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One Name Only

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Today we are honoring a superstar in opera. You know someone is famous when they are referred to by only one name; Michelangelo, Beethoven, Bach, Picasso. And that is just a short list of artists and composers. What about performers? Who can possibly be ingrained in the memory of fans to be remembered by one name?

Happy Birthday, Caruso!

Caruso-arms crossed-pleasant
Enrico Caruso in a publicity photo wearing a pin striped suit, arms crossed.

Born in 1873 in Naples, Enrico Caruso was from a family of seven. His education was minimal and he made early income singing serenades. I know not all Italians sing, but in my experience, I know they appreciate music, particularly voice and violin. Even if they don’t have a great voice, they can certainly demonstrate via the language of music how they want you to play or sing a melodic line.

Caruso’s debut was at a local theater in his hometown of Naples. After singing for two years in southern Italy, he auditioned for Giacomo Puccini in 1897 as he was casting for Rodolfo from La Bohème. When time-travel is perfected, I expect this moment to be in the top five of my list. Puccini, after hearing the young tenor, supposedly said, “Who sent you to me? God himself?” Enjoy a sample of Caruso’s duet with soprano Nellie Melba, “O suave fanciulla from the first act of La Bohème. 

In addition to his personal charisma and vocal display, Caruso embraced what was new technology at the time; recordings. He sold more than a MILLION records with his 1902 recording of “Vesti le giubba” from Pagliacci.

Caruso-Pagliacci-bass drum
Caruso dressed as Pagliacci, the clown entertainer, beating a bass drum.

This aria is a fantastic display of the verismo style of Italian opera. Briefly, verismo is thought of as realism, and is a style of opera that is melodramatic, sometimes violent, and with characters drawn from daily life. Vocal lines are usually in a declamatory style accompanied by passionate harmonies and melodies. I guarantee you they are in touch with their feelings. While this particular aria has been used to sell many things and has become something of a punch line, let me assure you no one is laughing when it is seen and heard during a live performance.

Caruso made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1903, and performed there for the next 18 seasons in 37 different productions. He also began his association with the Victor Talking-Machine Company and recorded many arias. 179 arias and songs are available from the Library’s National Jukebox and there are numerous photographs of him in the Prints and Photograph collection.

From the NLS Music section, we offer these audio selections; Hall of Fame: Enrico Caruso, DBM 00989, a talk about verismo by Michael Barclay, DBM 00771, and Cavalleria Rusticana with I Pagliacci, a talk by Ann Thompson, DBM 01395. Also check out An Introduction to Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana by Thomson Smillie at DBM 03435 and How to Listen to and Understand Opera by Robert Greenberg at DBM 01608, available upon request.

Have a dramatic day!

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