CHAPTER II: THE CAREER
"A LONG CRESCENDO" is the way a New York Times headline
described Caruso's career, a summation so true and appropriate it points
up the three harsh discords which crashed amid the chorus of praise.
After alternately cheering and hissing, Barcelona let him finish his 1904
debut there in stony silence. Budapest whistled him in 1907. He never returned
to either place. But the cruelest blow he suffered was the first, in 1901,
when the audience in all the world he wanted most to please denied him,
the great San Carlo Theater in Naples. Many a time as a boy he must have
passed the beautiful old house and dreamed of singing there.
The very fact that he had a success at La Scala under his belt worked against
him in the city of his birth. He had also declined to pay his respects
to the sicofanti, an incredible bunch of phonies led by a self-appointed
tribunal of effete noblemen and journalists.
Once he had delivered, however, the public, including his initial detractors,
tried to make up to him. They did not know their man. He played out the
remaining nine performances of his contract magnificently but with cold
disdain. He never appeared before a Neapolitan audience again.
His entry in the official history of the Teatro di San Carlo is a meager
"ENRICO CARUSO. Singing son of singing Naples. Nearly all his splendid
career was spent in America where he created, among other operas, The
Girl of the Golden West at the Metropolitan in New York. He sang at
San Carlo in 1905 in L'Elisir d'Amore and Manon. After that
he did not wish to sing in Naples..."
The three dots as well as the incorrect date are the San Carlo historian's.
What an epitaph for Naples' most famous son.
With the less pretentious public of his home town Caruso had been a different
story. His first appearance on any stage was at the Tea tro Nuovo seven
years before and even in that modest framework he scored a success.
Not long out of the army, he was offered the leading role in a little piece
called L'Amico Francesco by Mario Morelli, a wealthy and untalented
amateur. Francesco had only two performances, but at one of the
intermissions the impresario of the Cimarosa Theater in Caserta wandered
back with a contract for the following April. His debut was in Cavalleria
Rusticana just a year after he learned it from the kindly baron in
Business at the box office was not so good in Caserta that spring. Every
morning Caruso had to ask the harassed impresario for his ten-lire cachet
from the night before. Ultimately, the season was cut short and Enrico
landed back in Naples with twelve cents in his pocket. "I was often
hungry," Caruso once said of his youth, "but never unhappy."
Cairo beckoned next; not the famous opera house for the opening of which
Verdi had written Aida, but a kind of resort spot called the Ezbekieh
Gardens. After the Egyptian engagement he was tapped by the Bellini and
then the Mercadante Theater in Naples.
At Salerno the conductor was Vincenzo Lombardi, Caruso's only other teacher.
In Vergine's class Enrico had been known as "a glass voice" because
he broke so easily. Every time he attacked the B-flat in the "Flower
Song" from Carmen it split wide open. Lombardi came to the
rescue. A man may not add a cubit to his stature, but Caruso by sheer determination
built a top to his voice.
He was only twenty-five when he was catapulted into world fame by creating
the tenor lead in the world premiere of Fedora, but this was the
Teatro Lirico, Milan's second theater, and not La Scala. It did not matter.
The news of his success went round the world. Offers poured in, from Russia
and South America, from La Scala itself.
Late in 1899 Caruso had agreed with Maurice Grau to come to the Metropolitan
at $200 a week for twenty weeks. There was a fifteen-day grace period.
It stretched on into two months during which Mr. Grau disappeared. The
impresario, it turned out, was at Karlsbad nursing the gout. He could not
be reached. Caruso signed to return to St. Petersburg. "I've waited
long enough," he sput- tered to Grau's Italian agent. "I must
have a new overcoat for the winter and some coal for my fireplace."
The next contract was for fifty performances a season at $1,000 each--five
years with annual increases. Before this contract could take effect illness
forced Grau's retirement. To his successor, Heinrich Conried, fell the
honor of presenting Caruso for the first time in the United States.
Triumphal European engagements continued--London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna--until
the outbreak of the war, but after his New York debut, November 23, 1903,
the Metropolitan was Caruso's artistic home. In eighteen seasons there
he sang 607 times in thirty-seven different operas.
Oddly enough, he did not create an immediate furor with either the press
or the public. The critics complained of "his tiresome Italian affectations"
and pined for Jean de Reszke. A month after he arrived, long enough for
him to have caught on, there was a Traviata with Madame Sembrich,
Caruso, and Scotti. The Sun next day noted the performance had been
heard by "a small and apathetic audience" but did go on to say
that Caruso "sang his music beautifully and succeeded in evoking warm
applause which was hard to get last night."
