Crypto Caruso: the Origins
Orlando R. Barone
There are many enduring mysteries surrounding the greatest Italian tenor of
the phonographic era, but two have proved especially nettlesome. Both of
these concerns origins, his origin as a singer, and as a living, breathing
native son of Naples. No single article will lay them to rest, of course.
The man is so much larger than life that mysteries will adhere as long as
Italian opera evokes the primordial passions of those who revere it and who
revere the tenor who stands for all time, like Zeus, at the pinnacle of his
art and, like Janus, at the portal of our recorded heritage.
Enrico Caruso's astounding notoriety, even as the seventy-fifth anniversary
of his death draws near, is ironically a major cause of mystery and
misinformation about his colorful, fascinating life. Biographers,
historians, all those interested in a factual accounting of the lives of
opera's giants, would do well to observe a few cautions as they labor in the
enormous shadows cast by such as Caruso.
The Caruso mysteries persevere with such tenacity that they comprise a kind
of "cryptology" of the Neapolitan. To assert that there are solutions or
most likely scenarios is to say only that clues abound and that sometimes the
clues add up to a convincing chain of logic.
The two enigmas are familiar to any who have perused the biography of Enrico
Caruso. The first surrounds his very birth, his own origin upon the planet.
The date was February 25, 1873. He was actually named Errico and always
known as such by his Neapolitan intimates. Erri was his nickname. Born to
his sickly 35-year old mother, Errico is said to have been the eighteenth
the first to survive infancy. Anna Baldini Caruso then gave birth to three
more children, two of whom made it to adulthood.
The mystery? Are you kidding? The mystery is, how is this child-bearing
The answer: it wasn't possible and didn't happen! True, Caruso's most
meticulous and scrupulous biographers repeat the tale of the twenty-one
children with nary a moment's pause to scratch the surface and realize that
they are repeating a barely plausible bit of mythology.
Even an authoritative voice such as Michael Scott, whose 1988 biography is
rightly renowned as one of the best, claims without cracking a smile that
Anna Baldini did indeed give birth to at least twenty-one children, eighteen
by age thirty-five. He is in excellent company, including Francis Robinson,
Howard Greenfeld, and the sprightly Stanley Jackson, all recent biographers
with well honed research skills.
It was the second son of the tenor, Enrico, Jr., who finally whips out his
calculator and concludes, accurately, that it doesn't add up. In his often
derivative but nonetheless engrossing biography, Enrico Caruso, My Father and
my Family, the younger Caruso finally checks the record of his grandparents'
fecundity and finds it clear. Using the pioneering research of Guido
d'Onofrio, Caruso is able to ascertain that Anna Baldini married Marcellino,
Errico's father, on August 21, 1866, a mere seven years before the great
singer's birth. Anna certainly did not bear eighteen children in seven
years! The record actually confirms that Anna and Marcellino had two sons,
Pasquale and Antonio, before little Erri came along. Two. No more.
Both of Erri's brothers were living when he was born, another fact falsified
in most accounts. Sadly, Antonio died four months after Erri's birth, while
Pasquale lived to the age of seven. Of Anna's later offspring, all younger
than Errico, Giacomo, Giovanni, Frencesco, and Assunta, only Assunta and
Giovanni survived childhood.
Giovanni looked at lot like his famous brother and lived a long life. He is
one source for the tale of the twenty-one children. He never denied it when
Caruso's first biographer, Pierre Key, wrote, "Caruso and his brother
Giovanni-speaking on separate occasions-were in agreement as to the ages of
their father and mother; each stated that there were twenty Caruso boys and
one girl (1922)."
Were Giovanni and Enrico lying? Well, neither were even born when the
alleged seventeen births took place. It sounds very much like a family
legend. It probably started small; there really were, after all, multiple
tragedies as one Caruso son after another died, four in all, albeit after
Erri's birth. What would it take in a town the size of Caruso's, Piedimonte
for a tragic tale to swell into an epic myth of untimely death? Enrico
becomes a bonafide miracle, the only one of eighteen children to survive with
his golden voice seemingly preserved by nothing less than Divine
intervention! The tenor himself abetted the legend, claiming throughout his
life that the potent sustenance of his wet nurse bequeathed him not only
survival but strong unmarred teeth.
