The Jame A. Drake Interviews • Nina Morgana (Part 2)

NINA MORGANA
(Part 2 of 3)
By James A. Drake

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Nina Morgana, c. 1920 (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Returning to Elisir d’amore when you sang it with Gigli, what do you recall of those performances?

My first Elisir with Gigli was in March 1930.  I sang Adina with Gigli, De Luca, and Pinza, with Serafin conducting.  I wasn’t cast for that performance—Editha Fleischer was supposed to sing it—but I got the last-minute call from Gatti-Casazza, and I went on in her place.  I did it well enough that he kept me with the same cast for several more performances.  I also sang Elisir with Tito Schipa as Nemorino.

 

How did Gigli and Schipa compare in Elisir?

Both of them were excellent as Nemorino, and both received ample applause for “Quanto è bella,” which is a better indicator than “Una furtiva lagrima” of the fit between the voice and the characterization of Nemorino.  In that role, Beniamino Gigli was the perfect Nemorino.

 

Even more so than Caruso, whom you saw and heard in Elisir?

I saw five performances of Elisir with Caruso as Nemorino, and I heard him sing “Una furtiva lagrima,” either as a published selection or as an encore, during the concerts I did with him.  As my late husband, Bruno Zirato, wrote in his book and said in radio interviews, Caruso never received more than cursory applause after “Quanto è bella.”  As soon as he made his exit, he would exclaim to Bruno, “Pigs!  They are pigs, these people in the audience!  I give everything I have to ‘Quanto è bella,’ and they do not applaud!”  Yet every time Gigli sang “Quanto è bella,” the audience would erupt in applause.

 

To what do you attribute the difference in the audiences’ reactions to Caruso and Gigli in that aria?

There were two factors, in my opinion, and I will try to explain them as precisely as I can.  The main factor of the two was Caruso’s splendid recordings of “Una furtiva lagrima,” of which he made two versions for the Victor Talking Machine Company—the first one with piano accompaniment [in 1904], and a subsequent one with an orchestra [in 1908].  Both versions were staples of the Victor Company catalogs in their day, and those recordings sold by the thousands.

Consequently, Metropolitan Opera audiences came to Elisir d’amore to hear Caruso sing “Una furtiva lagrima.”  Had he recorded “Quanto è bella,” the audiences probably would have applauded him as ardently as they did after he sang “Una furtiva lagrima.”  But other than that aria and “Venti scudi,” which he made with De Luca, Caruso never recorded anything else from Elisir d’amore.

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.Benimino Gigli (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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You were present at the ill-fated performance of Elisir d’amore at the Brooklyn Academy, when the performance had to be halted at the end of the first act because a blood vessel burst in Caruso’s throat.  Weren’t you to have sung Adina in that performance?

That happened on Saturday, December 11, 1920, and yes, I was to have sung Adina.  The day before the performance, however, Gatti-Casazza told me that for a variety of reasons—none of which he explained—he would have to give that performance to Evelyn Scotney.  I didn’t object, nor could I have objected to “the boss,” and I assumed that there would be many future performances in which I could sing with Caruso.

 

What do you remember about the trauma of that event? 

Early in the first act, before “Quanto è bella,” a small vein hemorrhaged in Caruso’s throat.  He was still able to sing, but a trickle of blood formed on his lower lip, and in order to wipe it away, he used the neckerchief of his costume.  Between phrases, he would dab his lips on the kerchief to blot the blood.  In the wings, when Gatti realized what was happening, he motioned to Bruno to rush to get more kerchiefs.  One by one, those were passed from the wings to Caruso, and as each became saturated with his blood, he put it in the circular well that was part of the scenery.

At the close of the act, Caruso was examined by a doctor.  Before the performance began, Gatti-Casazza had called for a doctor after Caruso noticed a small amount of blood when he was gargling in his dressing room.  I don’t know what the doctor did—I was not near him when he was treating Caruso—but there was an air of gloom backstage.

