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Enrico Caruso: The Caricaturist

Author: Rita C. Altobelli

( Article orginally published September 1944 by The Compleat Collector)

About the termination of World War I, when President Wilson was the man of the moment, some-where in New York, the sovereign of the lyric stage stopped before a bookstore window to admire a caricature of the President signed "E.C." This forty-five-year old child pressed his nose eagerly against the window and asked his wife to go in and price his caricature. When he heard it was being sold at $75 he was thoroughly delighted... and completely oblivious of his $1,000-a-day earning capacity and his five-continent fame as the world's most beloved voice.

Enrico Caruso was no exception to the almost stead-fast rule of adolescent inhibition and indecision. Though his father had planned a mechanic's future for his Enrico, the child was torn between singing and sketching-and he gave up neither. As he once explained, what did his name signify but "dear use" (caruso). God had endowed him with a golden voice which was to be a dear use to him in bringing joy to others. And that inward struggle was soon settled: first place to his voice, and second, to his pen.

Caruso was born in the land of song. His heritage was stronger than himself. Song is second nature to the Neopolitan; in the streets, at the waterfront, the sailors, the fishermen, the peddlers, the beggars-all sweeten their cares and labors with song. Strangely enough, one of Caruso's ambitions as a child was to become a sailor.

Born in 1873, one of twenty-one children-of whom only three survived, Caruso had a champion to his every cause in his adoring mother. He was sent to the Bronzetti School, whose principal soon discovered the boy's talent and capitalized on it. From school to church, to cafe, the youngster found many openings. He was heard once by a baritone, Massiano, who was so impressed as to take Enrico under his wing immediately, presenting him to his teacher, Guglielmo Vergine. Vergine, who already had quite an assortment of gratuitous pupils, admitted Caruso to his class, and in return for his instruction made a con-tract with Caruso to shylock him out of twenty-five percent of his total earnings for five years of actual singing. This was settled in court in later years by an agreement upon a definite sum of lire to be paid to the music teacher.

When Caruso was fifteen he received his first blow. The death of his mother, who had stood behind him and against her own husband in favor of a singing career for her Enrico, was a great loss to him. Chin up, he fought doubly hard to make a place for himself. Soon one engagement followed another-from concert to opera. At twenty-one he entered his first operatic role in "L'Amico Francesco" at Naples, to be followed by many others, until one fine evening the opera "Faust" was hissed and the artists dismissed after the second act. Caruso thereupon pledged never to perform there again. And, indeed, the promise was kept: when Caruso returned to Naples, it was never professionally. He toured Italy and Egypt, Russia and South America, steadily climbing the rungs to success. The final test came on December 26, 1900-a debut at La Scala, Milan, would weaken the most steady knees. Giulio Gatti-Casazza was then manager of La Scala and Arturo Toscanini conductor. The role was Rodolfo in La Boheme-one of his best throughout his entire career. The conditions before the performance were-as Fate always plots when much is at stake - most trying. Caruso had contracted fever. Toscanini, even then known for his extreme discipline, insisted upon over-long rehearsals up to the last minute. Breaking through all these forces, Caruso's artistry prevailed-and that night a new name was "made".

What a full life was his, then! He had the loving companionship of Ada Giacchetti, who, incidentally, had been his supporting Mimi for his first Rodolfo in 1897. Their union was typical of the characters they had portrayed upon first meeting. For eleven years they were to live happily together. She bore him two children, Rodolfo and Enrico, Jr. His favorite sport in those days was trying to locate his dear ones in the vast audiences from the stage.. and his eye was always good. It was when Caruso had already basked in five years' adoration of his American public that Giacchetti left his home, in 1908, for South America. It was that same year his father died. En route to London from New York, the singer collapsed with emotion when the news of his father's passing was given him by Father Tonello. In a very touching letter, now in possession of one of the artist's dearest friends, Mr. Marziale Sisca, the world's operatic idol speaks of his extreme unhappiness. Alone, and loved by none, he wishes to be once more the plain, un-known Neopolitan citizen, running his own life his own way and recipient of the affection of his own family. At this moment the drawbacks of fame weighed heavily upon his heart.

