Mimmi’s Story

Wayne Koestenbaum

  • Enrico Caruso: My Father and My Family by Enrico Caruso and Andrew Farkas
    Amadeus, 724 pp, £29.99, May 1994, ISBN 0 931340 24 1

I have no special love for the voice of Enrico Caruso, perhaps because it does not need me to rescue it; classic, impervious, it awaits eternity – it has already arrived at eternity – and demands no fan, no patient posthumous acolyte, to alchemise it. The Caruso voice, as his son describes it, in Enrico Caruso: My Father and My Family, a story as pathetic, plodding and perverse as any I have read, is a pure column of air; without flaw, it assails low and high notes alike with plump machismo, sometimes sobbing, sometimes finishing off the breath with a punctuating snarl. When impersonating a Jew (La Juive), the voice might feign abjectness, but it is always confidently public – aimed toward the receiving phonographic horn rather than toward a frailty-seeking inward ear. Therefore I need the son’s sad tale so that I might re-imagine the Caruso voice as also bearing a freight of pathos and want; so that I might pretend to be Enrico Caruso Jr, who, learning of his father’s death, and separated from him by an ocean, listened mournfully to records of the great man, just as we now are listening to them; so that I might hear Caruso as his son heard him, and thereby reconstitute ‘Caruso’ as an erotically alienated source. This biography, by situating the legendary voice within a maelstrom of father/son desire, suggests that a proper or theoretically rewarding posture from which to audit the Caruso soundwaves is the melancholy son’s.

Poor Enrico Caruso Jr. ‘Caruso is not Caruso,’ the critics said, when the son attempted a singing career. Enrico Caruso poses as the father’s story, but the great tenor dies nearly halfway through the book: the remainder is concerned with the son’s botched, entirely human ventures – and these chronicles of a son named Enrico Caruso trying and of course failing to impersonate a father named Enrico Caruso are much more fascinating than any stories of the priority-hogging tenor. Enrico Caruso Jr’s mother, Ada Giachetti, listed as ‘n.n.’ (unknown) on his birth certificate, ran away with the father’s chauffeur, Cesare Romati, when the boy was still young, and so his only memory of the divine Ada was of an unknown woman appearing ‘at the top landing, the voile of her beautiful gown floating behind her as she descended the stairs’. He was raised by a governess whom he called, with the callousness of youth, simply ‘Lei’ (‘she’). The mother tried to kidnap back Enrico Caruso Jr (nicknamed ‘Mimmi’) and his older brother Rodolfo (‘Fofò’) but to no avail; and so Mimmi and Fofò were raised by the father, who shuttled them off to cold academies. Mimmi’s first memory of his father is a reminiscence of not-remembering: ‘I had no idea who he was: he was a total stranger.’ The only photo of his parents together that Mimmi ever saw was a snapshot published in a 1905 New York Times.

Desire rises from such absences. Listen to Fofò’s recollections of his Papa: ‘The stubble of his day-old beard hurt my lips. Yet this slight pain made me want to return my father’s embrace.’ Stubble! Remembers Fofò: ‘Every so often I would feel the hair on the back of his hand as it passed lightly over my cheek, and the light tickle gave me the sensation of the most welcome and sweetest caress.’ Fofò also had the curious privilege of enduring surgery at the same time as his father: Caruso scheduled an operation on his vocal cords to coincide with a procedure on Fofò’s nose, ‘so that father and son could convalesce together’. How thoughtful. Enrico Caruso is not a tale of vocalism, but a story of weird thrills and deprivations. Enrico Jr remembers playing horsie with his father: ‘Lying flat on his back, he would toss me high in the air with his powerful diaphragm.’ Another memory of delirious closeness to the remote vocalist: Mimmi recalls drooling on Caruso’s ‘beautiful embroidered vest, leaving a large damp spot on the yellow floral design’. I suppose the glory of being allowed to drool compensates for the indignity of Auntie Rina (sister of Ada, and sometime lover of Caruso) regularly slapping little Enrico so hard that the metal back of her ring ‘would clonk against my cheekbones’, after which assaults little Mimmi was required to say: ‘Grazie, Zia.’ The value of these anecdotes: they encourage us to attend, in Caruso’s recorded voice, to the implicit presence of the son who listens, the son who has been slapped, the son tossed high in the air on the jet pillow of the father’s diaphragm.

