read some excerpts of the biography
those first moments of birth and baptism, Beniamino, as the baby of the family,
was surrounded with love and tenderness. Adored by his mother, cherished by his
father, petted by his brothers and sisters, and doted on by his grandmother,
his first impressions of life were ones of the various manifestations of
parental love and filial affection. Possibly as a result of this, the need to
be loved became a fundamental craving of his nature and this, in turn, became
interwoven in his mind with the songs his mother, like many Italian women of
her time, sang around the home. Later he would write from the nostalgic perspective of
retirement that his first memories of life tended to be memories of songs,
especially the songs his mother sang to him as lullabies to lull him to sleep
in the evenings. In a culture in which singing was the natural concomitant of
living, this was not unusual. What was more unusual was that, almost as soon as
he could talk, Beniamino was joining in these songs himself. One song in
particular stood out, “La canzone della formica” (The Song of the Ant), which
he contrived to turn into a radiant little duet when Ester sang it to him in
the evenings. Cradling him in her arms, her cheek touching his, she would sing:
“S’io fossi una formica queste mura vorrei varcar, / Le varcherei senza paura il mio amore a reveder ...” (“If I were an ant I would want to climb this wall, I would climb it without fear to find my love again ...”)
pictured a girl confined in a convent pining for her sweetheart. When Ester had
sung thus far, Beniaminello, as she tenderly called him, using the most musical
of the possible diminutives, would take up the melody in his tremulous child’s
“La mia mamma è una contessa, il
mio babbo un cavalier ...” (“My mother’s a countess, my father’s a knight ...”)
and then their voices would rise in unison as they sang: “Ed io, povera
meschinella, son rinchiuso in monaster.” (“And I, poor little wretch, am shut
up in a monastery.”) Though not an easy air, it came to have a powerful
emotional hold over Beniamino, for it drew him back to what he saw as the
origins of his art. Many years later, whenever he returned to Italy from the United States,
he would take Ester on his knee and ask her to sing it for him. “No, no,
Beniaminello,” she would say, “you are the great singer now, not I. You sing
it!” “No, mammeta,” he would reply, “not this song. You sing it better than
As the earliest years of
childhood passed, other songs followed. One was a ditty of Le Marche, “La camicciola della vita,” which
Beniamino recorded privately in 1927. Others were di Chiara’s “La spagnola”
and, eventually, “La donna è mobile.” Before he was five, Beniamino’s
precocious singing was causing comment in the neighborhood; but that this might
be some sign of a future vocation occurred to no one. There were, moreover, far
more serious concerns, for the crash of the borso in Milan in 1891 had sent seismographic shocks
through the commercial world of Italy.
Trade fell off, prices fell, millions became unemployed, itinerants appeared on
the byways of Le Marche,
and Domenico’s orders declined catastrophically. One by one, he was obliged to
dismiss his workers until only two, Partelli, the best of his tradesmen, and
Francè, a hunchbacked apprentice, remained. When several of his wholesale
clients passed into insolvency, wiping out at one stroke most of his life’s
savings which he had extended to them as credit, even they had to go. This
dismissal of workers resembled a partial dissolution of the family, for in an
establishment such as Domenico’s all ties tended to be familial and were
essentially ones of love.
To replace Partelli and Francè,
Abramo and Catervo were taken from school and set to work as apprentices in the
cobbler’s workshop. It was a peculiarity of Beniamino’s childhood that in later
life he could never recall the years of his father’s comparative prosperity; as
he looked back, all seemed to be a great, continuous wave of adversity, a series
of winds that blew like remorseless gales through the family’s life, shattering
all that had been constructed. When he was five, given to following Ester
wherever she went, he was himself set to work, mainly to run errands.
One of these errands took him up
to the town within the walls to the workshop of a Recanati carpenter, Umberto
Bruggià, known to the local people as Lubè di Parò, who made parts of the
uppers of Domenico’s wooden clogs. Having heard rumors of Beniamino’s singing,
Parò would invariably ask him for a song. When the abashed boy meekly shook his
head, Parò would lift him up on to a high stool from which he would never dare
to jump and tempt him with a proffered jube. As Parò’s workers gathered round,
Beniamino would yield and sing, usually, “La camicciola della vita.” The
applause that followed as he was lifted down from the stool and rewarded with
the jube delighted him; it was one of the sweetnesses of life, and he would run
home filled with joy to tell Ester of his great adventure.
there were one hundred and seventy-nine candidates for admission to the Liceo
Musicale in 1912, thirty-six of them being for the School of Song, all of whom
were accomplished student singers. Auditions were held in the great hall of the
Liceo in Trastevere before a panel of judges headed by the director, Stanislão
Falchi, with most of the maestri present. After Beniamino had sung his three
arias, Antonio Cotogni subsequently told Luigi Ricci, there was a flurry among
the various maestri di canto present, who at once engaged in a rivalry for the
privilege of teaching him. This tended to pre-empt the judges’ decision and,
after Beniamino explained that he could play only the saxophone but could read
music and had studied musical theory, the pianoforte requirement was set
aside for him. In the final adjudication by Stanislão Falchi, he was awarded
absolute first place in the entrance auditions for singing with a mark of nine
and granted a licentiate scholarship with a living allowance of sixty lire a month.