The years to follow were indeed lonely ones. There were, of course, the children, pampered with those luxuries of youth which had been lacking in their father5 childhood. There was, too, his devoted public. But to fill up his private hours-the hours when he was not at some conference or dinner or some time-wasting public gathering, he continued to collect his precious objects d'art. This hobby of his began in 1906 with the acquisition of a gold coin of Arsinoe II. At the time of his death the coins alone of his entire collection numbered over 2,000-from all countries and all periods. A few of the other items were Roman, Egyptian and Alexandrian glass and pottery, Italian and Syrian terra cottas, French and Oriental porcelain, antique Italian furniture, Italian Renaissance bronzes, Persian and Indo-Persian miniatures and illuminations from the Tabbagh Collection, early Greek and Egyptian bronzes from the Morgan and Kann Collections, exquisite enamel and gold boxes and watches, some of which came from the Alfred Rothschild Collection in Paris. Caruso enjoyed visiting the antique shops in the remotest corners of his world-wide journeys in search of the beautiful. Like a true collector, he spent hours browsing; he knew the history of every piece and never tired relating stories about his objects as he fondled them with caressing hands.

Two years after his death, Caruso's fine collection was put under the hammer in New York City. Among the other pieces to find new possessors were over five hundred caricatures, in pencil, ink or crayon. Gimbel Brothers Fifth Floor has recently acquired a good number of these, and a few of the artist's bronzes.

As Fink relates in his Success In Music And How It Is Won: Caruso was a "genuine humorist; no professional comedian could be. funnier than he is, for instance, in Donizetti's L'Elisir d"Amore.. at each performance he introduces new laughable details. His sense of humor is also manifested in his remark-able talent for making caricatures, in which he prides more than in his success as a tenor.... It is amusing to watch him at public dinners. Not knowing enough English to follow the speeches, he amuses himself sketching his neighbors and the speakers. Once when I happened to be sitting at the same table, his menus gave out, so he drew the most amusing sketch of Ernest Schelling on the table cloth." His hand was quick, his eye keen, for seizing and exaggerating the comical feature of any face. At any time of day, on any occasion, the singer would reach for his pencil, sometimes it was the handy crayon, or pen and ink. and whatever the paper might be-notepaper, hotel letterhead, menus. Great, too, and irreplaceable for many decades to come, were the names that made up the entourage of the tenor. And most of these have been sketched by him. Puccini, Charpentier, Tos-canini, Scotti, Schaliapin, Richard Strauss, Hammer-stein, Elman, Gatti-Casazza, Mascagno... the list is endless.

From 1906 to his very last, Caruso contributed regularly to an Italian weekly, La Follia di New York, published by Mr. Marziale Sisca. The New York World had tried to lure him from La Follia with an attractive offer but was flatly refused. These caricatures were published in 1939 and we understand a new edition is soon to go to press.

Caruso's sense of humor bordered on the slapstick in certain instances. From his New York hotel window he used to enjoy windy, rainy days:-the havoc played upon skirts, hats and umbrellas by the elements would send him into childlike gales of laughter and kept him amused for long periods at a time. He liked playing jokes on others, what he would call "making a funny". This wasn't his only Neopolitan characteristic. There was the moodiness and temperament, and. impulsiveness to such a degree that he could take to throwing and breaking things from his dressing table just before going on stage and when on the stage being petrified with stage fright. In fact, it is to his stage fright that he often gave credit for the quality of his voice and the success of his performance. And then, his inherent simplicity and generosity. His valet relates an incident that occurred in Germany. He had received before the performance a wreath of flowers from a group of students who had secured standing room tickets. At the end of the evening, back in his dressing room, when he remarked on the thoughtfulness of these young people, some-one said to him: "Yes, it's too bad they didn't hear you."

"Why, didn't I sing loud enough?"

"No, it isn't that. There just wasn't enough standing room in the theatre for them."

