IT APPEARS TO HAVE CHANGED LITTLE in the past eighty years. Far from being a national monument, there is not so much as a plaque to tell you that here is the birthplace of the greatest singer of his time, perhaps of all time.

The neighborhood is not the most ancient part of Naples. Compared with the jungle of right angles in the old quarter, through which even a tiny Italian-made car can hardly pass without mowing down a substantial percentage of the population, the street is light, airy and open. And it has the luxury, however narrow, of sidewalks.

If the building has had a coat of paint since Enrico Caruso was born there all trace of it has vanished. Two miserable shops with the inevitable neon signs mar the front of the ground floor. Otherwise, the facade preserves that dignity of balance between mass and line which in Italy, more than in any country on earth, is bestowed on the homes of rich and poor alike.

The courtyard is no filthier than many in New Orleans; nor is it any the more attractive because this happens to be Europe. But once in the room where the voice sounded for the first time, something takes hold of you.

The sweet-faced tenant is courteous after the manner of most of her compatriots, the open friendliness which is neither servility nor condescension. Yes, she tells you, this is the place. Eight or ten children, cleaner than those in the street, swarm around the double bed which all but fills the room.

What angel hovered over this room the morning of February 25, 1873? Thank God it was not the dark one which visited the house most often in those years. Enrico Caruso was the eighteenth of twenty-one children and the first to live past infancy.

You give a few lire to the beautiful children, who have been eying you as though you were a visitor from another planet, and go back into the blinding sunlight. Although in photographs the Church of SS. John and Paul next door is quite impressive, another example that dignity and beauty in this land are no respecters of wealth and rank, it is probably the smallest house of public worship in the world. In this tiny church Enrico was baptized -- Errico, the parish register reads, which in Neapolitan is to Enrico as Harry is to Henry in English. Enrico did not evolve until some years later.

The financial situation of the Caruso family, while never flush, was neither as dire as has been pictured. A good mechanic and a two-fisted drinker, Marcellino Caruso held a responsible job with the Meuricofire factory which made cottonseed oil and purified cream of tartar. In time he moved up to superintendent of the establishment.

After Enrico there was another little boy "without the strength to live." Giovanni, the brother who survived him, was born in 1876 and, six years later, the only girl, Assunta.

There is no photograph of the child Caruso. To compensate for this you find yourself mentally pinning his face on every urchin you see. Usually it fits. Huneker says he was always a boy.

In one of his rare autobiographical moments, Caruso tells of lying in bed, the covers pulled over his head, while his mother and father had a violent argument as to his future. Marcellino was for putting him to work then and there. Anna demanded he go on with school. Anna won but it was she who had to find the tuition money, five lire (one dollar) a month.

Father Bronzetti, who ran a school at 33 via Postica Maddalena, had drilled his choir until it was one of the best in all the city, in demand on every religious holiday and at many private social functions in between.

While we are wishing, those of us who have never heard Caruso may just as well yearn to know what he was like as the finest boy contralto in Naples. He came to be known as "Carusiello" and "the little divo" and he began to misbehave accordingly. Once when he had sung the Mercadante Mass particularly well at Amalfi he refused to ride home inside the carriage with his teacher and the other boys. His place, he insisted, was on the box up with the coachman; and there he perched until he dropped off to sleep, came perilously near falling under the wheels, and was transferred bodily to safety below.

Such outbursts didn't go down at all well with Marcellino. In his second year at the Bronzetti Institute Carusiello took first prize. As he was returning to his place, the gold medal gleaming on his little chest, the deposed champion, identified by Caruso only as Pietro, sprang from his desk and attacked him. In the ensuing fight Caruso drew his assailant's blood. Instantly the spectators' sympathy swung to Pietro. Even Father Bronzetti took it upon himself to rebuke Enrico, whereupon the little divo tore his prize from his lapel and threw it at the principal's feet.

It was now Marcellino's turn to get into the act. A chunky, powerful man, he dealt a blow which his son never forgot. What followed was infinitely more painful. "Kneel down," he roared, "and kiss Father Bronzetti's feet."

"I vowed I would never sing for the Institute again," Caruso wrote years later, the sting of that humiliation still on him, "and this vow was kept sacred and inviolate." After a year, he left school and took a job in a mechanical laboratory.