Another fact that lent a little plausibility to the story was Anna's age:
she was thirty-five when Erri was born. However improbable, seventeen
previous births was a biological possibility, and no sibling younger than
Errico was alive when the public came to know the tenor. The two bothers
repeated to biographer Pierre Key the story of the twenty-one children. No
contemporary ever refuted it. All future biographers simply repeated it.
Of course, Anna Baldini did not marry Marcellino until she was twenty-eight,
but no one scoured the old church records to ascertain this fact, and
youthful marriages were supposed to be the norm among the "peasants," though
this belief too was an exaggeration. Enrico, Jr. contends that, since Anna
had no dowry, Marcellino probably had to build up his funds before they could
marry and start a family.
How about a previous marriage for Anna? Extremely unlikely, since the record
of her marriage to Marcellino lists her by her maiden name with no reference
to a previous marriage. Besides, no one ever even hinted that all those
births were from a previous relationship. No, the simple fact is that a
bizarre and unlikely story has been given credibility by more than seventy
years of repetition. Caruso's biographers, reputable and painstaking, have
been whispering an implausible family legend down a very long lane.
The second Caruso mystery concerns the origin and development of his
magnificent instrument. "From babyhood," claimed his late-in-life spouse
Dorothy, "he sang as the birds sing, without instruction, from his heart."
She goes on, "...for one year, when he was nineteen, he listened to Maestro
Vergine teach other young singers. That one year of listening was all the
musical training he ever had. (Enrico Caruso, His Life and Death, p. 63)"
Influential pictorial biographer Francis Robinson, who adored both the tenor
and his young wife, seemed to accept this nonsense of no training with
uncharacteristic credulity. "Caruso had only two singing teachers, Vergine
and Vincenzo Lombardi. (Caruso: His Life in Pictures, p. 27)" Vergine was
an early teacher who transmitted to Caruso the rudiments of singing, and
Lombardi was said to have taught Enrico how not to crack on his high notes,
an early problem that threatened to turn him into a light and dismissable
The mystery is, how can a voice so obviously well cultivated, beautifully
contoured to the nuances of every role, of every collaborating singer, how
can this voice have emerged without training of the highest order?
In rebuttal some will cite tenor Mario Del Monaco. That huge voice was
largely untrained, and the fact is well documented. Sorry. Bad example.
Del Monaco never reached his potential. His voice remained always rough
around the edges, and his records give ample evidence of his disdain for
formal training. His contemporary, Mario Lanza, is an even more frustrating
example of a great natural voice that suffered from its owner's refusal to
submit to the discipline of strict training.
Caruso's recorded legacy shows nothing of this plateauing. Quite the
contrary, his improvement is so dramatic as to be at times astounding.
Michael Scott's tour through Caruso's records is brilliant, fascinating and
instructive (Scott, The Great Caruso, pp. 59-61). Scott compares records of
the same arias pressed at different points in the tenor's career. "Caruso's
art is in a constant state of change and development." He recorded Celeste
Aida six times from 1902 to 1911, the period of his most tremendous vocal
The CDs marvelously reproduced in RCA's The Complete Caruso give frank
testimony to this development. In 1902 a young, very lyric tenor whisks
through Celeste Aida avoiding power plays and landing on a frightening
falsetto at the finish. The second recording a few months later is more
dramatic, but the tenor avoids problems with the final phrase by just
omitting it. By 1904, "his manner has become altogether more assured and he
brings to it a typically full-throated conclusion. (p. 58)." Caruso
continues improving, and by 1911, Celeste Aida, complete with opening
recitative, "has always been considered one of his finest recordings."
To Scott's enduring credit he uses Caruso's recorded legacy to destroy the
contention that Caruso's voice deteriorated with age. Quite the opposite.
There emerges in 1917 a confident tenor who can blast perfect B-flats three
times with the soprano in the Rigoletto quartet, whose voice grows bigger,
more assured and more relaxed. Scott even compares the 1906 and 1917
versions of M'appari, usually cited to show the tenor's loss of vocal power,
color, and breath control. In the 1917 rendition, Scott sees no appreciable
change in color-there is none-no great loss of breath control-he takes only a
few more breaths than in 1906, most for clearly dramatic purposes. What
Scott does hear is the tenor's total self-assurance: he no longer has to
pave the way for the final B-flat. He just lands on it, right in the middle.
And guess what? In 1906 Caruso finessed that high note with the open "ah"
sound. In 1917 he sang it as written: the far more difficult "Si"!
