Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale?
No, the single most famous singer who ever lived — according to the late New York Times critic Harold Schonberg — was “most likely” Enrico Caruso.
Caruso (1873-1921) died 91 years ago this month. Many other famous opera singers of the past are all but forgotten today, including Richard Crooks, who was born in Trenton; Dorothy Kirsten, who hailed from Montclair; Maria Jeritza, the blonde bombshell, who lived in Newark, died in Orange, and is buried in Arlington; and Marcella Sembrich, who lived in North Caldwell.
But even today a great many people have heard of and listened to Caruso. And he earned this recognition. He was a man of a thousand voices, said the great Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin. He adapted his voice to the role, singing silver (lyric) or singing gold (dramatic), whatever was appropriate. Schonberg refers to his voice as “the richest, most colorful, most idiosyncratic tenor voice in history.” Among those who sang with him, wrote the English author and singer Nigel Douglas, “he was regarded as being quite simply incomparable.”
He could sing both baritone and tenor. In fact, during a performance of “Pagliacci,” he did just that — sang the baritone role, then the tenor role. Why don’t you become a baritone? someone asked him. I don’t want to put all the baritones out of business, he joked.
When a bass singing in “La boheme” ran out of voice, Caruso sang his aria for him. Here is the aria, sung by Caruso.
Most people who heard him sing were astounded. He was so much better than everyone else. “Who sent you to me?” said Giacomo Puccini after Caruso sang for him for the first time. “God?”
Caruso virtually launched the nascent record industry. Everything he ever recorded is now on CD — and he made some 300 recordings. At one time, almost every family had Caruso records. (Are the old ones of any value? Just sentimental.) But there are no movies of him actually singing. He died before sound motion pictures — although his voice has been added to silent movies of him singing.
My late mother told me that when she was a high school student in Brooklyn, her entire class was taken to the Metropolitan Opera to hear a short, fat man sing. She thought it was bizarre.
He had a sense of humor. After singing “Your tiny hand is cold” to Mimi (Nellie Melba) in “La boheme,” he slipped a hot sausage into her hand. “English lady, you like sausage?” he whispered to her. (She was actually Australian.) In another performance of “Boheme,” after Mimi collapsed onto a bed and the bed was wheeled to center stage, you could see a bedpan that had been hiding under the bed — courtesy of Caruso. (Melba apparently enjoyed his humor.)
Early in his career, he wasn’t given enough time to memorize the tenor role in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. So “his Manon,” Douglas writes, “found herself obliged to play her death scene with Caruso’s vocal score propped against her posterior.”
He was courteous to his fellow singers, not competing with them but helping them along. (Although when he first heard Tito Schipa sing at Town Hall, his verdict was: “He’s no competition.” Schipa didn’t have a powerful voice.)