studied with Vergine and under conductor Vincenzo Lombardi.
His first success came with his performance of La Gioconda
in 1897. After a controversial reception of a performance at
the Teatro S. Carlo in Naples,
CARUSO vowed to never sing in Naples again, and he never did. He sang at
Covent Garden in London and also at theatres throughout
Europe, but he performed most often at the Metropolitan
Opera. Incomplete and irregular training caused CARUSO
to have technical problems early in his career. He was
insecure in his upper range, often resorting to falsetto or
transposition. He did not overcome this problem until 1902.
Also, his voice had a dark tone that caused some ambiguities.
This dark character worked in his favor as well, the appeal
of his voice stemming from the combination of his full
baritone-like characteristics and the smooth, brilliant
tenor qualities. He was a master of interpretation and could
handle the most difficult and diverse repertoire. He had a
rare gift for portamento and legato and had an excellent
command of phrasing. CARUSO
was greatly loved and admired, and his death from abcesses
on his lungs due to a bout of pleurisy was sincerely mourned
by the public. ~ Lynn Vought, All Music Guide
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ON AUGUST 3, 1920, IN A LETTER TO BRUNO ZIRATO,
complained of "dolore in genere"-- "pain all
over." He was not long back from a month's engagement in
Havana but there was no rest for the weary. He embarked late
September on a concert tour. There were only twelve dates, but
what an itinerary--Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, St. Paul, Denver,
Omaha, Tulsa, Fort Worth, Houston, two in Charlotte, and Norfolk.
Before he left he got in a recording session at Camden.
Always hypersensitive to criticism, he was upset by a trio of bad
reviews when the opera season opened. "If I sing as those
critics say I do," he served notice, "it is time I
appeared no more before the New York public." Mr. Gatti was
panic-stricken. Eventually Caruso was dissuaded.
There were six performances in the opera house, then the night of
horror in Brooklyn. Intercostal neuralgia, his physician diagnosed
it. "Intercostal neuralgia," Mrs. Caruso repeated it
bitterly to me thirty-four years later. "It became a kind of
Christmas Eve he sang La Juive. Bodanzky, the conductor,
visited his dressing room at intermission. Caruso was bolt upright
in a chair, weeping with pain. "If it's your throat,"
Bodanzky asked, "why are you holding your side?" Too bad
the doctors were not as scientific.
The celebration of Christmas went on as in years past -- the gold
pieces had to be put in the little coin boxes, hundreds of them,
for everybody at the Metropolitan -- until shortly after noon. A
bloodcurdling scream bent the air. Let the patient himself tell
the story, a letter to his brother, published here for the first
1 February 1921
From the convalescent bed.
From the day of Christmas until today I have suffered nothing but
torture. I will tell you what has happened.
For some time I have not been well partly because of pains in the
right flank which were bothering me a few weeks before Christmas,
and partly because of the profuse bleeding in my throat. This made
me worry in spite of seeing the doctor every day who told me it
On Christmas Day, which I hoped to pass as a most beautiful feast
because, besides a big Christmas tree with presents for friends
and children, my wife had placed under the fireplace a Nativity
with very large shepherds which I have no idea where she found.
Everything pointed to a splendid Christmas. On the Eve I had sung La
Juive and we dined afterwards, but towards 12:30 I found
myself in the dining room where I was giving presents to the
servants when I noted a pain I had never had . . . I arrived in my
bathroom. I began to wash my mouth, but that strange illness took
me again and then I decided to throw myself into hot water. I drew
a tepid bath and got in, but did not have the time to sit myself
down when I doubled over forward like a dry twig, screaming like a
madman. Everyone from the household came running and they pulled
me out. They tried to make me stand but I was bent over holding my
left flank with my left hand and was letting out howls like a
wounded dog, so loud they heard me on the street from the
eighteenth floor and throughout the whole hotel. They made me sit
on a chaise lounge where I could stay only on the edge and always
My doctor was called by telephone, and he was not at home. The
doctor of the hotel was found who, not knowing my illness and not
knowing me, did not hazard to give me anything, but it seems that
he gave me a palliative until my doctor arrived. If someone had
not insisted upon calling another doctor I would have been nice
and cold in Brooklyn. Returning to my story, my doctor arrived and
said as he had said before that it was an intercostal pain and
therefore with a sedative it would pass.
Five days I was between life and death because of the stubbornness
of that good doctor. Finally after the second day, my wife, with
the help of my Italian friends, who took turns at being on hand,
held various consultations. The last doctor said, 'If this man is
not operated on in twelve hours he is gone.' Thought was then
given to the surgeon. "He was found. He had to have the
consent of my wife to operate and when he had it he went to work.
It was a case of breaking two ribs because they came to the
conclusion that I had a purulent pleurisy and the fluid had begun
to reach the heart. What a mess. I screamed for five days, seated
at the edge of my couch day and night. Finally what I remember is
this: sounds of instruments being moved and jarred, and then as if
they had placed the point of the knife in the spleen, and then
great shouts of 'Hurrah.' What happened was that in making the
incision to get to the ribs, the pus came out like an explosion
striking the doctor, every- thing, the whole room. There was no
need to cut the ribs which would have been painful and this
indicates the speed of my convalescence.
Do you know what pleurisy is? It is what we commonly call a pain
in the flank. But there are various kinds. Mine was the most
disgusting because for years I was carrying it around and it was
the cause of all my troubles. Now I feel fairly well. I eat like a
wolf in order to gain weight because I have lost many kilograms.