One can’t ignore the heavy thematic presence of filth and disease in Enrico Caruso, a book which might as well have been titled ‘In Search of Lost Father’, or ‘My Father and Myself’, or ‘Myself as My Father’. Paradoxically, Enrico Jr must embed the legendary tenor in rankness for the rosy voice to become worth its weight; and therefore the book overflows with fabliaux of rottenness. A moment of closeness between father and son inevitably includes shame: ‘I remember one morning going to his room to greet him and finding him in the bathroom, sitting on the toilet. This didn’t bother him in the least, though I was deeply embarrassed.’ Somewhere in this story of a son’s shame and a father’s shamelessness lies waiting a moral, an oxymoronic formulation about listening, cisterns, crevices and exposure. The son reports that there was no toilet paper in Naples during the era of his father’s childhood. In San Francisco after the earthquake, Caruso drank ‘the nauseatingly oily and warm water from the radiator’. The father, rapt in the task of crafting a presepio, was oblivious to ‘the heat or the flies circling his hot pot of foul-smelling fish glue’. Caruso’s hot pot! One of the tenor’s favourite dishes was ‘tripe and gelatinous gristle with garlic and oil’. The grotesquerie grows truly guignol when it comes to details of the singer’s sickness and death. Ailing Caruso ‘sang the entire first act of L’Elisir wiping the blood from his mouth as one handkerchief after another was passed to him by the chorus and the Adina of the evening, soprano Evelyn Scotney’. When pus was drained from the tenor’s abscess, ‘the pocket of liquid beneath the incision burst with such force that fluids hit the opposite wall.’ And when a portion of Caruso’s rib was removed, a doctor remembers that ‘out poured the foulest pus I think I have ever seen and smelled.’ Greatest voice, foulest pus: why do the two seem complementary? Caruso’s dead body, preserved like a potentate’s or saint’s, became an object of pilgrimage, contained in a ‘rolltop, glassed-in sarcophagus’. Unfortunately, the Caruso chapel over the decades was not well-tended, and unthinking pilgrims appropriated it as an outhouse: ‘at the moment the authorities are not furnishing the cemetery with proper hygienic services (urinals and commodes) to serve either those working in the cemetery or the visitors. So what better spot to use than the side of the Caruso chapel?’

Filth is an important part of the Caruso story, because Enrico Caruso is a parable of mysterious origins, and of a son’s profound conviction that he does not belong to his father, that the presumptively unbreakable trajectory of patrilineage has deviated, gone awry: ‘To this day it puzzles me that I am the son of this great and wonderful artist.’ So has any son or daughter the right to wonder: why am I so-and-so’s child? Why is where I began inevitably a tale of uncleanliness? To counterpoint uncanny rankness, the narrative occasionally genuflects towards the clean. Caruso liked to bathe several times a day; he splashed himself with 4711 cologne, and his favourite soap was Carnation by Roger Gallet. (I hadn’t known that Carnation was considered a masculine scent; does Caruso masculinise Carnation?) After brushing his teeth, Caruso rinsed with Eau de Benedictine, and then scraped ‘the mucus off his tongue with a one-by-five-inch piece of flexible celluloid’. Although he never had serious vocal trouble, any magnificent singer’s image inevitably summons the spectre of throat problems, of obstreperous phlegms: there was once a product called Cough Drop of the Stars, its box decorated with the faces of Met luminaries, including Caruso – as if, by sucking a lozenge, you could supernaturally enter the Golden Horseshoe’s stratosphere.

