Monday, October 09, 2006
Caruso in life and in death in his glass coffin
The stories about Caruso are legendary...they are often are mixed with great fun. He was always the clown.
He sang at the old Met from Nov. 1903 till Dec.1920 and was a great performer not very wooden like many of the singers of the time..
He would constantly pull pranks, Nellie Melba was not known for her sense of humor and what little she had was put to the test with Caruso as a singing partner. One time while singing in La Boheme where he was to sing his aria to MiMi...the line in Italian translated was "your tiny hand is frozen" So when Caruso started to sing the piece as he reached for her hand he placed a warm Italian sausage in it! Which Melba promptly through over her shoulder... Once also during a performance of La Boheme (which seemed to be the opera he loved to terrorize) in the last act he removed 2 casters from MiMi's deathbed so as she sang and moved the bed rocked back and forth and it made it very hard for her to die.....and the audience was laughing away....He was fined $50 dollars for that by the management. In the opera as well there is a famous scene in which the Basso sells his coat to buy medicine for MiMi...the poor bass was also a victim of Caruso's ...In the scene where he sings the coat song...he sings to his lovely coat and then puts it on and walks out...well Caruso had sewn up the sleeves so the basso could not put on his coat...after a while the frustrated basso just flung the coat over his shoulder. Every one laughed at Caruso's pranks you could not help but love him. Once when a fellow basso was having vocal trouble Caruso even sang the bass aria "the coat song" He even recorded it in 1916...but would not allow its sale as he said..."It would not be fair to all the other bassos".
Caruso sang all over the world and of course his recordings were found everywhere. It was not uncommon 90 years ago and hear Caruso singing all over in homes.. Robert Merrill once told me that he had a phonograph when he was a boy bought by a rich Uncle...and Merrill's father always brought home Caruso records..He said "they were expensive, but my mother wanted me to be a singer, so I listened to Caruso and they inspired me to sing...I was supposed to be playing stick ball with the boys below but I listened to Caruso instead". I remember playing Caruso for Merrill and I remember he had tears in his eyes.
What was it like to make a record in Caruso's day? We are so spoiled by our new systems and technology. In Caruso time to make a record was an amazing ordeal.
All of Caruso's recordings were made acoustically. This meant that everything was sung into a recording horn....no microphones! You sang into a horn and the horn lead to a vibrating diaphram and on the diaphram was a cutting needle. This cut into the warm wax disc. That was the process pure and simple. There were no mixers no reverb no nothing. Today we hear singers who mix 15 takes together to create the perfect performance....that is so far from reality. Caruso's recordings were one take..no mixing..no enhancing the sound...no reverb..nothing save for remarkable talent. Caruso made hundreds of recordings and it took about an hour to make one single. Early records from that time were one sided and there was only one piece on the record. So you would pay in 1912 dollars $3.00 for a single record. There was one recording that beat out the bunch in price ....That was the Sextet from Lucia which first was recorded in 1908 and ran for a whopping $7.00!!!!!!!!!! There was an old joke when the sextet was first released.. the translation of the Italian is...What restrains me? the answer was in those days $7.00!
Caruso recorded over 400 sides of which near 300 were released....Every now and then a test pressing is found...everyone is always hoping it will be a song that no one has heard in over 86 years.....But that has rarely been the case. But there have been a few over the last 30 some odd years.
I was thinking about Jerome Hines and his Caruso stories. His voice teacher was Dr. Curci, the brother in law of Galli Curci the soprano...he was also her voice teacher. One thing about Galli Curci she could never sing an "a flat" on key..Well there are two stories and they are not complete stories as I did not write them down at the time and I sorely regret that fact...so I have a few bits and pieces. The first story took place in South America with Galli Curci, Tita Ruffo, and Caruso. They were a power house that team..but Ruffo and Caruso were always jealous of each other vocally...Just listen to their duet from Othello together AMAZING!!! you can hear the vocal fight going on between them. However in South America the battle between Ruffo and Caruso came to its apex! It occurred in the opera Lucia and it was said by Hines that Ruffo came out on stage with the voice of 20 baritones shaking the house with his great volume..and out came Caruso singing like the arch angel Gabriel! and it became a vocal slugfest!!!! each one trying to outsing the other....Dr. Curci told his sister in law stay out of this and let those two bulls fight it out...she stayed out and by the 2nd act Caruso sounded like a broken tenor and Ruffo was not far behind and Galli Curci was the star of the night. It all came to an end and Caruso said to Ruffo.."I will never sing with you again" and he never did. It is also interesting to note that Ruffo did not sing at the Metropolitan Opera House till 1922, the year after Caruso died.
The second story of Hines's was that Curci and Galli Curci came to the Met to see Caruso sing and they were put in the Directors box. That night Caruso was singing awful. He was flat and sliding into notes...and Galli Curci turned to her brother in law and said "To bad....does not look like Mr Caruso is doing too well" She was planning her career there and she was quite happy he seemed to be coming to an end vocally. Right after that Caruso saw her and sang the next aria looking right at her. He sang it like a God..... The house went nuts for minutes Caruso all the while never let Galli Curci out of his gaze. It was almost like he had heard her statement and was there to tell her although I was being lazy I can still sing better than you.. After that she was quite unnerved..and at the end of the performance she turned to her brother in law and said "I guess we have to go back stage and congratulate him. So they did, he was in his dressing room smoking a cigarette...and said to her "I sang that just for you" ooohhh that must have hurt!! She did not sing at the Met till after Caruso died as well.
