About 12 years ago, when I was separated from my first wife and was learning to be single, I got really into three bodies of music: the blues, Sinatra, and opera. All of this music spoke to something I needed at the time: it was all strongly emotional and dramatic – sometimes melodramatic.
My intense love of opera did not really survive the passage of time; the demands it made on my time and suspension of disbelief were too great. (Why do Mozart’s characters say everything three or four times in his operas?) These days, on those rare occasions when I have an hour and a half to two hours to listen to a piece of music, I would rather pull out a Cecil Taylor or Anthony Braxton concert than La Bohème or Don Giovanni. But I still enjoy and admire opera, even if I don’t love it like I did. I am now more likely to listen to my favorite arias rather than entire operas.
During my opera days, I often read about Enrico Caruso, said to be the greatest tenor, and perhaps the greatest singer, of all time. So I picked up a CD of arias by Caruso, and was actually surprised to find that the hype was justified. I have listened to so much early jazz that the crude acoustic recording was not a problem for me, and the power and expression of Caruso’s voice struck me immediately. The CD I bought 12 years ago has remained the most-played opera CD in my collection.
I still kind of surprised myself when, browsing through Wuxtry Records yesterday, I found myself buying a used copy of The Complete Caruso – 12 CDs at the bargain price of three bucks a disc. What swayed me was the inclusion of his first recordings, made in Italy for G & T Records. (The G & T stands for Gramophone & Typewriter; recording was just a sideline for the company.) After hearing two of the discs, I already think that this was a great acquisition. These recordings demonstrate what has been said about Caruso – that he made the recording industry.
Caruso’s voice was apparently overwhelming in person – soprano Geraldine Farrar has written about missing her entrance in La Bohème during Caruso’s first season at the Met because she was in the wings crying after one of his arias. The prompter finally said, “Well, Miss Farrar, are you going to sing or not?” Amazingly, his voice comes across on the records. Before Caruso, there was not a really compelling reason to buy records – they were crude, scratchy, and less than overwhelming. When Caruso came along, there was every reason to invest in records, even when a Victor Red Seal Caruso record might cost as much as a man’s suit. The records still might be scratchy, but the voice is alive and “real” in a way that few, if any, recorded sounds were at the time. What could be better than to have the greatest musical artist of the time in your living room? I know the impact these recordings have on me; I can imagine how they struck listeners whose only previous records were of brass band marches and sentimental ballads.
These CDs are also interesting as a glimpse into the beginnings of record producing as a craft. The earliest recordings are just Caruso and a piano, singing arias from operas he had recently performed. On one record, the singer enters one measure too early, stops, and reenters at the proper spot. They issued the record anyway, just like “Louie, Louie.”
But by 1912, Victor Records is more ambitious, recording a 15-minute chunk of Act II of Marta on two 12-inch records. Caruso is partnered with other stars from the Met, and the accompaniment is by an orchestra, even if there are some substitutions for hard-to-record instruments. (I swear that I hear a tenor sax subbing for a cello or bassoon.)
In any case, Caruso speaks to me in a way that only the very greatest musicians do. Pretty amazing for music that was recorded from 88 to 106 years ago