Instinctively neat and orderly, he excelled at mechanical drawing and was quite aware of the value of his services. He was about twelve when he went in to his boss and asked for a raise. It was refused. Forthwith he quit and went to work for a manufacturer of drinking fountains.

On the feast of Corpus Christi, 1888, Anna Caruso lay seriously ill. Enrico did not want to sing but his mother insisted. With a heavy heart he trudged to the Church of San Severino. It was one of only two performances in his life he was unable to finish. In the middle of the service the weeping neighbors came to tell him his mother was gone.

"Out of regard for her," he said, "I had resigned myself to pursuing my work as a mechanic's apprentice. After her death, though my heart was filled with sadness over my irreparable loss, I could see no reason for continuing this sacrifice. I left the office never to return and decided to dedi- cate all to music."

Marcellino was furious at this turn of events. Being a mechanic had been good enough for him. Why wasn't it for his son? He ordered Enrico out of the house. "Was he simply threatening me?" Many years later Caruso still did not have the answer; but he did know he could no longer remain under his father's roof. To his credit he never held this against the old man. Indeed he was extremely close to the stepmother Marcellino provided, less than six months after poor Anna had been laid to rest.

For ten years the Carusos had been living at 54 via San Cosmo e Damiano. The organist in the nearby Church of Sant' Anna alle Paludi took in the sixteen-year-old boy and gave him (these are Caruso's words) "the joy of a first engagement." What wouldn't his admirers give to hear, just once, the litany he told of singing a hundred times for two lire--forty cents--at the long Tuesday services.

Every visitor to Naples remembers the public swimming places which line the Bay. At one of these, the Risorgimento Baths, Enrico did his first secular singing. In the summer of 1891, while playing the resort circuit, he met Eduardo Missiano, one of a sizable list of people who would be anonymous today had they not helped Caruso mount the ladder of fame. To Missiano must go the credit of being Caruso's real discoverer. Never forgetting an act of kindness, Caruso, when he came into his own, saw to it that his baritone friend was engaged for small roles at the Metropolitan.

Missiano's teacher, Vergine, was unimpressed by Caruso's voice; or at least he said he was. "It sounds," he remarked, "like the wind whistling through the windows." Another time he com- mented, "It is like gold at the bottom of the Tiber, hardly worth digging for." Nevertheless, he accepted him as a pupil and drew up a contract which Caruso eight years later had hell's own time getting out of: twenty-five per cent of all earnings for the first five years--and here is the joker- of actual singing.

At twenty, like every young Italian of the time, Caruso was greeted for military service. There was in the land neither war nor rumors of war, but Caruso was thrown into something akin to shock. His friends assured him he would be classified the nineteenth-century Italian equivalent of 4-F, but he passed the physical in a walk. Shortly after his twenty-first birthday, pale and trembling, he reported to the Thirteenth Artillery in Rieti.

As a soldier Caruso was a hopeless misfit, and his commanding officer, a certain Major Nagliotti, was the first to know it. More important, he was as quick to recognize Caruso the singer. Here is the story in the tenor's own words:
"One day, it was Easter, the battalion all dined together at a dinner given by the officers to the soldiers. Major Nagliotti presided at the head of the table. After the dessert, the soldiers, in unison, demanded that I sing the Brindisi from Cavalleria Rusticana. I sang it, was applauded and requested to give an encore. But Major Nagliotti rose and reproved everyone for insisting that I sing it again and above all rebuked me for not appreciating my gift. He said he felt obliged to assume the care of it and this he would do by jailing everyone who asked me to sing. He added that he would treat me in like manner should I accede to their demands. The rebuke restrained the enthusiasm instantly. A few days later, the respected major called me aside and besides favoring me with exemption from some of the difficult exercises he suggested that I retire from military service and substitute my brother in my place."

As to just how this extraordinary transfer was accomplished Caruso is silent, but poor Giovanni, perhaps as reluctantly, certainly no more inappropriately, suddenly found himself under arms. Like any of his able-bodied young countrymen, Enrico had a military life expectancy of three years. He was out in two months, but not before Nagliotti had done him another service. The major had brought him to a rich nobleman in the town who loved music and was a good pianist. The baron was a kind man and enjoyed playing for the young recruit, painstakingly correcting his mistakes. On the piano was a score of Cavalleria Rusticana which had burst on the world in nearby Rome four years before. They went to work on it, In five days Caruso had learned the entire role of Turiddu. A year later this was to be his first part in standard opera--but that is another chapter.