to have technical problems early in his career. He was insecure in his upper range, often resorting to falsetto or transposition. He did not overcome this problem until 1902. Also, his voice had a dark tone that caused some ambiguities. This dark character worked in his favor as well, the appeal of his voice stemming from the combination of his full baritone-like characteristics and the smooth, brilliant tenor qualities. He was a master of interpretation and could handle the most difficult and diverse repertoire. He had a rare gift for portamento and legato and had an excellent command of phrasing. CARUSO was greatly loved and admired, and his death from abcesses on his lungs due to a bout of pleurisy was sincerely mourned by the public. ~ Lynn Vought, All Music Guide




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Caruso complained of "dolore in genere"-- "pain all over." He was not long back from a month's engagement in Havana but there was no rest for the weary. He embarked late September on a concert tour. There were only twelve dates, but what an itinerary--Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, St. Paul, Denver, Omaha, Tulsa, Fort Worth, Houston, two in Charlotte, and Norfolk. Before he left he got in a recording session at Camden.

Always hypersensitive to criticism, he was upset by a trio of bad reviews when the opera season opened. "If I sing as those critics say I do," he served notice, "it is time I appeared no more before the New York public." Mr. Gatti was panic-stricken. Eventually Caruso was dissuaded.

There were six performances in the opera house, then the night of horror in Brooklyn. Intercostal neuralgia, his physician diagnosed it. "Intercostal neuralgia," Mrs. Caruso repeated it bitterly to me thirty-four years later. "It became a kind of incantation."

Christmas Eve he sang La Juive. Bodanzky, the conductor, visited his dressing room at intermission. Caruso was bolt upright in a chair, weeping with pain. "If it's your throat," Bodanzky asked, "why are you holding your side?" Too bad the doctors were not as scientific.

The celebration of Christmas went on as in years past -- the gold pieces had to be put in the little coin boxes, hundreds of them, for everybody at the Metropolitan -- until shortly after noon. A bloodcurdling scream bent the air. Let the patient himself tell the story, a letter to his brother, published here for the first time:


1 February 1921
From the convalescent bed.

"Dear Giovanni,
From the day of Christmas until today I have suffered nothing but torture. I will tell you what has happened.

For some time I have not been well partly because of pains in the right flank which were bothering me a few weeks before Christmas, and partly because of the profuse bleeding in my throat. This made me worry in spite of seeing the doctor every day who told me it was nothing.

On Christmas Day, which I hoped to pass as a most beautiful feast because, besides a big Christmas tree with presents for friends and children, my wife had placed under the fireplace a Nativity with very large shepherds which I have no idea where she found. Everything pointed to a splendid Christmas. On the Eve I had sung La Juive and we dined afterwards, but towards 12:30 I found myself in the dining room where I was giving presents to the servants when I noted a pain I had never had . . . I arrived in my bathroom. I began to wash my mouth, but that strange illness took me again and then I decided to throw myself into hot water. I drew a tepid bath and got in, but did not have the time to sit myself down when I doubled over forward like a dry twig, screaming like a madman. Everyone from the household came running and they pulled me out. They tried to make me stand but I was bent over holding my left flank with my left hand and was letting out howls like a wounded dog, so loud they heard me on the street from the eighteenth floor and throughout the whole hotel. They made me sit on a chaise lounge where I could stay only on the edge and always bent forward.

My doctor was called by telephone, and he was not at home. The doctor of the hotel was found who, not knowing my illness and not knowing me, did not hazard to give me anything, but it seems that he gave me a palliative until my doctor arrived. If someone had not insisted upon calling another doctor I would have been nice and cold in Brooklyn. Returning to my story, my doctor arrived and said as he had said before that it was an intercostal pain and therefore with a sedative it would pass.

Five days I was between life and death because of the stubbornness of that good doctor. Finally after the second day, my wife, with the help of my Italian friends, who took turns at being on hand, held various consultations. The last doctor said, 'If this man is not operated on in twelve hours he is gone.' Thought was then given to the surgeon. "He was found. He had to have the consent of my wife to operate and when he had it he went to work. It was a case of breaking two ribs because they came to the conclusion that I had a purulent pleurisy and the fluid had begun to reach the heart. What a mess. I screamed for five days, seated at the edge of my couch day and night. Finally what I remember is this: sounds of instruments being moved and jarred, and then as if they had placed the point of the knife in the spleen, and then great shouts of 'Hurrah.' What happened was that in making the incision to get to the ribs, the pus came out like an explosion striking the doctor, every- thing, the whole room. There was no need to cut the ribs which would have been painful and this indicates the speed of my convalescence.

Do you know what pleurisy is? It is what we commonly call a pain in the flank. But there are various kinds. Mine was the most disgusting because for years I was carrying it around and it was the cause of all my troubles. Now I feel fairly well. I eat like a wolf in order to gain weight because I have lost many kilograms. And already I am beginning to walk about the room staying four hours a day seated in the sun, when there is any, or else in the sitting room playing with Gloria. The wound has reached its last stages but it must be open for any eventuality. It will take another month to close itself. The month of March, one half I will spend at the seashore, and one half on the boat coming over there. This is the story and I hope you are well and know that until a tooth falls out nothing serious will have happened.