The story gathers momentum after Caruso dies, and Mimmi loses his inheritance and must go to work. He changes his name to Henry de Costa and serves a stint as an Italian-speaking salesman for Real Silk Hosiery Mills, Inc; under these auspices, he sells hose to such stars as Kirsten Flagstad, Grace Moore, Helen Hayes, Kitty Carlisle, Tallulah Bankhead and Tito Schipa – ‘who complained in a long letter about the colour of the stockings he received’. Then the son dares to take up the father’s profession. Caruso Sr had discouraged aesthetic vocation in his family, saying: ‘If you can’t sing better than I can, don’t sing. Besides, one singing Caruso is enough.’ So Mimmi takes a humbler path; he appears in obscure Spanish-language films (El Cantante de Napoles); as a guest on Ripley’s Believe It or Not Show; and as star attraction in such venues as the Kitty Davis Theatre Restaurant (a supper club in Miami Beach), and the Town Barn in Buffalo. Enrico Jr’s career as singer at least wakes from her long South American slumber his absent mother, Ada Giachetti; phoenix, she rises to steal, with her unshakeable charisma, the show of Enrico Caruso.

Whatever happened to Ada Giachetti? Ada Giachetti and her sister Rina Giachetti, both of them lovers of Enrico Caruso, were accomplished opera singers with major careers. On setting up a common-law marriage with Ada, however, Caruso forbade her to perform. Imagine her chagrin, then, when her sister Rina continued to sing opposite him in such operas as Tosca, Butterfly and Aida at Covent Garden! The feud between Rina and Ada makes for absorbing reading, as do the accounts of their years away from the limelight. Rina ended up retired in Rome, reading penny-dreadfuls and smoking cigarettes. Ada moved to Buenos Aires, where she lorded it over the locals, and occasionally performed. One impresario remembers a ‘grand old lady’ singing ‘Vissi d’arte’ in a cabaret there. Writes Enrico Jr: ‘He praised her singing and asked: “You have been an opera singer, no?” She told him with pride: “Yes. I am Giachetti.” ’ A complex, performative utterance: I am Giachetti. The speaker thrusts into uncaring discursive space a declaration of an identity she assumes everyone knows, even if it is an identity now and for ever obscure – obscure, that is, until she unfurls the faux and yet convincing boa of I am Giachetti. The son, understandably, needs Ada’s point of view in order to articulate his overwhelming desire for Father (a craving that overpowers speech and threatens the stable doxa of Papa’s law. Pondering whether Ada attended any of Caruso’s performances in Buenos Aires, Enrico Jr speculates: ‘I have often wondered what passed through her mind as she sat in the elegant auditorium listening to the familiar, caressing voice. Did she find its beauty changed? Was Caruso singing better? Were his interpretations deeper, truer?’ This is the path of mimetic desire: Enrico Jr imagines his lost mother Ada listening to her lost husband Caruso. For the bereft, fantasising son, the improbable scene is the richest.

Singing is labour. To sing is to submit one’s body and productions to the harshest scrutiny; to offer one’s flesh to a terrible purgation, akin to Iphegenia’s. The score, or the conductor, is Agamemnon; the audience is the sacrifice-demanding god. In communication with her faraway son, Ada Giachetti reveals the mythic, cruel stringency of the vocal regime to which the first Caruso himself was held subject, even if we imagine that he floated free of it because of his natural gifts and his fêted state. On seeing one of her son’s films, in Buenos Aires, Ada wrote to him for the first time in fifteen years. How did she find him? She sent the letter to his Hollywood studio, Warner Brothers. After quickly dispensing with maternal pleasantries, Ada, ever the connoisseur of instruments, got down to the business of mastery: ‘I have seen and heard your films, however I found that you still need to study to have more finesse in the attacks. The voice however is beautiful and I am proud of you because beyond a beautiful voice you are a handsome young man as you promised to become when you were a baby. You know? They all say that you are my image, especially the eyes and the mouth and the expression of your glance.’ Later, responding to some records cut by Enrico Jr, Ada critically observed: ‘You have a beautiful voice and most beautiful high notes, however you must close a little more the middle and must soften and perfect your diction. At certain points it is too colourless and lacks brilliance, and those are the marks of a trained singer.’ What a hard school the Carusos and the Giachettis attended and perpetuated; Ada Giachetti voice-coaching by mail her abandoned son, whom she was never to see again, is a scene as unhomelike and scary as imagining Judy Garland contacting Liza Minnelli, from beyond the grave, through a medium, and informing her daughter that she sang flat in Las Vegas on Friday night.