And already I am beginning to walk about the room staying four
hours a day seated in the sun, when there is any, or else in the
sitting room playing with Gloria. The wound has reached its last
stages but it must be open for any eventuality. It will take
another month to close itself. The month of March, one half I will
spend at the seashore, and one half on the boat coming over there.
This is the story and I hope you are well and know that until a
tooth falls out nothing serious will have happened.
Tell Bettina that I thank her for her affectionate letter and that
she should share in this letter also.
Kisses to the children.
I embrace you and kiss you with affection.
I pray you to read this letter also to Maria, because I cannot
answer or write to all."
brave mind and spirit were about two months ahead of his body's
schedule. It had been necessary to remove a rib which he did not
know about until weeks later. In all, he had undergone six
operations, only three of which had been made known to the public
at the time. There were circulars daily, sometimes oftener, just
as for royalty. He was not able to sail for Italy until May 28.
Mr. Gatti, departing earlier in the month, had issued a windy
statement: "Enrico Caruso will without any doubt again take
his glorious post at the Metropolitan."
Before he left, Caruso paid a visit to the opera house. Even
off-season the Metropolitan is a good-sized family. From all over
they came running as the news shot through the theater, "Mr.
Caruso is here!" The comptroller locked the safe and closed
shop. The Fortieth Street stage door was left unattended.
The porters dropped their mops and brooms.
"How wonderful you look, Mr. Caruso!" was the
exclamation on all sides. The performance was going over perfectly
because everybody wanted so much to believe it--going over
perfectly, that is, with everyone but the central figure of the
tragedy. He was not deceived. Neither apparently was Gatti, who,
twenty years later, confessed in his memoirs that the first
collapse in Brooklyn had filled him with grave forebodings.
"At that very moment," he said, "I had a fleeting
premonition that Caruso was lost."
Annie Kempter was not fooled either. Annie was head of the
cleaning women and dared sound the only baleful note. What she
beheld crushed her and she couldn't hold it back.
"Mr. Caruso," she whispered, "I think you look
"Annie," Caruso replied quietly, "you are the only
one who tells me the truth."
With Mrs. Caruso and Gloria he sailed from Brooklyn on the Presidente
Wilson. There was a great turnout and general merrymaking on
The rooms the Carusos occupied at the Hotel Vittoria in Sorrento
are pretty much today as they were then except that the great gilt
piano is gone. Undeterred by the heavy blinds, the sunlight and
salt air have faded the ornate damask covering the walls. The
overblown Louis XVI furniture is the same.
Enrico swam every day, Gloria never far from his side. He found
his way through the Vittoria's gardens to the beautiful little
town square. Everywhere he was greeted like a king. He was gaining
weight as his photographs show and he was gorgeously tanned. But
he foolishly insisted on making trips to Capri and Pompeii.
On July 15, he felt the old pain in his side. It was July 28
before he would consent to see the famous Bastianelli brothers,
the best doctors in Italy at the time. Their verdict was that a
kidney must be removed. The operation would be done at their
clinic in Rome the next week. Two days later Caruso sank into
delirium. Mrs. Caruso called Giovanni and the sad little party set
forth, deciding to break the journey in Naples. They checked into
the Hotel Vesuvio. The end was swift and terrible, in
indescribable heat and pain. He began to scream again, those same
dreadful cries of Christmas Day.
Tuesday morning, August 2, Mrs. Caruso remembered hearing the
clock strike nine. In the next five minutes he spoke three times.
That was all.
I am often asked, "What did Caruso die of?" The letter
to his brother is a painfully accurate medical history. Several of
the doctors Mrs. Caruso never forgave, particularly him of the
intercostal neuralgia diagnosis. She also had some definite ideas
about the Neapolitan practitioners who couldn't be roused those
awful first days of August or who, when finally rounded up, were
so over- whelmed by the celebrity of their patient as to be
Mr. Gatti said, "He was truly a victim of his own wilfulness."
He might have said of his own fear of doctors. "He listened
to the conflicting advice of many physicians and even to
charlatans. And then it was too late."
Claudia Cassidy is perhaps nearest the truth when she writes, . .
. in his fierce striving to be more than his public expected he
was his own executioner And, again, he was "a warrior to whom
every performance was a battle against the supreme odds of his own
Always the tantalizing question raises itself, "What if he
had lived?" He was forty-eight and at the height of his
powers. When asked at what age the singing voice is best he once
said, "For tenors I think between thirty and forty-five."
But a healthy Caruso could easily have gone on another ten years
at the top. "Indeed," Irving Kolodin speculates, "with
his power and endurance, he might have passed sixty still vocally
And what if he had survived the illness? One of his doctors told
Mr. Gatti, "Caruso will perhaps pull through, and he will
keep his voice, for the voice has nothing to do with pleurisy. But
this man will never again have the necessary breath with all these
Caruso had his wife and baby to live for. More than once in his
adorable letters to his young wife he expressed a longing to
retire. But the most beloved singer of all time not singing? One
remembers the entry Yeats made in his diary a few days after the
death, at thirty-seven, of J. M. Synge:
"We pity the living and not such dead as he. He has gone
upward out of his ailing body into the heroical fountains. We are
parched by time."
Francis Robinson, 1957