The stars of movies, television, and pop music have replaced opera and theater stars in the public's affections, but few of today's entertainment personalities even aspire to the glamour that surrounded the great voices of opera's so-called Golden Age, when there was one towering tenor, not three, and diva was a word applied only to prima donnas with divine voices.
This little lesson in cultural history can be easily and entertainingly learned by visiting "The World of Enrico Caruso," an exhibit organized by the Metropolitan Opera Guild to raise funds for its education programs. Admission is free, but everything on exhibit is for sale, a rare opportunity for collectors of opera memorabilia. The show closes Oct. 24.
There are dozens of images of Caruso (1873-1921), ranging from picture postcards and advertising posters to formal portraits in costume by the Metropolitan's house photographers, Aime Dupont and Herman Mishkin, most of them signed by Caruso. Often they are framed with programs of premiere performances, letters, and even a Victor Red Seal 78 recording of Caruso singing "Vesti la giubba" from "Pagliacci." A few items are unique and many of them rare.
Interspersed with Caruso memorabilia are photographs of his opera associates. They include composers Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini, Ruggiero Leoncavallo, Umberto Giordano, Pietro Mascagni, Francesco Cilea, and Alberto Franchetti, the Metropolitan's general manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, and conductors Arturo Toscanini and Giorgio Polacco.
A galaxy of singing stars is represented by photos of singers Emma Calve, Feodor Chaliapin, Emmy Destinn, Beniamino Gigli, Titta Ruffo, Geraldine Farrar, Giovanni Martinelli, Nellie Melba, Claudia Muzio, Antonio Scotto, Rosa Poselle, Frances Alda, Leo Slezak, Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Luisa Tetrazzini, and Kentucky-born Riccardo Martin, who filled in for the ailing Caruso at the end of his career.
There also is a scarce picture of Lucca Botto, Caruso's only pupil who died too young to take his expected place as the great tenor's successor.
The show is filled out by first edition scores of operas performed by Caruso, piano vocal scores, Caruso's privately printed memoir and books about Caruso and the operatic world of his era, a hand-painted German porcelain of Caruso as Canio in "Pagliacci," a pair of bronze bookends in Caruso's image, and a 1909 Caruso self-portrait in profile, one of the hundreds he sketched for friends and admirers in the course of his career.
This ink caricature is accompanied by a note addressed to a "gentile signorina" who had written asking for a photograph. Caruso explains that he has no photos handy so is sending her a sketch. Caruso sold his caricatures at benefits and even took a job with an Italian-language New York newspaper, La Follia, as its cartoonist. The show includes a sheet of six Caruso caricatures from a 1912 edition of Punch magazine, including pianist Ignace Jan Paderewski, composer Gustave Charpentier, and singer Frieda Hempel.
Among the rarities on display are a portrait photo of the young Caruso in 1900 with a moustache, an adornment he returned to occasionally in his career, a letter from Naples to his New York jeweler written two months before his death from pleurisy saying he is feeling "much better," and one of a handful of surviving large promotional Mishkin photos of Caruso as Canio sent by Victor Records to dealers. It was found recently in its original frame in a New Jersey basement.
There is a color lithograph of Caruso by Willy Pogany, an artist who created several murals for Broadway theaters, and a photo of a fierce-looking Caruso in his "Les Huguenots" costume inscribed to Jules Judels, the Metropolitan's backstage gofer. It is probably the rarest item in the show since Caruso performed this opera only 13 times in his 17-year, 36-role career at the Metropolitan.
The displays do not include material pertaining to Caruso's private life or his American wife, Dorothy Benjamin, whose socially prominent family disapproved of the marriage. However, in Caruso's letter to his jeweler, Emmanuel Gattle, he asks Gattle to give $3,000 to his brother-in-law, Park Benjamin Jr., who may have fallen on hard times.
Prices on the items in the show range from $100 for a youthful postcard portrait of Caruso to $15,000 for a Mishkin backstage group photo of Puccini, Toscanini, Gatti-Casazza, and American playwright David Belasco. Caruso sang the role of Dick Johnson in 1910 Metropolitan Opera world premiere of Puccini's "The Girl of the Golden West," an opera based on Belasco's Broadway drama of the same name.
Another top price tag is $8,500 for a Caruso letter with caricature drawn and signed in San Francisco in 1906 when the tenor was caught in that city's famous earthquake and barely escaped with this life. He never returned to the city, although often invited to sing there.