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It has been over ninety years since the death of the man known as the “greatest tenor of the century:” and to this day, fourteen years into the next century, the title still invokes the name Enrico Caruso. Every tenor heard today, no matter how rich the quality of his voice, is compared to Caruso. Caruso’s recordings, ninety-three years after his death are still selling. It is said that there are more books about the life and art of Caruso than any other singer.
As well, there are certain milestones in his life of which most people may not be aware. What is most interesting is the fact that Caruso’s baptismal name was not “Enrico,” but “Errico.” Errico was born to Anna and Marcellino Caruso, on February 5, 1873, in the city of Naples, Italy, the third of seven children.
They were a poor, working class family and for a while, Errico worked alongside his father in a factory.
His mother, however, wanting something better for her son, insisted that he get at least a basic education.
When he was not involved in his studies, he sang in the church choir and it was here that those around him began to take notice: In their midst stood an eleven-year-old boy who possessed a voice of distinct quality and potential promise. Anna perceived her son’s talents to be a blessing and she encouraged him to pursue a life of music. He was still quite young when his mother died, but her words remained with him and served to strengthen his determination.
To help support his family, Errico worked as a street singer and performed in cafes and private parties as well. It was at this point of his life that he met and befriended Eduardo Missiano, another singer with a baritone voice. Missiano happened to be the son of wealthy parents while Caruso was not so fortunate.
Another version as to how the two young men met describes them as being swimming buddies who did their swimming in the Bay of Naples. The manner in which they met is seemingly unimportant. The fact is that these two future opera singers were about to forge a lifetime friendship based on mutual support. The drama which destiny had intended for them would not be one performed before the footlights of a stage.
One day, for no apparent reason or simply goofing around, Errico began singing. Eduardo was amazed at the quality of his friend’s voice and asked him if he had ever taken singing lessons. Errico responded that he didn’t have the money to pay for lessons.
“Don’t worry,” said Eduardo, “I know a teacher who takes pupils for nothing. I’m one of his paying pupils and he’ll take you if I ask him.” So, Eduardo took his companion to his teacher, Guglielmo Vergine. After hearing Errico sing, the voice coach’s remarks were less than flattering, saying that Errico had only a “small voice” and that he was not interested in teaching him.
Eduardo, who would not take no for an answer, argued, “But he has been singing all day and he’s nervous. Won’t you let him come back and try again?” The teacher refused. Eduardo could not let it rest. He went to his father, who was quite influential, and arranged a second audition for Errico. This time, the teacher thought better of Errico’s voice after hearing him sing Siciliano from the opera, Cavalleria Rusticana. After the second audition, Guglielmo Vergine reconsidered.
Since Errico had no funds with which to pay for his lessons, Vergine suggested that in lieu of payment for lessons, Errico sign contract to pay Vergine 25% of his earnings for “five years of actual singing.”
Between the two signatories to this contract, Vergine knew exactly what he was doing, while Errico did not. At the age of eighteen, Errico was not familiar with the ways of the world and, as the saying goes for many contracts, “the devil is in the details.” In this case, the details would later come back to haunt him.
And so began the voice lessons under Guglielmo Vergine who suggested that Errico start by changing his name. “Errico,” said Vergine, “reflects too much of a Neapolitan dialect and Enrico will be better received by the public.” Hence forth, Errico would be known as Enrico: Enrico Caruso.
Young Caruso’s voice was not the manly, natural and lyrical sound that we have come to know. His voice extended up to high “C” in its prime and grew in power and volume as he matured, made strong by years of hard work. After the first three years of training filled with exercises, he began his work on repertoire. Enrico went on to sing in the major opera houses of Europe for several years, portraying an array of roles in Italian and French, ranging from lyrical to dramatic.
In good faith, Caruso fulfilled his obligation to Guglielmo Vergine, paying the agreed upon amount of 25% of his earnings for the first five years of his professional career. Everything seemed to be going so well when suddenly the inevitable happened: That unusual clause in the contract, “five years of actual singing,” had raised its ugly head to confront Caruso with a vengeance.
It was only then, he learned, that the meaning of the clause, “five years of actual singing” did not refer to a calendar period, but to actual performance days. In other words five years, including one leap year, would amount to 1,826 days for which Caruso would actually be required to perform. Under this interpretation, Caruso would be indebted to Vergine for practically the rest of his life.
Like any disputed contract, this one found its way to a courtroom where the matter was settled by a judge who ordered Caruso to pay 20,000 francs to Vergine. This final payment made by Caruso to Vergine, in effect, terminated the contract and settled the case. Caruso was now free to perform without contractual encumbrance and subsequently went on to sing at a number of theaters throughout Italy.
There are some who believe that the nightmarish contract he signed as a naïve young man had the beneficial effect of heightening his business acuity, for it soon became apparent that Enrico’s skills were not limited to his stage performances, but to his keen business sense as well.
When we continue, we will see how Caruso was able to amass a fortune much to the bewilderment of his opera-singer colleagues, as well as his method of dealing with gangsters who threatened his life.