About this time Caruso was becoming involved in something which at the
start hardly anybody took seriously but which was to bring him his greatest
rewards in fame as well as money. He had just participated in another world
premiere, Germania, when F. W. Gaisberg of the Gramophone and Typewriter
Company arrived in Milan and set up shop in the Grand Hotel, directly above
the suite where Verdi had died the year before. The proposition relayed
to London was for ten arias, to be done in a single afternoon, at a fee
of one hundred pounds for the lot--about fifty dollars a record. London
cabled back, "Fee exorbitant. Forbid you to record."
Mainly because he was too embarrassed to go back to Caruso with such an
answer, Gaisberg took matters in his own hands and ordered the recording
session to proceed. Caruso sauntered in, tossed off his ten numbers in
two hours--without blemish, Gaisberg says--and was on his way.
The precious waxes were rushed to Hanover; the finished products reached
London in time for release to coincide with Caruso's Covent Garden debut.
They were a sensation. The Victor Talking Machine Company took over the
G. and T. masters and also Caruso. His first records in this country were
made less than three months after his Metropolitan debut, his last within
a year of his death.
During his lifetime the Victor Company paid him $1,825,000, about $130,000
more than his earnings at the Metropolitan. Since his death his estate
has reaped another near $2,000,000 in royalties from his records.
There are two stories as to how his final fee per performance at the Metropolitan
was arrived at. His last contract is said to have been handed him with
a blank space for the figure, but it had been whispered to Caruso that
the board was prepared to go as high as $4,000.
"I don't think there is a singer in this world who in one performance
can give more than twenty-five hundred dollars' worth of singing,"
Caruso is said to have replied. "If I ask for one cent more than twenty-five
hundred dollars the public, one way or another, will find out and want
from me that one cent more of singing which I have not got. Therefore,
leave matters as they are, with only one difference; instead of giving
me one first-class cabin from Italy to America and back, put down what
they call today cabin de luxe."
The other came to light in the obituaries of Gatti-Casazza, who ruled the
Metropolitan with an iron hand for twenty-seven years. Caruso came to the
general manager's office with the news that he had been offered five thousand
dollars a night by Hammerstein, who was giving the Met a run for its money
and finally had to be paid to leave town.
"If you wish five thousand dollars we shall have to give it to you,"
Mr. Gatti is reported to have answered more in sorrow than in anger. "We
will never let our Caruso go. Of course, we shall have to put second-rate
singers in your cast. We shall hire a poor conductor and underpay him.
We shall have to save on others to pay you. But we will pay you."
Caruso's face reddened. "I insist," he shouted, "that you
pay me only twenty-five hundred!"
Such were the rewards. What about the penalties? Smothered by well-meant
admiration on one side, he was beset all the days of his greatness by those
who envied that greatness or who sought to take advantage of him. Reports
that he had lost his voice circulated on regular schedule, but he probably
suffered more from the admiration he excited than from the envy. He could
never appear in public without involuntarily inciting a riot. Souvenir
hunters, hero-worshipers, cranks, and inter- viewers haunted him. I am
quoting a newspaper on this last.
But the battle which he had to fight alone was the hardest of all. "I
never step on the stage, he once said, "without asking myself whether
I will succeed in finishing the opera." In this very element of doubt--this
compulsion to be everything or nothing, his merciless demands on himself,
his relentless self-appraisal--lay so much of his greatness.
"Work, work, and again work," was his answer when asked his rule
of success. Another time he said, "This is how I have succeeded. I
never refused an engagement and I have never been without work with the
exception of two months in Naples after my second engagement. . . .
"I never refused to work. If one would come to me and say, 'Will you
go to such and such a place for the summer and sing?' I would ask 'How
much will you pay me?' The answer is 'Two thousand dollars.' But I say,
'The price for that was three thousand.' 'Never mind,' they say, 'two thousand
dollars is all that can be paid this summer,' and I refuse. 'Very well,'
they say, 'we get so-and-so.' Then I make quick thoughts in my head"--describing
swift geometric patterns on his brow--"and I say, 'I will go.' Otherwise
I lose the summer and the experience. And the experience is everything."
When I am asked, as I often am, what has Caruso to say for today, I cite
the above. In my time I have known at least six young tenors endowed with
as much voice as Caruso had--when he started.
A reviewer of Mrs. Caruso's beautiful book, written twenty-four years after
his death, knowingly summed it up:
"The source of his existence lay only in himself. This was true in
every aspect of his life. . . . All in all he was himself the great work
of art, the masterpiece."