Tell Bettina that I thank her for her affectionate letter and that she should share in this letter also.

Kisses to the children.
I embrace you and kiss you with affection.

I pray you to read this letter also to Maria, because I cannot answer or write to all."

Caruso's brave mind and spirit were about two months ahead of his body's schedule. It had been necessary to remove a rib which he did not know about until weeks later. In all, he had undergone six operations, only three of which had been made known to the public at the time. There were circulars daily, sometimes oftener, just as for royalty. He was not able to sail for Italy until May 28. Mr. Gatti, departing earlier in the month, had issued a windy statement: "Enrico Caruso will without any doubt again take his glorious post at the Metropolitan."

Before he left, Caruso paid a visit to the opera house. Even off-season the Metropolitan is a good-sized family. From all over they came running as the news shot through the theater, "Mr. Caruso is here!" The comptroller locked the safe and closed shop.
The Fortieth Street stage door was left unattended. The porters dropped their mops and brooms.

"How wonderful you look, Mr. Caruso!" was the exclamation on all sides. The performance was going over perfectly because everybody wanted so much to believe it--going over perfectly, that is, with everyone but the central figure of the tragedy. He was not deceived. Neither apparently was Gatti, who, twenty years later, confessed in his memoirs that the first collapse in Brooklyn had filled him with grave forebodings. "At that very moment," he said, "I had a fleeting premonition that Caruso was lost."

Annie Kempter was not fooled either. Annie was head of the cleaning women and dared sound the only baleful note. What she beheld crushed her and she couldn't hold it back.

"Mr. Caruso," she whispered, "I think you look terrible."

"Annie," Caruso replied quietly, "you are the only one who tells me the truth."

With Mrs. Caruso and Gloria he sailed from Brooklyn on the Presidente Wilson. There was a great turnout and general merrymaking on the pier.

The rooms the Carusos occupied at the Hotel Vittoria in Sorrento are pretty much today as they were then except that the great gilt piano is gone. Undeterred by the heavy blinds, the sunlight and salt air have faded the ornate damask covering the walls. The overblown Louis XVI furniture is the same.

Enrico swam every day, Gloria never far from his side. He found his way through the Vittoria's gardens to the beautiful little town square. Everywhere he was greeted like a king. He was gaining weight as his photographs show and he was gorgeously tanned. But he foolishly insisted on making trips to Capri and Pompeii.

On July 15, he felt the old pain in his side. It was July 28 before he would consent to see the famous Bastianelli brothers, the best doctors in Italy at the time. Their verdict was that a kidney must be removed. The operation would be done at their clinic in Rome the next week. Two days later Caruso sank into delirium. Mrs. Caruso called Giovanni and the sad little party set forth, deciding to break the journey in Naples. They checked into the Hotel Vesuvio. The end was swift and terrible, in indescribable heat and pain. He began to scream again, those same dreadful cries of Christmas Day.

Tuesday morning, August 2, Mrs. Caruso remembered hearing the clock strike nine. In the next five minutes he spoke three times.

That was all.

I am often asked, "What did Caruso die of?" The letter to his brother is a painfully accurate medical history. Several of the doctors Mrs. Caruso never forgave, particularly him of the intercostal neuralgia diagnosis. She also had some definite ideas about the Neapolitan practitioners who couldn't be roused those awful first days of August or who, when finally rounded up, were so over- whelmed by the celebrity of their patient as to be completely ineffectual.

Mr. Gatti said, "He was truly a victim of his own wilfulness." He might have said of his own fear of doctors. "He listened to the conflicting advice of many physicians and even to charlatans. And then it was too late."

Claudia Cassidy is perhaps nearest the truth when she writes, . . . in his fierce striving to be more than his public expected he was his own executioner And, again, he was "a warrior to whom every performance was a battle against the supreme odds of his own previous triumphs..."

Always the tantalizing question raises itself, "What if he had lived?" He was forty-eight and at the height of his powers. When asked at what age the singing voice is best he once said, "For tenors I think between thirty and forty-five." But a healthy Caruso could easily have gone on another ten years at the top. "Indeed," Irving Kolodin speculates, "with his power and endurance, he might have passed sixty still vocally hale."

And what if he had survived the illness? One of his doctors told Mr. Gatti, "Caruso will perhaps pull through, and he will keep his voice, for the voice has nothing to do with pleurisy. But this man will never again have the necessary breath with all these operations."

Caruso had his wife and baby to live for. More than once in his adorable letters to his young wife he expressed a longing to retire. But the most beloved singer of all time not singing? One remembers the entry Yeats made in his diary a few days after the death, at thirty-seven, of J. M. Synge:
"We pity the living and not such dead as he. He has gone upward out of his ailing body into the heroical fountains. We are parched by time."

Francis Robinson, 1957