Caruso thereupon walked to the window, and when he appeared, was greeted by wild cheers. He threw open the window and sang an aria for them ... and all was still. Upon finishing, the cheers rose again, more deafening than before. When the tenor left the opera house to get into his carriage, some of the students in the crowd detached the horses and "jinrickshaed" him home. Another instance is related by his wife, Mrs. Dorothy Benjamin Caruso, in Wings of Song. After they were married in 1918, they made a trip to Italy to spend some time at his Villa Bellos-guardo, near Florence, which he shared with some twenty-odd relatives. Unfortunately, at the time, the Italian countryside was overrun by communists. And, without exception, these hordes made the rounds of the well-to-do, demanding foodstuff in great quantities "or else". When Caruso was visited by them, he treated them with kindness, as if he had been expecting them, and offered whatever was available. His one request was, please, to leave him a few weeks' provision for his family!

In this, already the twilight of his life, he had found new joy in his wife and his little Gloria. We get a first-hand glimpse of the man from Mr. Pierre Key's introductory pages to the biography of Enrico Caruso. It was in February, 1920, when Mr. Key was beginning to collect notes for his biography, in the singer's Knickerbocker Hotel suite, "with the narrator modeling on a clay bust of himself as Eleazar in La Juive; Mrs. Caruso clicking a small typewriter in one corner of the room.

"These were moments for studying the man, his face, his figure, his habiliments, his inherent simplicity. He spoke always with a resonant enough tone, though it was seldom loud or suggestive of a singer, except to music experts aware of the significance of a speaking voice concentrated where nose and fore-head join. Caruso's speech was rarely hurried. Deliberation, of a sort which reflected thoroughness, attached to whatever he said and to nearly every movement he made. While seated he had a way of occasionally leaning forward; massive from the waist, his high-curved, barrel-like chest indicated its store of breathing space and power.

"0n this February day Caruso was all but ready for the street; he need, only have exchanged his dark lounging robe for the customary sack coat. As usual, he was immaculate from head to shoes; the singer particularized in such matters. Surveying one side of Eleazar's nose which had eluded his modeling skill,' he half-shut his eyes as though - preparing for some mental journey. Having diverted his attention from the rebellious bit of clay, he sat with body relaxed, the stick he had been using protruding from the heavy fingers of his right hand. Directly he put it on the stand before him, to fit a cigarette into a long holder. That done, he began puffing, his head tilted to one side, his shoulders showing square and wide and high under the loose folds of his gown.

"At that instant he appeared a Somebody. Authority which he had been acquiring gradually for years was in those days of his life so natural that in such a situation he seemed splendidly aloof. Even the Caruso voice was subservient to this authority, which made him the singer he could not have become with voice alone, though it were this rather special voice." That same year, in December, during the performance of Pagliacci, at the Metropolitan, the singer was seized with violent pain, and between the acts he noted that he coughed up blood. The house doctor was immediately called, and despite his entreaties and Mrs. Caruso's and other friends around him not to continue that evening, Caruso carried on. The diagnosis was empyema, and in order to drain the pleural cavities, part of his rib was removed in an operation later in the month. It was a blow to the tenor to learn that those marvelous bellows were thus permanently injured. He was advised that the sunshine and air of his own country would restore his health, so he made preparations in May of 1921 to go to Italy for his convalescence. Little did he know that he was never to return to his beloved America. Following is the last letter that Mr. Sisca received from him, which was published in the edition of caricatures from La Follia di New York, now out of print, and parts of which we are quoting with his permission:

Sorrento, July 29, 1921.

Dear Marziale,
Undoubtedly I am passing the ugly period of convalescence, for I am troubled constantly by acute pains which worry me. Not later than this morning Doctors Bastianelli of Rome visited me and they have requested me to come to Rome in order to obtain a better diagnosis and be submitted to the "X-rays"; from that and the result of the "X-rays" I shall hear the "last word". Wednesday next, August 3, I shall be in Rome. My voice, however, has nothing to do with my illness. In fact, a few days ago, to the surprise of everybody, I sang the romanza of "Marta" and the Bastianellis assured me that in 4 or 5 months I should be able to resume my work. I have sent you a caricature of the celebrated Sicilian actor, Cornmendatore Giovanni Grasso, who will come to the States in the Fall. . . . Greetings from all to you and yours, Cordially, Enrico.

It was on August 2, 1921, that Enrico Caruso passed away. And the whole world mourned his passing.

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