How did he come by these improvements? Like the birds? Without training?
To solve this mystery, a great veil must be lifted from the life of Enrico
Caruso. Beneath the veil is the greatest love of his life, Ada Giachetti,
the soprano whom he met professionally, sang with, and lived with until 1908,
when she left him in the most emotional period in the tenor's life. She is
the mother of his two sons. And she, Ada Giachetti, may be the great vocal
trainer of Enrico Caruso, in large measure responsible for his development
from a light baritone in 1901 to greatest tenor of all time in 1909.
To most of his English language biographers, Ada is a strumpet, a lackluster
soprano, an older woman who leaves her husband and son, digs her claws into
the star of the fast rising tenor and hangs on until she tires of him. None
of this is true.
Ada and Errico are a great, tempestuous love story. They lived together by
choice and never married; Ada never actually divorced her husband. No one
really knows why. Poor at first, they probably just set up house and that
was that. They sang together and separately to good reviews from 1897 until
about 1900, when Enrico apparently demanded that Ada settle down and stay
home with their son.
The reviews for Ada Giachetti were effusive and usually better than Caruso's
during this period. She was not a lightweight but an emerging soprano with a
beautiful and cultivated voice. And she was a year younger than Enrico!
They were in their early twenties when they met.
>From 1900 to 1907 Caruso's voice acquired the kind of polish, assurance,
breath control, and power that vocal experts universally attribute to highly
disciplined, superior technical training. Michael Scott mentions a
suspiciously large number of times when the tenor retreats from performing,
secludes himself with Ada, and emerges to ever increasing accolades about his
improved singing, his greatly developing technique. A hiatus happened
between July and November, 1902, when Caruso returned, after four months with
Ada and their son, to great acclaim. Scott recounts several of these periods
of seclusion, and Caruso emerges with technique improved, reviewers gushing
ever more effusively. Unfortunately, Scott never makes the obvious leap.
Ada Giachetti is taking a strong hand in the training and vocal development
of Enrico Caruso!
All the recent biographers were aware that Ada was at least a competent piano
player and accompanied Enrico as he prepared for roles. Of these writers,
Howard Greenfeld gives Ada significant credit for the development of the
Caruso voice. He calls her "an ideal partner" for Caruso. She was "an
attractive, strong-willed woman of unusual intelligencex(p. 40)" While he
disparages her unfairly as "a soprano of no special distinction," he goes on
to assert that "she was a trained musician and an energetic teacher. Her
wisdom and experience were of great help to the young unschooled tenor. Ada
studies roles with him, helped him develop his voice, and taught him the
elements of actingx" This quote assumes erroneously that Ada was older than
Errico, but it credits the soprano with a more than trifling influence on the
tenor's vocal art.
Michael Scott is more grudging in acknowledging Ada's hand in Caruso's
professional life, but he does assert that the development of Caruso's
prowess as an actor "was in part the result of the direct encouragement he
had received from Giachetti, but, indirectly as well, she was responsible for
his increasing self-confidence (p. 33)." Ada "had, in fact, made a man out
Ironically, Enrico Caruso, Jr. is modest in his assessment of Ada's
contribution to Caruso's art. Recognizing the possibility that his father
was largely self taught, the author goes on: "All the same, it is beyond any
doubt that without Vergine and Lombardi, he would not have developed into the
singer he became; and it is equally certain that he received many pointers
and finishing touches from Ada Giachetti (p. 80)." There is, however,
sadness in the postscript Enrico, Jr., makes when commenting on his father's
generosity in crediting his teachers: "The one person whose contribution he
never mentioned was my mother (p.338)"
Enrico, Jr., does quote his father's longtime European impresario, Emil
Ledner. The words are worth repeating.
At Livorno the woman who laid the cornerstone of his career entered his
life-the woman to whom he owed a great deal and who was his great happiness,
perhaps the only woman whom he ever truly loved.xAda Giachetti wasxprobably
unconsciously, an excellent and very energetic teacher. Under her
instruction and wise guidance Caruso evolved from a chorister into a true
opera singer. She studied his parts with him, trained his voice, gave him
dramatic instruction.x Ada Giachetti! Caruso's great fortune and misfortune!
