Some 400 years ago, a small band of Renaissance thinkers in Florence, Italy, developed a new concept in theater. Known as opera, this new art form combined both drama and comedy with musical scores of the highest order.
The first opera, Daphne, was composed by Jacopo Peri. It was performed for the first time in 1597. Classic operas by such musical luminaries as Handel, Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Wagner and Puccini followed soon thereafter. By the beginning of the 20th century, opera had become extremely popular all over the world including the United States. Most exceptional opera singers, both male and female, were granted superstar status, much like rock idols are today. Of all the operatic stars, one stood out above all the others; Enrico Caruso.
Enrico Caruso was born on February 25, 1873, in Naples, Italy, the third of seven children. When he was 11 years old, Caruso became an apprentice to a mechanical engineer who designed fountains. Years later, Caruso would return to Naples and proudly point out to his friends the many fountains that he had helped to construct. On weekends, Caruso sang in his local church choir. It was there that his musical skills were first noticed. By 1891, Caruso was making more money as a café singer than he was at his regular job. He began taking voice lessons and was approached by a local opera promotor. In March of 1895, at the age of 22, Caruso made his professional stage debut in the minor opera L’amico Francesco. This led to a series of successful performances at small opera houses throughout Italy. In 1900, Caruso was invited to sing the role of Rodolfo in Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Boheme at the La Scala opera house in Milan. The conductor was none other than the famous Arturo Toscanini.
In April of 1902, Caruso contracted with the Gramophone and Typewriter Company to make a series of ten records. Over his career, he would record more than 600 records. Many of these records were for the RCA Victor Company in the United States. The proceeds from these records would make Caruso and his heirs multimillionaires.
Caruso thrilled opera lovers in South America and Europe (including a performance before the Tsar of Russia at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow). Caruso debuted at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City in 1903. Over his career, Caruso appeared a total of 863 times at this venerable New York venue. It was on the west coast however that Caruso would have his most memorable American performance (at least in his mind). After appearing in the role of Don Jose in Bizet’s Carmen at San Francisco’s Grand Opera House, Caruso was propelled from his bed at the Palace Hotel by the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Shaken but not seriously hurt, Caruso escaped the city but swore that he would never to return to San Francisco. He never did.
Caruso fathered five children, four sons with Italian opera singer Ado Giachetti (who was married but not to Caruso), and a daughter with Dorothy Benjamin of New York whom he wed in August of 1918. By this time, Caruso, a very heavy smoker, began to experience ill health with multiple bouts of bronchitis. In December of 1920, Caruso suffered an on-stage accident when a stage prop fell on his chest. Although he continued to perform, Caruso never fully recovered from his injury. On 2 August, 1921, at the age of 48 years, Enrico Caruso died of peritonitis. He is remembered to this day as one of the greatest opera singers who has ever lived.