I first heard Caruso’s voice in 1952 when I was twelve. Early that year I had seen Mario Lanza play Caruso in the movie “The Great Caruso.” (I have mixed feelings about the movie. It had some great strengths, e.g. Mario Lanza’s powerful voice—his rendition of “Ave Maria” in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, for instance, but also some footage that lacked impact.) Nevertheless, this movie hooked me on Italian opera (and here I am writing about it several decades later.
My grandmother had actually heard Caruso in person at the old opera house in downtown Vancouver. I am only guessing but I think this would have been around 1915. She encouraged my interest in opera and bought me for my birthday two of those large, heavy (and very breakable) discs that were the only thing available way back then. One of the songs, I remember, was “Musica Proibita”. It’s loaded with repressed adolescent interest in the erotic:
Vorrei baciar i tuoi cappelli neri, le labbra tue e gli occhi tuoi severi…
I would like to kiss your black hair, your lips and your severe-looking eyes.”
I loved Caruso’s voice and must have driven my family a bit crazy with my playing this recording over and over and over. Yet it was only years later, in 1961, that I was rewarded with a much better appreciation of what Caruso must have sounded like. 1960-61 was a fortunate year for me. I had just finished second year arts (planning to specialize in French and Italian) and had won a scholarship that would fund for me, all expenses paid, a year in Italy.
During that memorable year I took several courses in Italian at the university (both the University of Florence and the University for Foreigners in Perugia. I also traveled around Italy as much as I could. The best friend I made that year was Gino, a violin player in the Florence Orchestra. In April of 1961 Gino invited me to spend some time with him in the region around Naples (his family of origin lived in Torre Annunziata).
One evening we were visiting some friends of Gino’s in Caserta. I remember: we were sitting on the balcony and they had a record player set up on it. Without announcing it, Gino’s friend put on a record. It was Caruso, but a Caruso that sent chills up my spine. I have never been able to account to account for the astounding clarity of their recording. Was it the recording itself? Was it the record player? Maybe it was the “vino generoso”, the full-bodied wine that we were drinking. Was it only my mood? The beautiful setting? The warmth of our Mezzogiorno (Southern Italian) hosts? They were as poor as church mice yet so generous:
“Leur souvenir luit en moi comme un ostensoir. » (Baudelaire)
I shall never forget that evening.
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If you know of any school teachers who are looking for new activities to inspire their students please ask them to visit my website and read about my new book. To read about it you have to click on the image of the book at the top left of your screen.