As I was standing near an elevator, Gatti-Casazza saw me, and he pointed to his nose and said to me, “Che naso!”—in other words, in English, “What a nose I have,” meaning that he had had a sort of premonition, and for that reason had not wanted me to sing Adina that day.  I didn’t believe him, although I nodded politely when he said it.  I think that when he saw me, he just felt that he should say something because he knew that I was disappointed by his decision to replace me with Evelyn Scotney.

 

On the topic of Caruso and Gigli, you mentioned that there were two factors in the difference in audiences’ receptions of Gigli and Caruso as Nemorino.  The first, as you explained, was attributable to Caruso’s recordings of “Una furtiva lagrima.”  What was the second factor?

Although Caruso could portray a bumpkin onstage, and even in a movie [3], his persona was inherently unlike the character of Nemorino.  Gigli, who was sweet, kind, and generous, was basically a simple man who had an extraordinarily beautiful voice.  Caruso, by contrast, was a complex man who, over the years, had acquired a level of sophistication which was reflected in every aspect of his daily life.

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Would you give us some examples of how that sophistication was manifested in Caruso’s lifestyle?

With his extraordinary success came, of course, an ever-expanding personal wealth, which enabled him to acquire the finest of everything—the finest clothing, the finest automobiles, the finest homes, the finest objets d’art, and even the finest cigarettes, which were made exclusively for him from a special Egyptian tobacco.  Every fabric, whether it was the material of his shirts, ties, and handkerchiefs, or the sheets and pillowcases on his bed, was the most luxurious that money could buy, or else he would not have acquired them.

I cannot think of another artist who appreciated luxury more than Caruso.  Well, let me amend that because I can think of one:  Feodor Chaliapin.  But I can’t think of another tenor who appreciated luxury more than Caruso did.  He had risen from near-poverty in Naples, and when he became famous and wealthy, he indulged in luxury—almost boyishly so, in certain ways.

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.Caruso with Bruno Zirato (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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For instance, when he retired to bed at night, Caruso wanted to be surrounded by goose-down pillows from head to foot.  So at his bedtime, my husband Bruno, who was his secretary, would delicately place one large pillow under Caruso’s head, and would systematically place six identical pillows around his body—two on each side for his arms and legs, and two at his feet.  Bruno said that the expression on Caruso’s face, as he closed his eyes and then spread his fingers on the pillows, was as tender and serene as a little boy’s.

 

Did Caruso ever speak of Gigli in your presence?

Indeed!  Not only did he speak of Gigli, he discreetly attended a performance of Cavalleria rusticana in which Gigli sang Turiddu.  Caruso didn’t attend the performance expressly to hear Gigli, but rather to be present for a triple bill that included the American premiere of a ballet called Il carillon magico.  The star of the ballet was Rosina Galli, who was Gatti-Casazza’s paramour at the time.

Caruso also came to see L’Oracolo with his old friend Antonio Scotti.  L’Oracolo was part of the triple bill, as was Cavalleria with Gigli and Emmy Destinn.   Backstage afterward, Caruso not only congratulated Gigli but embraced him as well.  A day or so later, he drew a wonderful caricature of Gigli, which he had Bruno hand-deliver to the Ansonia Hotel, where Gigli was living.

 

Caruso is quoted as having said, “He could have waited until I died,” or words to that effect.  Did he say that in your presence?

To the best of my knowledge, he never made any such comment.  First of all, it was entirely out of character for Caruso to make any negative remark about another singer.  Being a public figure, a “celebrity” as we would say today, Caruso was acutely aware that anything he said would be repeated, if not quoted, in one of the newspapers.  So he weighed his words very carefully when he was in the presence of others—which was most of the time.

What Caruso said in my presence after the triple-bill with Gigli in Cavalleria was, “I used to sound like that when I was young.”  He said that matter-of-factly, not ruefully, and certainly not enviously.  The way he said it was not that Gigli literally had the same voice that Caruso did when he was young.  Rather, he meant that one would expect a young, very gifted tenor to have the lyric sound that Gigli had.

