Simanaitis Says

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OPERA RIDES the razor edge of absurdity, according to Peter Ustinov. And it continues to delight me, whether in performances or in its attendant fun. Today, I share charming tales involving Enrico Caruso.

Enrico Caruso, 1873–1921, Italian operatic tenor.

Enrico Caruso is considered one of the greatest operatic tenors of all time. His repertory included 61 operas, most of them Italian, in a career extending from 1895 to 1920. Caruso also made some 260 recordings, all still available on CDs and as downloads and digital streams.

Ethan Mordden notes in Opera Anecdotes (Oxford Paperbacks), 1985, “As America rode through World War I into the age of technology, it carried Caruso along. This, by the way, is why those ‘Carusos in the attic’ are not only not rarities, but have no resale value whatsoever. Everyone in the land bought them.”

Caruso was known as a fastidious dresser, a convivial person who enjoyed good food, lived the high life and employed a wonderful sense of humor. Alas, overwork and a habit for strong Egyptian cigarettes led to illness; he died from peritonitis at age 48 in 1921.

Enrico Caruso, portrait by a Bains News Service photographer, 1915. Image from

I’ve already recounted several Caruso stories, including his adventure surviving the 1906 San Francisco earthquake: “ ’ell of a place—I never come back here.” Other Caruso tales follow here, gleaned from A Night at the Opera, 1980, by Barry Hewlett-Davies.

One story told by Caruso himself concerned his being recognized at a small-town gas station: “Say” said the attendant, “aren’t you Caruso??” Caruso admitted he was; the tenor was highly regarded for being amicable with fans. The fellow responded, “Jeez! Wait till I tell the wife. I’ve just served the great Robinson Caruso himself.”

La Bohème, by Giacomo Puccini. Poster by Adolfo Hohenstein, 1896.

In Puccini’s La Bohème, young lovers Rudolfo and Mimi meet in a Christmastime Paris garret. Rudolfo tenderly sings, Che Gelina Manina, Your Tiny Hand is Frozen.

In one production, Caruso sang Rudolfo paired with Nellie Melba’s Mimi (she, of Melba Toast fame). As an on-stage prank, with his first notes of Che Gelina Manina, Caruso pressed a hot sausage into Mimi’s hand.

La Forza del Destino, by Giuseppe Verdi. Poster by Charles Lecocq, c. 1870.

In Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, Don Alvaro flings his pistol to the floor; it misfires and mortally wounds the Marquis. This, by the way, all in Act 1; opera plots develop quickly.

However, in a production when Caruso was singing Don Alvaro, the pistol failed to go off when it hit the stage. Caruso, grinning broadly, turned to the audience and said, in English, “Bang! Bang!”

Can “the razor’s edge” be any more entertaining than this? ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017

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