One of the most interesting stories I had heard about Caruso was his often checking of the new tenors coming out. There was a great story Mrs Caruso told about her husband.....It goes They went out late to a concert of the new tenor Titto Scipa..They arrived very late and left after about 5 minutes. Mrs. Caruso said to her husband "Why did we bother going at all?" Caruso looked her and said "Because he is a tenor....but its alright." What that meant was he had nothing to fear from him
Caruso spoke very well in English, however sometimes when he sang it his Italian Rrrrr's got in the way. One such song was the Star Spangled Banner...try as he may..when he got to the "rockets red glare" it was a sunburst of Italian Rrrrrr's. One song that he really loved to sing in English was George M. Cohan's "Over There" He loved it so that he recorded it in July of 1918. He sings it with all the passion of an operatic aria. But you can really hear the joy in his voice as he sings it!. He had trouble getting the words out for over there...so many people refer to that recording as Hover Dare!
I find it interesting that Thomas Edison did not like Caruso's voice at all! and thought his vibrato was awful. Edison basically hated Victor records anyway..using what he called his "victor ear tickle" which was a piece of cardboard that he covered his good ear with when listening to Victor records!
Caruso was a heavy smoker and in time it seems to have caught up with him, now as I mentioned before the smoking did not seem to bother the voice but it did bother his body. He started having trouble in 1919 and it seems to only go from bad to worse after that. By 1920 he was looking tired and old and he was basically looking like he was in his 60's rather than his mid 40's He started having trouble with his breathing and his chest...so much so he started to wear tight straps around him to control the pain and breath problems. He was also using a mixture of either and alcohol and gargling with it.....it is clear he was in pain. But he was not able to stop..he kept pushing himself...till in November 1920 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music he started bleeding on stage. I interviewed a woman who was at the opera that night in Brooklyn... She said "He started to cough and bleed...and he kept wiping the blood off of his face the stage was covered in towels with blood on them". He was doing this while singing by the way..finally he let out with a load cough and he got a lot of blood on a towel and the audience started to scream....and the curtain came down! He was brought backstage and his Doctor said it was only a small blood vessel that has burst in his tongue....but it was far more serious. Most people today are quite sure that Caruso had cancer...That night when he came home with his wife..she noticed 2 things first he was deathly quiet, and secondly, he was not smoking.
That night Mrs Caruso wrote in her book "Enrico Caruso his life and death" ...."Rico woke up and tried to climb out the window" You must know they were on the 30th floor!! She stopped him from jumping out the window.
He made a recovery of sorts and soon he was almost his old self again even had a special meeting with Louisa Tetrazzini at his apartment to help her with her voice problems. She had a concert to do and she was not doing well vocally. Caruso told her to come to the bathroom and there he prepared his special either and alcohol spray for her...Mrs Caruso wrote it was an image she could never forget. The massive Tetrazzini being balanced on the rim of the bath tub with Caruso holding one of her massive legs in the air and saying to her "ahhh" "ahh" and spraying her throat. while wearing his horn rimmed reading glasses...looking all the world like a doctor with a very fat and needy subject. His cure worked for her.
By December 1920 Caruso was at the zenith of his powers as an actor. Vocally he was on a slow decline..He had been asked when is the voice the best? He said "between the ages of 30-45" Now he was a very old 47 and he did not know it yet but death was waiting in the wings...He sang La Juive Christmas eve at the Met. The next morning he had a severe attack so bad that his screams were heard on the street hundreds of feet below...He was in the bathtub when it happened. His valet picked him up bodily and carried himn to a couch...the house doctor came and finally Mrs Caruso covered his face with a rag filled with either to knock him out. Doctors came and went...soon it was decided to operate. When they made the first cut into his body a very foul fluid sprayed from his chest and hit the ceiling. There were many surgeries after that...and he grew weaker and weaker. But somehow he rallied again. and he decided to go to Naples to rest and recover. He tried to be his old self but he could not...He had part of rib removed and he felt his career as a singer was over. So he brought no music with him. Once in Italy he was all over..He visited Pompeii and one day Dorothy Caruso came intothe room where they were staying and found Enrico with an old doctor with a dirty probe sticking it into Caruso's wounds. Within a day his fever was severe and his health went to ruin. They came to Naples in a rush and there Caruso died on August 2 1921. He was only 48 years old.
His funeral was a grand affair...he was given a state funeral was carried in the Kings carriage. He was buried in a glass coffin and looked at with veneration. Every year he would be redressed in the latest styles. It is interesting that the fellow who did this several times was Titta Scipa. In 1929 Mrs Caruso could not take it any more and had the coffin covered. As you have seen in the photos above..Caruso was on display...in death as he was in life. He still thrills us 85 years after he said goodbye.
Thank you Enrico Caruso I discovered you when I was a boy and have listened to you ever since. For the last 35 years you have been my vocal idol. 500 years from now they will still be listening to Caruso...For there never has been one like him again. I am always reminded of a poster from a Caruso concert in 1910...it said "posterity will envy this generation as we listen to the voice of Caruso" THEY WERE RIGHT!!!!