For many music lovers, Enrico Caruso is the quintessential Italian tenor - headstrong, romantic, with a voice brimming with passion and a temperament to match. In truth, the short life of this musical legend contained many of these seemingly mythical components. He was born Enrico Caruso in Naples in 1873, the 18th child born to a working class family - and the first to survive infancy. As a child, he was enthralled by opera, and tried on several occasions - unsuccessfully - to land roles in local productions. His first serious vocal training commenced at the relatively advanced age of eighteen. A quick study with a remarkable natural gift, he was ready for his professional debut three years later, and took his first major engagements at the Teatro Fondo in Naples in performances of La Traviata and Rigoletto. The next year, he added key roles in Aida, Faust, Carmen, Tosca and La Boheme to his resume. Critics were supportive but not effusive in their praise; his first breakthrough happened in late 1898, when he was selected to perform the lead role in the premiere of Giordano's Fedora in Milan. The engagement was an unqualified success, and led to more high-profile appearances culminating with a leading role in La Boheme at La Scala. From that time on, Caruso experienced a meteoric rise to international stardom. He made his acclaimed London debut in 1902, appearing with Melba and Calve, and journeyed to Russia and South America, finally landing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in November 1903. America became Caruso's musical home; he was idolized by audiences and critics, and his tours of the States - including a stop in San Francisco during the great earthquake of 1906 - generated huge publicity. His fees - as low as $2.00 per night in the early 1890s - skyrocketed to unprecedented levels; for one performance in Mexico City in 1920, he netted $15,000. His RCA recordings were perennial best-sellers, especially those of his signature roles, Cavaradossi in Tosca and Canio in Pagliacci. He concentrated on Italian and French repertoire, and performed the music of Wagner only once, in 1901. His voice improved with maturity, achieving a richness and bass-intensive timbre unequalled in modern times.
The combination of high living and a withering touring schedule finally took its toll on Enrico Caruso's health; he suffered a throat hemorrhage in a performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Dec. 11, 1920, and died after a series of unsuccessful treatments on Aug. 2, 1921. He left the world an unparalleled legacy of recordings and an inspiring example of joie de vivre; he will ever remain the ultimate model for every aspiring opera singer.
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