The private papers of the world’s most famous singer
The tumultuous personal life of the great tenor Enrico Caruso, as dramatic as any opera, is illuminated by a treasure trove of letters and other documents offered for sale at Christie’s
In 1897, a young and little-known tenor called Enrico turned up at composer Giacomo Puccini’s house to audition. It was for the part of Rodolfo in the latter’s new opera, La Bohème. Puccini initially had low expectations, yet within a few bars of the aria ‘Che gelida manina’ stood converted. He asked the singer, ‘Who sent you to me? God?’
Enrico Caruso would go on to have one of the all-time great opera careers. At the height of his fame, after a performance in New York, the bosses at the Metropolitan Opera simply gave him a blank cheque to fill in. Luciano Pavarotti said that ‘when we tenors talk, we always say Caruso first — and then the others’.
Born in Naples in 1873, Enrico was the third of seven children. The Carusos were poor, and from the age of about 10 he apprenticed as a mechanic. A love of song soon manifested itself, though, and he began singing Neapolitan classics in bars and cafés.
Caruso made his operatic debut in his home town’s Teatro Nuovo in 1895. He would steadily go on to conquer the great opera houses of the world, such as London’s Covent Garden, where he sang for eight seasons between 1902 and 1914, and the Metropolitan across the Atlantic, where he sang on more than 850 occasions, including 17 opening nights (a record only surpassed by Plácido Domingo at the turn of the millennium).
He was blessed with a rich, versatile voice, but what set Caruso apart was the way he combined refinement with passion, mixing the old tradition of bel canto singing with the new trend of verismo.
He was also a beneficiary of fortunate timing, coming of age as he did at the same time as the gramophone. His myriad recordings earned him a mass appeal worldwide, in most cases among listeners who never saw him on stage. His 1902 rendition of the aria ‘Vesti la giubba’ from I Pagliacci became the first record of any kind to sell a million copies.
Not for nothing is Caruso often called opera’s first superstar.
He also had a personal life as colourful and dramatic as any opera he appeared in. Caruso spent lavishly on homes, clothes, hotel suites, jewellery and a string of lovers. He had two children with the singer Ada Giachetti, before starting a long-term relationship with her sister Rina and ultimately marrying the American heiress Dorothy Park Benjamin in 1918. He died three years later, from pleurisy, aged 48.
‘These letters take us inside Caruso’s mind, as he grew from provincial tenor into the world’s most famous singer’ — Thomas Venning
At the insistence of the Italian king, Victor Emmanuel III, Caruso’s funeral was held at the Basilica di San Francesco di Paola in Naples, an honour usually reserved for royalty.
A huge archive of Caruso’s personal documents is currently being offered at Christie’s for private sale. It includes 282 letters and telegrams sent by him, and 423 sent to him, dating from across his career.
‘These letters tell a gripping story,’ says Thomas Venning, head of Books and Manuscripts at Christie’s in London. ‘They take us inside Caruso’s mind, as he grew from provincial tenor into the world’s most famous singer — as well as bringing us the point of view of those close to him, drawn along by this human whirlwind. He seems to have been on a constant emotional rollercoaster.’
The archive — which also includes a host of Caruso’s financial documents, plus a handful of photographs, newspaper cuttings and court papers — was given by the increasingly infirm singer to his friend Antonino Perrone fu Antonio in May 1921. This was shortly before he left the US for the final time, and three months before his death. Perrone, who lived in Boston, was probably chosen as the recipient because he could be trusted with keeping this highly personal archive out of the public eye.
That he certainly achieved. The documents were unknown to Caruso’s 20th-century biographers, including even his own son, Enrico Jr., when writing 1990’s Enrico Caruso: My Father and My Family. They came to light only in 2014, when offered at auction at Christie’s. Now, in the centenary year of Caruso’s death, they come to the market again.
Below we look at five of the archive’s most revealing letters.