Jubilant at the degree of success he was achieving, Gigli celebrated at late night suppers with Giuseppe Noto and a group of Livornese friends, some of whom were fisherman who took him out on their boats to fish for ombrina when he was not singing. In Russia, revolution had broken out; in Flanders, the nightmare battle of Passchendaele was raging in a treacherous sea of mud; on the Italian front, German as well as Austrian divisions were maneuvering for what would become the catastrophic battle of Caporetto. In April, the United States had entered the war, thus removing all hope of a negotiated peace, and in the Atlantic unrestricted submarine warfare had been unleashed, imperiling the sea-lanes. Everywhere, European civilization seemed to be collapsing or to be on the point of collapse. This made the message of peace implied by Lodoletta at once recondite and timely. Amid the tears of the bereaved, a carnival atmosphere prevailed in Livorono so that Gigli would later look back on the sunlit days and balmy nights of this tragic summer as a halcyon period in his life, carefree and personally triumphant.
Having installed himself, his family and retinue in a suite in the Ansonia Hotel, he hastened to see Giulio Gatti-Casazza at the Metropolitan. In the small, dimly lit office from which he controlled the greatest operatic operation then on earth, with its roster of ninety-two leading and comprimario artists, its eight conductors, its ballet, chorus, and orchestra, Gatti received him with that characteristically taciturn and inscrutable courtesy with which he concealed from all who were not intimate with him the inner flames of a fiery nature that had led him into an impulsive marriage to Frances Alda, a sequence of discreet but passionate love affairs, and unrelenting enmity toward a colleague who ventured to disagree with him. There were, however, depths within Gatti’s nature that could be vaguely discerned on a first encounter. An engineer by training, a music lover by nature, and a deeply cultivated man who in his youth had known Giuseppe Verdi, whom he called “the divine maestro,” Gatti was an operatic manager of genius by vocation, in turn direttore of the Teatro Communale in Ferrara, then of La Scala, and for twelve years of the Metropolitan, which he ran at a profit without subsidy or sponsorship by bringing an engineer’s shrewd calculations to the more imaginative tasks of operatic presentation. So ingenious was his mind and so prudent his approach that he had amassed a personal fortune and acquired a beautiful villa on the shores of Lago Maggiore, the sculptured gardens of which resembled an opera set looking out to the snow-capped alps, without singing one note or risking a single dollar in capital. A certain ambivalence that was never to be quite dispelled surrounded Gigli’s first contact with this unreadable man.
By nature, upbringing, habit, and deeply convinced faith, he was, or at least saw himself as being, an intensely domestic man devoted to his children and home and united to Costanza by that tie of sympathy Italians call affetto amore, which they see as a far more durable bond in marriage than the pulsations and caprices, the illusions, deceits, and tumultuous eruptions of intense amorous passion. But Gigli was an artist with a duality embedded in his nature. He was only intermittently at home. He was an incessant voyager who detested traveling; he longed for tran-quility, but had embarked on a life of artistic adventure; he was a Christian with an ecclesiastical background who harbored pagan leanings; but he was at heart a romantic who was highly responsive to the allure of beauty, especially in its feminine forms, which he both idealized and yearned for, craving and needing them as a thirsty traveler in an arid desert craves and needs water. “In order to sing well, my son, you must have love in your heart,” Ester had told him. In his concerts, he found inspiration by addressing his love songs and romantic arias first to one pretty woman, then to another. Usually they blushed and Gigli took delight in their blushing. But now his impulses of love took on a more tangible form, transforming him as a man and artist at the very moment that his mastery of his voice was becoming complete.
The next day controversy raged in the press, partly over the conduct of the audience but chiefly over whether Gigli was, or was not, a greater tenor than Caruso; no one questioned his greatness, his impact, the beauty of his voice, or the brilliance of his technique. All agreed that he was a sensation, that he had virtually “conquered” central Europe in one evening, and that a new phenomenon of Gigli fever had come to grip Berlin. Professor Germ Springer, a leading Caruso admirer, felt in his review that the encore and the whole behavior of the audience had been reprehensible. He claimed that Gigli was purely a “lyricist.” Others saw the encore as a welcome outburst of public fervor that boded well for the future of the Staatsoper and German musical life in general. During the two days before the next performance, there was a frantic rush to obtain tickets for Gigli performances; long all-night queues formed and a thriving black market devel-oped in tickets selling at up to ten times their face value. All Gigli performances were quickly sold out.
