Enrico Caruso: the value of work

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At the end of the second decade of the twentieth century, Harriette Brower, known for her interviews with great musicians such as Paderewski, Busoni and von Bülow, published in her book Piano Mastery, set to prepare a series of talks with famous singers “to obtain from the artists their personal ideas concerning their art and its mastery, and, when possible, some inkling as to the methods by which they themselves have arrived at the goal”. The first interview in her book Vocal Mastery is dedicated to a legendary artist, Enrico Caruso.


Enrico Caruso! The very name itself calls up visions of the greatest operatic tenor of the present generation, to those who have both heard and seen him in some of his many rôles. Or, to those who have only listened to his records, again visions of the wonderful voice, with its penetrating, vibrant, ringing quality, the impassioned delivery, which stamps every note he sings with the hall mark of genius, the tremendous, unforgettable climaxes. Not to have heard Caruso sing is to have missed something out of life; not to have seen him act in some of his best parts is to have missed the inspiration of great acting. As Mr. Huneker once wrote: “The artistic career of Caruso is as well known as that of any great general or statesman; he is a national figure. He is a great artist, and, what is rarer, a genuine man.”

And how we have seen his art grow and ripen, since he first began to sing for us. The date of his first appearance at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, was November 23rd, 1903. Then the voice was marvelous in its freshness and beauty, but histrionic development lagged far behind. The singer seemed unable to make us visualize the characters he endeavored to portray. It was always Caruso who sang a certain part; we could never forget that. But constant study and experience have eliminated even this defect, so that to-day the singer and actor are justly balanced; both are superlatively great. Can any one who hears and sees Caruso in the rôle of Samson, listen unmoved to the throbbing wail of that glorious voice and the unutterable woe of the blind man’s poignant impersonation?


Enrico Caruso was born in Naples, the youngest of nineteen children. His father was an engineer and the boy was taught the trade in his father’s shop, and was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. But destiny decreed otherwise. As he himself said, to one listener:

“I had always sung as far back as I can remember, for the pure love of it. My voice was contralto, and I sang in a church in Naples from fourteen till I was eighteen. Then I had to go into the army for awhile. I had never learned how to sing, for I had never been taught. One day a young officer of my company said to me: ‘You will spoil your voice if you keep on singing like that’ —for I suppose I was fond of shouting in those days. ‘You should learn how to sing,’ he said to me; ‘you must study.’ He introduced me to a young man who at once took an interest in me and brought me to a singing master named Vergine. I sang for him, but he was very discouraging. His verdict was it would be hopeless to try to make a singer out of me. As it was, I might possibly earn a few lire a night with my voice, but according to his idea I had far better stick to my father’s trade, in which I could at least earn forty cents a day.”

“But my young friend would not give up so easily. He begged Vergine to hear me again. Things went a little better with me the second time and Vergine consented to teach me.”


“And now began a period of rigid discipline. In Vergine’s idea I had been singing too loud; I must reverse this and sing everything softly. I felt as though in a strait-jacket; all my efforts at expression were most carefully repressed; I was never allowed to let out my voice. At last came a chance to try my wings in opera, at ten lire a night ($2.00). In spite of the régime of repression to which I had been subjected for the past three years, there were still a few traces of my natural feeling left. The people were kind to me and I got a few engagements. Vergine had so long trained me to sing softly, never permitting me to sing out, that people began to call me the Broken Tenor.”


“A better chance came before long. In 1896 the Opera House in Salerno decided to produce I Puritani. At the last moment the tenor they had engaged to sing the leading rôle became ill, and there was no one to sing the part. Lombardi, conductor of the orchestra, told the directors there was a young singer in Naples, about eighteen miles away, who he knew could help them out and sing the part. When they heard the name Caruso, they laughed scornfully. ‘What, the Broken Tenor?’ they asked. But Lombardi pressed my claim, assured them I could be engaged, and no doubt would be glad to sing for nothing.”