Milan, 1897: ‘I’d give my life to get drunk with you on the crazy joy of happiness, of love...’
Caruso began a relationship with the soprano Ada Giachetti during the summer season at the Teatro Goldoni in Livorno in 1897. The pair sang together as Violetta and Alfredo in La Traviata, and at that stage she was the more famous, having built up a reputation in Italy’s regional opera houses. Two years on from his debut, Caruso’s career hadn’t quite taken off yet. It’s thought that he and Ada (who had a husband and child) shared lodgings in Livorno and soon started an affair.
The archive features a number of impassioned letters from autumn that same year, when the two were parted. Ada was back with her family, while Enrico was in Milan, preparing for an important debut. In one missive, from October 1897, he asks: ‘Don’t you realise, my love, that I’d give my life to have you near me, to hold you in my arms, to get drunk with you on the crazy joy of happiness, of love?’
He was also unhappy that Ada’s speed of correspondence didn’t match his own. ‘I feel I am going mad,’ he wrote. ‘I can’t control myself, I feel as if I’m dying, it has been two days since I had a letter from you… God, what torture this is.’
London, 1904: ‘Before each performance starts, I get so nervous that I am very nearly beastly with everyone...’
Ada left her husband and child for Caruso in 1898, and the couple would go on to have two children of their own: Rodolfo and Enrico Jr.
When he was away performing, he occasionally disclosed to Ada his bouts of stage fright. He wrote from London in 1904, for example, that ‘before each performance starts, I get so nervous that I am very nearly beastly with everyone… they say that camomile works well’. He had a particular struggle with Verdi’s opera Rigoletto, which, he said, ‘scares me to death’.
Buenos Aires, 1900: ‘The audience continued for five minutes to ask for an encore...’
More often, though, what he shared with Ada was news of his triumphs, such as his performance in Mefistofele in Buenos Aires in 1900.
‘The audience continued for five minutes to ask for an encore, and I stubbornly refused,’ he wrote. ‘I was hoarse and hardly able to go on, but as if a good angel was praying for me, and that angel was you… I took one of those C naturals… and held it until I was out of strength, voicing it down like a baritone — the whole theatre rose… I fell to the ground, and stayed until the curtain fell as it is supposed to, and then it took four people to lift me up, I was so tired.’
Unknown location, 1918: ‘I love you so much, Rico dear...’
Caruso made something of a habit of getting engaged. Following his split from Ada in 1908, he seems to have proposed to at least four women. One of those was her sister, Rina (see below). Others were the Milanese sales clerk Elsa Ganelli and the young New Yorker Mildred Meffert, both of whom took Caruso to court in high-profile lawsuits for breach of a promise of marriage. (The archive includes court papers that reveal Meffert sued him for $100,000.)
Caruso married his final fiancée, the American heiress Dorothy Park Benjamin, in August 1918. In a letter to him a few months beforehand, Dorothy mentions his asking her father for her hand in marriage.
‘Did you do as you told me you would and speak to Father?’ she writes. ‘I feel sure you did, and it makes me so happy. I love you so much, Rico dear.’
Unknown location, 1918: ‘Haven’t you already created enough scandal?’
In 1908, Ada left Caruso for the family chauffeur. He swiftly took solace in the arms of her younger sister, Rina. According to Enrico Jr.’s book, the couple had an engagement party in around 1911-12. However, with international travel becoming increasingly difficult, Caruso was stranded in the US for most of the First World War — away from Rina.
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When rumours arrived in Italy of his engagement to Dorothy Park Benjamin in 1918, Rina’s stepmother, Teresa, sent him a stern letter saying, ‘We have been hearing terrible, shameful things. I hope and trust that all is not true, because it is impossible for an honest man, and one who has duties, to behave so disgracefully.
‘What about this family which you wished to make for yourself? And this woman who for seven years has been faithfully awaiting the fulfilment of the promises you made? How will the world judge you? Haven’t you already created enough scandal?’