During that season of 1927-28, he recorded, either in the Victor studios in the Liederkranz in New York, sometimes with the Victor symphony Orchestra, at other times with the Metropolitan orchestra and on occasion also the chorus, a series of matchless electrical recordings that, more than any other single factor, marked him out in the minds of his contemporaries throughout the world, and subsequently in the view of posterity, as the master tenor of his age. There was the famous duet with De Luca from The Pearl Fishers, sung in Italian as “Del tempio al limitar,” in which his high, floating mixed tone, part mezza voce, part lyrical full voice, becomes an extended sign of erotic evocation. Again with De Luca, there was the duet from La Gioconda, sung matchlessly; an with Pinza there was the Tomb Scene from Lucia, in which Donizetti’s plea to his original interpreters, Persiani and Duprez, that they sing with the utmost emotion is fully realised with, in the final sequence, “Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali,” the voce d’angelo coming into play. There was then the sextet from Lucia with Galli-Curci, Homer, De Luca, Pinza and Bada, an incomparable piece of ensemble singing. Still more famous was the quartet from Rigoletto, “Bella figlia dell’amore,” with Galli-Curci, Homer, and De Luca, in which the ensemble is of an equal standard and the initial tenor solo is rendered with incomparable fluency, phrasing, and beauty of timbre. These famous recordings—the sextet and quartet were coupled on a very expensive while label issue that continued to be a bestseller for a quarter of a century—were promptly followed by the brindisi from Cavalleria rusticana sung, with a touch of great interpretative percipience, in a vein of melancholy that convey the idea that Turiddu already knows, in the midst of his apparent jubilation, that this will be the last song he will sing on earth; and, a little later, the sequence for the season was completed with Alfredo’s “Dei miei bollenti spiriti” from La traviata in a version which, with great beauty of voice, fully captures that ultimate elusiveness of his happiness that generations of tenors have experienced great difficulty in communicating.
On 27 April, having returned to New York after singing Manon in Cleveland and Lucia in Rochester, Gigli gave his special performance of Rigoletto at the Metropolitan with Lily Pons and De Luca. His singing caused an explosion of enthusiasm from Nathan Meyerowitz who claimed that he had achieved “a complete fusion of word and tone”—one of the great but elusive ideals of all operatic performance. Gigli then returned his contract to the Metropolitan as a sign that he had no intention of taking legal action and was not motivated by pecuniary considerations. For the moment this was a private action but by the time he sang two nights later in a benefit for the Italian hospital at the Roosevelt Hotel some word of it seems to have leaked to the press, which became rife with speculation that his contract with the Metropolitan had been terminated by mutual consent. On Sunday 1 May, in response to these rumors, he issued a statement confirming that he was leaving the Metropolitan and stressing that he was doing so not for financial reasons but at a cost of almost three hundred thousand dollars to himself in view of conditions “that would have reduced my dignity as man and artist.”
If the former happiness of his private life he had known in New York was gradually slipping away from him, Gigli was nonetheless determined to assert in Europe the primacy among the world’s tenors he had so decisively established in the United States. For this, the means at hand were recordings, concert tours, opera tours, and either a sensational return to opera in New York with a company set up to rival the Metropolitan or a career of the utmost brilliance in Italian theaters. Of these, recordings were the most universal and, ultimately, the most influential. Accordingly, having appeared in Livorono at Mascagni’s invitation in Manon Lescaut and Lodoletta, and in Rimini in Tosca and with Rosa Raisa, Gigli had paused in Milan during September to record the duets “Tu qui, Santuzza” and “No, no Turiddu” from Cavalleria rusticana with Dusolina Giannini and the Scala orchestra conducted by Carlo Sabajno. The result, although the duets are not quite contiguous in the opera, was a famous masterpiece of voice and interpretation. Both singers are fiery and in complete charge of the music, but there is now a stronger underlay of the melancholy that constituted one of Gigli’s main vocal attractions to the tenor’s tone and he contrives to convey the impression of a Turiddu who, resolved as he is to seeing Lola, nevertheless spurns Santuzza only with reluctance.