“So I was sent for. Lombardi talked with me awhile first. He explained by means of several illustrations, that I must not stand cold and stiff in the middle of the stage, while I sang nice, sweet tones. No, I must let out my voice, I must throw myself into the part, I must be alive to it —must live it and in it. In short, I must act as well as sing.”


“It was all like a revelation to me. I had never realized before how absolutely necessary it was to act out the character I attempted. So I sang I Puritani, with as much success as could have been expected of a young singer with so little experience. Something awoke in me at that moment. From that night I was never called a ‘Broken Tenor’ again. I made a regular engagement at two thousand lire a month. Out of this I paid regularly to Vergine the twenty-five per cent which he always demanded. He was somewhat reconciled to me when he saw that I had a real engagement and was making a substantial sum, though he still insisted that I would lose my voice in a few years. But time passes and I am still singing.


“The fact that I could secure an opera engagement made me realize I had within me the making of an artist, if I would really labor for such an end. When I became thoroughly convinced of this, I was transformed from an amateur into a professional in a single day. I now began to take care of myself, learn good habits, and endeavored to cultivate my mind as well as my voice. The conviction gradually grew upon me that if I studied and worked, I would be able one day to sing in such a way as to satisfy myself.”


Caruso believes in the necessity for work, and sends this message to all ambitious students: “To become a singer requires work, work, and again work! It need not be in any special corner of the earth; there is no one spot that will do more for you than other places. It doesn’t matter so much where you are, if you have intelligence and a good ear. Listen to yourself; your ear will tell you what kind of tones you are making. If you will only use your own intelligence you can correct your own faults.”


This is no idle speech, voiced to impress the reader. Caruso practices what he preaches, for he is an incessant worker. Two or three hours in the forenoon, and several more later in the day, whenever possible. He does not neglect daily vocal technic, scales and exercises. There are always many rôles to keep in rehearsal with the accompanist. He has a repertoire of seventy rôles, some of them learned in two languages. Among the parts he has prepared but has never sung are: Othello, Fra Diavolo, Eugen Onegin, Pique Dame, Falstaff and Jewels of the Madonna.

Besides the daily review of opera rôles, Caruso examines many new songs; every day brings a generous supply. Naturally some of these find their way into the waste basket; some are preserved for reference, while the favored ones which are accepted must be studied for use in recital.

I had the privilege, recently, of spending a good part of one forenoon in Mr. Caruso’s private quarters at his New York Hotel, examining a whole book full of mementos of the Jubilee celebration of March, 1919, on the occasion when the great tenor completed twenty-five years of activity on the operatic stage. Here were gathered telegrams and cablegrams from all over the world. Many letters and cards of greeting and congratulation are preserved in this portly volume. Among them one noticed messages from Mme. Schumann-Heink, the Flonzaley Quartet, Cleofonte Campanini and hosts of others. Here, too, is preserved the Jubilee Programme booklet, also the libretto used on that gala occasion. Music lovers all over the world will echo the hope that this wonderful voice may be preserved for many years to come!


The above article was shown to Mr. Caruso, at his request, and I was asked a few days later to come to him. There had been the usual rehearsal at the Opera House that day. “Ah, those rehearsals,” exclaimed the secretary, stopping his typewriter for an instant; “no one who has never been through it has any idea of what a rehearsal means.” And he lifted hands and eyes expressively. “Mr. Caruso rose at eight, went to rehearsal at ten and did not finish till after three. He is now resting, but will see you in a moment.”

Presently the great tenor opened the door and entered. He wore a lounging coat of oriental silk, red bordered, and on the left hand gleamed a wonderful ring, a broad band of dull gold, set with diamonds, rubies and sapphires. He shook hands, said he had read my story, that it was quite correct and had his entire approval.

“And have you a final message to the young singers who are struggling and longing to sing some day as wonderfully as you do?”

“Tell them to study, to work always, —and— to sacrifice!”

His eyes had a strange, inscrutable light in them, as he doubtless recalled his own early struggles, and life of constant effort.

And so take his message to heart:

“Work, work —and— sacrifice!”

Text excerpted from Vocal Mastery, Harriette Brower, New York, 1917.