When I was 5, my grandmother cranked up her old Victrola and played “Vesti la giubba” from I “Pagliacci.” The voice was that of Enrico Caruso, who added me pronto to his list of adoring fans. By the time I donned a Navy uniform in 1942, I had almost all the records Caruso ever made. His voice was uniquely beautiful but not a voice to attempt to copy.
Today’s issues of Caruso’s recordings are still the most vocally phenomenal singing I ever heard. Caruso had power galore, range to a high B natural, and an ineffable sweetness of sound that won him the hearts of men and women alike.
The tenor voice was always my favorite and I learned much about singing from listening carefully to how the great ones did it. A person with singing talent can learn a lot about how immortal singers sing by listening attentively to vowel sounds and the use of breath. Breath is, of course, the fuel that runs the singing machine.
Two of Caruso's favorite singing partners were sopranos whom I met late in their lives: Geraldine Farrar and Rosa Ponselle. Ponselle was in vocal magnificence and command of breath, the “Caruso” of sopranos.
Geraldine Farrar owned a house just up the Silvermine River from my house in Connecticut.
Once, immediately following a “Tosca” performance I sang in Baltimore, a handsome lady whom I had seen smiling constantly in the first row, asked me, “Are you Italian?”
“No,” I answered, “sono Americano.”
“Your teacher?” she asked.
“Renato Bellini,” I replied.
“Ah! Renato, he has done a great job with you— give him a kiss for me.”
“May I ask your name?” “I am Rosa Ponselle.” I swallowed and said, “Miss Ponselle if I had known that was you in the first row, I doubt if I could have sung a note!”
After WWII, I had made my New York debut singing “Tosca” opposite Eleanor Steber with the New York Philharmonic. I sang with a great many fine sopranos, and I believe the most outstanding voice was that of Anita Cerquetti, who was my partner in Italy’s Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Italy's greatest opera festival. The Maggio invited me to open the 1957 season in the opera “Gli Abenceragi” by Cherubini with Carlo Maria Giulini conducting.
After Florence, I went on to sing in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Holland, Monaco, Luxembourg, England, Portugal, Ireland, Canada, and throughout the U.S. I starred in two movies: “Carmen,” made in Canada, and the “Tales of Hoffmann,” made in Paris.
I also sang many voice recitals in the U.S., Canada and Europe.
During the course of these years, my American managers were Sol Hurok, and Columbia Artists Management (CAMI).
Great composers write great music to sing. They know what great singers are capable of, and they exploit every capability. My favorite opera composer for voice? Puccini. My least favorite? Wagner.
My toughest roles— “Tales of Hoffmann,” “Otello,” the King in Verdi's “Ballo in Maschera,” Énée in Berlioz's “Les Troyens.”
What makes a role tough? Paucity of breathing space, and prolonged high “tessitura”— the average height of lines of notes.
What were my favorite operas to sing? “Les Troyens” of Berlioz and “Fidelio” of Beethoven. Verdi's “Aida” was also a major workhorse of mine.
I loved best singing any role with a top-flight conductor and cast!
What do singers do when they're not performing? They practice! I believe that professional singers get paid primarily for their unstinting private work in the practice studio. A singer with an extensive repertoire in several languages, must, of course have an enormous memory.
The performances themselves are fun. You make love to a big audience and the audience sends it right back to you!
I never thought of my singing career as work—after all, I sing for my own pleasure—even when I’m all alone in the shower!