For a now seriously overweight tenor in his mid-forties, slightly balding and looking every bit his years, to embark on a new career in romantic films was a daunting prospect with many attendant dangers. One flop would be disastrous. What was worse, since tenors such as Joseph Schmidt, Jan Kiepura, and Richard Tauber were chiefly popular in northern Europe, not in Italy or the Mediterranean lands, any film he made would need to be in German, a language he could not speak and would have to learn phonetically line by line. This made his debut in the German arena seem an almost grotesque idea, but it did not deter Gigli. He could, of course, envisage a film career in which he would play a subordinate role as a singer, not an actor, with an experienced star taking the main role; but this did not seem to him compatible with his standing. It was on film stardom that he set his mind and he initiated negotiations with Itala Films, asking Ernesto de Curtis to compose a popular song to serve as his theme. The result was “Non ti scordar di me.”
Not even this success, however, modified Gigli’s private attitude to the excesses and rampant paganism of the Nazi regime. German Jews were no longer permitted to attend his performances; militarism of the most disciplined kind was everywhere; idealization of race, völk, and Führer were everywhere; and on 14 March 1937 Pius XI had written in his encyclical “Mit brennender Sorge” that: “Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State …. above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God.” To Gigli, as to Pius XI, all men and women were the children of God and the State his servant. There may also have been another factor. Rina Gigli remembered an occasion, but could not recall exactly when, whether in 1936 or 1937, on which Hitler took Gigli aside in the most affable manner and, speaking in their mutually limited English, confided to him what Gigli said were his “plans.” Precisely what these were or what was said is not known, but afterward Gigli was considerably shaken. “That man,” he told Rina, “will disrupt the world.” At all events when a leading Italian tenor was needed to go to Germany the following year, it was Giacomo Lauri-Volpi who went, not Gigli who by then was preparing to visit the United States.
Although he was now fifty-one and his voice had lost something of its lyric luster in full emission, Gigli had never been more unassailably preeminent among the tenors of Italy. In 1934 a veritable cult had formed around him, and this flowed on seven years later into an absolute supremacy that overshadowed all his contemporaries and impressed his style on most of his young colleagues. In addition to such established figures as Lauri-Volpi, Schipa, Ziliani, and Galliano Masini, and certain Wagnerian specialists, including Max Lorenz and Set Svanholm, a new or comparatively new generation of tenors was emerging, among them Ferruccio Tagliavini, Giuseppe Lugo, Luigi Font, Francesco Albanese, Mario Filippeschi, and Mario Del Monaco, and they found that they either had to emulate, or even imitate Gigli, as Tagliavini did with considerable success, or face a temporarily unresponsive public, which Mario Del Monaco confirmed was his early experience. Seven recordings Gigli made in Milan in June, only three of which were released on Victor—arias from Manon Lescaut, L’Arlesiana, Lodoletta, Andrea Chénier, Isabeau, and La forza del destino—amply document the condition of his voice at this time. The tone is darker but still pure and round, the play of his mezza voce still enables him to do anything he likes with it, the singing is overwhelming expressive, the interpretation has deepened, and the style is one of grandeur.
All the evidence confirms that the long and painful process whereby Gigli was repeatedly denounced as a Fascist with pro-German sympathies had its origins in forces and personalities with deep roots within Fascism itself, supplemented by connections with the criminal underworld and with bitterly envious elements in the world of opera. The links to certain singers at the Teatro Reale dell’Opera, through Pastore and Maria Benedetti, are obvious, as are those to rapacious criminality through Albano, and to the dying throes of Fascism through Salvarezza, Luigi Nilo, and Cosimo Russo. It was also significant that the press attacks on Gigli were consistently led by the monarchist Italia Nuova. That he was one of the least implicated of Italian singers in collaboration is confirmed by the persistent German suspicion that he and Emilio Cerroni might be Allied agents. If he was guilty of error it was that, like Icarus, he had flown too high, where the heat of the sun that controls human lives melted his wings. He had been too rich, too fa-mous, too admired by the Fascist and Nazi leaders, all of which had made him an easy and attractive target for criminals and ex-Fascists eager to conceal their own past actions by leveling accusations of fascism against him.
After he had sung La forza three times in six days, a jubilant Gigli went down around noon to inspect the Arena with a group of his colleagues in the scorching heat of the Verona summer. Feeling thirsty, as he often did with his diabetic condition, he imprudently suggested that they all enjoy a cool beer at a shaded bar in piazza Bra. While they were drinking and chatting he suddenly became dizzy and collapsed in a diabetic seizure. For a moment it was thought that he had died, but Vincenzo quickly administered an injection of insulin, Gigli regained consciousness, and was helped back to his hotel where he lay seriously ailing and shaken, unable to keep his schedule of performances. The following night Rina appeared with di Stefano in La bohème; a substitute tenor, Roberto Turini, replaced Gigli in a later performance of La forza; and the season ended with di Stefano utterly triumphant in a concluding I pescatore de perle. By then Gigli and his retainers were making their melancholy way home, disconsolate, depressed, and uncertain of the future. An epoch, it seemed, had ended.