None of this is meant to belittle well documented sources of Caruso's
success: his natural gifts, his unbelievably hard work, his artistic
intelligence and sensitivity, all most extraordinary. Without Ada Giachetti,
however, the puzzle is missing a piece whose absence makes the picture all
The best witness is, thankfully, the least mysterious. It is Enrico Caruso's
prodigious recorded output. Michael Scott's superb recounting of the years
from 1902 to 1908, his Ada Giachetti years, has already been referenced. One
must sit alone, though, and listen for oneself. Listen to that beautiful,
sometimes airy, sometimes unsure, sometimes lyric, sometimes baritonal voice
of 1902 and 1903, and get a taste of greatness. It is clearly a greatness
ascending. The 1904 piano-accompanied Una Furtiva Lagrima, happily and
unhurriedly recorded on two discs, stands out. The tenor voice has never
been more entrancingly gorgeous. And yet, two years later, spectacular
performances like Di Quella Pira, Un di all'azzurro spazio, and Tosti's
incomparably rendered Ideale show stronger top notes and singificant
technical improvement. By 1908 the mesmerizing rendition of Ah si, ben mio
will assure anyone with ears to hear that Caruso's growth as a singer, an
artist, an interpreter of song was fabulous during these years. The records
do not lie. This vocal development is fact.
The mystery of how it happened, however, will not recede any time soon. If
it is accepted that Ada Giachetti was a cornerstone of Caruso's emergence as
a the world class tenor, what did she do to achieve these results? Her
methods are unknown. Can they be deduced from the recordings? Is more data
available somewhere? Just what happened at the Giachetti-Caruso piano
between appearances? It is easy to picture Caruso standing behind his
beloved mistress as she placed her hands upon the keyboard. Both look
intently at the music, perhaps Puccini's latest sensation, Tosca. What does
she tell him about his diction, his phrasing. Did she have any role in the
development of his controversial "back supported" breathing technique?
We may never know the answers to these or to a host of other riddles
surrounding Caruso's evolution "from a chorister to a true opera singer."
What we can no longer do is maintain the fiction of the purely self-taught
tenor. What we must no longer do is remove from the equation the crucial
influence of Ada Giachetti, Caruso's great fortune-and ours.
The birth of Caruso and the growth of the tenor are twin mysteries that issue
important caveats to the lovers of our operatic heritage and to the
chroniclers whose wonderful writing keeps that heritage alive and fresh.
First, there is a temptation to take something larger than life and
embellish it further, to adorn the legend, mythologize the life. The
eighteenth son and the first to survive infancy-a tale of origins with power
to match the matchless voice. A self-taught singer who becomes the greatest
operatic tenor of his, perhaps any, time-an inspiration to all whose reach
exceeds their grasp.
There are other more mischievous forces lurking, the forces of prejudice and
narrow-mindedness. There is the stereotype of the Italian peasant wife
bearing child after child, twenty-one in all. Did the stereotype inhibit
otherwise careful biographers from investigating a clearly suspect story?
And what of Ada Giachetti, the married older woman, undistinguished soprano
who latches on to a young star, who never marries her lover yet bears him two
sons, who finally runs off with the family chauffeur? How did biographers
miss the documented facts? She was younger than her lover; she was
unquestionably a promising singer and accomplished musician; she and Caruso
were madly in love.
We do so want to sanitize and lionize our heroes, make them measure up to
unlikely moral standards, make them more than any of us could ever hope to
be. In doing so, of course, we come away with a cardboard icon, easily
understood, easily worshipped, easily dismissed. The least accurate Caruso
biography of all, MGM's movie The Great Caruso, proves the point. The
picture eliminated the most dramatically interesting aspects of Caruso's life
and turned it into a formulaic rags-to-riches tale, typical of the movie
biographies of the period. Make no mistake: it is wonderful that the movie
was made at all. It brought opera to the people like no one until Pavarotti
and Domingo twenty years later. And, notwithstanding the script, Mario Lanza
played him right: Italian, chubby, single-minded, generous, and oh, so
gifted. But too much was missed, and the essence of the man was not even
Biography is tricky business. The subject is always large, unique, precious,
else why write about him or her? Legends grow, myths accrue. A true
understanding of the times of an historic figure is elusive and hard won.
Yet this is the task of the honest biographer. It is a labor of
illumination, shining a light on a figure of significance, on that figure's
sojourn, fellow travelers, era. It is a high calling. Irresistibly, the
life and times of Enrico Caruso will call others to shed new light, new
perspective on the man, the singer, and, of course, the glorious world of