There was a time in America, early in the last century, when the top-selling record of all time was of the operatic tenor Enrico Caruso performing “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci. That 78 r.p.m. record was the first million-seller in American history, and at a price that exceeded the cost of some tickets to a live Caruso performance. It has happened occasionally in more recent times that stars from the world of opera have crossed over to attain a degree of mainstream popularity—Plácido Domingo, José Carrera and Luciano Pavarotti, performing as “the Three Tenors,” are the most successful that come to mind. Yet it might take 300 tenors of their stature to equal the cultural impact of Enrico Caruso.
The most famous operatic tenor in history and the biggest recording artist of the early 20th century, Enrico Caruso was born in Naples, Italy this day in 1873. Enrico Caruso came of age during a true golden age for Italian opera, as composers like Pietro Mascagni, Giacomo Puccini and Ruggero Leoncavallo were writing a significant portion of the next century’s basic repertoire: Cavalleria rusticana, Tosca and the aforementioned Pagliacci.
The conductor for his La Scala debut as Rodolfo in La bohème was the great Arturo Toscanini, a man with whom he would perform hundreds more times over the next 20 years, but thousands of miles away, in New York City. Caruso had performed in opera houses from St. Petersburg to Buenos Aires before making his first visit to the United States in 1903. He would return the following year and make New York’s Metropolitan Opera his home base for the remainder of his professional career. That same year, he made his first recording for the Victor Talking-Machine Company (later RCA Victor).
Over the next decade-and-a-half, Caruso recorded scores of arias of three- and four-minutes in length—the longest duration that could fit on a 78 r.p.m. record. Those recordings are widely credited not only with establishing Victor’s “His Master’s Voice” label as the most recognizable in the world, but also with spurring the growth of the record industry as a whole.
After a long illness, Enrico Caruso died on August 2, 1921, in his native Naples, not far from where he was born on this day 48 years earlier.