Caruso lives on; Ada and Rina Giachetti, alas, do not. Did they ever make records? I doubt it. But Caruso’s possible sublimity – the phrase is Wordsworth’s – lies not only in the splendour of his recorded, hence immortal voice, but in his once having been proximate to such figures as Ada Giachetti, who possesses the cachet of the ancillary and the adjunct. Ada, Enrico’s shadow, sheds glamour – the magic of the repressed – on the too-well-remembered Caruso. We need to forget him, or need to remember his forgotten aspects, so that he might become possibly sublime. And therefore I present the following co-ordinates of the obscure realm in which Ada and her sister Rina dwell, and in which Caruso himself was potentially citizen. Consider: the now unknown Rina Giachetti sang in the now unknown Mazeppa by Minhejmer. Consider: Rina Giachetti was praised as a ‘vibrant Ricke’ in Germania opposite Francisco Vignas, in Pistoia’s Teatro Manzoni. Consider: in Portugal, Rina Giachetti sang the lead in Cabrera by Menendez, as well as starring roles in Puccini’s Edgar, Leopoldo Mugnone’s La Vita Bretone, and Catalini’s Loreley. Consider: in Naples, Rina Giachetti sang the world premiere of D’Erlanger’s Tess. Do we call her an unremembered entity, a has-been, unillustrious as the penny-dreadfuls that fed her imagination during her eclipse? Or do we choose to crown her with the diadem of numen that she, too, deserves? Without Rina and Ada there would be no Enrico Caruso; they helped improve his technique and advance his career. When we remember Caruso we must resummon the leading ladies who sang with him in Buenos Aires: we must revive from dust the curiously-named Adelina Bertana, Gilda Dalla Rizza, Tina Poli-Randaccio, Hina Spani and Geneviève Vix. What rococo names, their splendour magnified because they are uncelebrated – and yet they once sang with Caruso, who himself at that early time in his career occupied the realm of the doomed-to-be-forgotten. Just as Ada Giachetti sang the title role of Maruzza by Pietro Floridia, so Caruso sang in such vanished operas as Carlo Sebastiani’s A San Francisco, Fornari’s Un Dramma in Vendemmia, D. Lamonica’s and G. Biondi’s Celeste – and in the world premieres of Giordano’s Il Voto and Mascagni’s Le Maschere. Richly, the book Enrico Caruso – by the other, second Enrico – reminds us of the melancholy mimicry that underlies stardom: for every star there are a thousand imitators and a thousand failures. For every performance we cite as historic, there are multitudes of dirty dressing-rooms, empty theatres and cracked high notes. And sometimes, behind a star, there lies a well of unlettered ignorance. It is important to know that Caruso, himself a museum, never visited museums or read books; that Caruso, whose reputation consolidated the gramophone’s, seemed to have owned no records by singers other than himself – the only two his son could find in the father’s collection were ‘The Whistler and the Dog’ and Harry Lauder’s ‘Roamin’ in the Gloaming’. Whenever, in the future, I hear the voice of Caruso, securely transferred to CDs, I will think of Ada Giachetti saying ‘I am Giachetti’ after her doubtless wobbly performance of ‘Vissi d’arte’ in a Buenos Aires cabaret, and I will think of Enrico Caruso Jr (opera’s ‘Little Ricky’ Ricardo?) selling Real Silk Hosiery Mills hose to Tito Schipa, who dared to complain.