 

Caruso would have had no reason to envy Gigli’s success in Chénier, in other words?

Of course not!  And that alleged comment about “waiting until I died” implies that Caruso was somehow preoccupied with death.  But the fact was that he had a new wife and a new daughter, and he seemed to us, and certainly to his doctors, to be recovering from the illness he had suffered.  He had empyema, which as my doctor-brother Dante explained to me, was an abscess that had formed in Caruso’s pleural cavity.  When he and Dorothy and their daughter Gloria sailed for Italy, where he could relax and regain his stamina, he looked well, although he had lost twenty pounds or more.

 

To be clear, then, you place no stock in the often-repeated statement, “At least they could have waited until I died,” which Caruso is alleged to have said when Gigli was given the Met premiere of Andrea Chénier

I don’t put any stock in it because it is contradicted by Caruso’s regard for Gigli when he heard him as Turiddu—and the caricature he drew of Gigli is the evidence I would point to.  Caruso never caricatured anyone he didn’t like or didn’t admire. [4]   But suppose, for the sake of the allegation, that Caruso did say it.  If so, he would have been referring to Gatti-Casazza, not Gigli, because it was Gatti who assigned and approved every cast.  Beniamino Gigli didn’t cast Beniamino Gigli, Giulio Gatti-Casazza was the one who cast Beniamino Gigli—and every other artist at the Metropolitan Opera.

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.Giulio Gatti-Casazza and his wife, Frances Alda, October 19, 1915 (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Would you describe your relationship with Gigli as friendly, or merely collegial?

We weren’t social friends by any means—he was a shy man offstage—but I had a lot of affection for him, and I think he felt the same way toward me.  There are two special memories I have of him, and both occurred in connection with Elisir d’amore.  There was one passage that I had a slight problem with—and Gigli sensed it during our first performance together.  In every Elisir after that, when that passage was coming, he would turn toward me and say, “Andiam’, Cara, andiam’”—in English, “Go ahead, my dear, come on, you can do it!”  His encouragement made such a difference to me!

The second memory I have of Gigli was at the end of Act One of Elisir d’amore.  I was so taken by his singing of “Quanto è bella” that I said to him in the wings, “I have never heard that aria sung more beautifully than you have just sung it!”  I couldn’t come right out and say, “You sang just ‘Quanto è bella’ more beautifully than even Caruso sang it.”  That would have been improper.  But he knew what I meant, what I was actually saying, without making any mention of Caruso.

When I said it, his eyes told me that he wanted to be sure that he had heard me correctly.  An instant or two later, the look in his eyes showed that he realized what I had said.  He answered by saying, “Thank you—oh, thank you!”  Many years later, when he gave a farewell concert at Carnegie Hall, I went to see him after the performance.  Bruno and I told him that the beauty of his tones were the same as they had been when we first heard him.  He said to me, “You were not only my Adina, but you lifted the weight”—meaning the weight of Caruso’s legacy—“from my little shoulders.”

 

Do you remember the Met premiere of Andrea Chénier?

Yes, very clearly.  I was in the Caruso box with Dorothy [Caruso] for the first in-house performance of Andrea Chénier on March 7, 1921.  The premiere was supposed to be on February 26, but Gigli was ill and it had to be postponed.  He sang a performance in Philadelphia a few days before the in-house premiere [March 1], but I wasn’t there [in Philadelphia] so I can’t speak about it.  But the first in-house performance of Chénier was superb!

When Gigli sang “Un dì all’azzurro spazio,” it almost had to be repeated because of the prolonged applause.  I have heard many performances of Andrea Chénier since then, but no tenor I have ever heard could match Gigli for vocal beauty in that role.  But he was not the only “star of the show”:  Claudia Muzio was Maddalena, and she too was unmatched in that role.  That’s not just my opinion, but the opinion of Rosa Raisa and Rosa Ponselle.  Both of them said in my presence, at different times, that Muzio had no equal as Maddalena.

 

What was Caruso’s reaction, if you know, to the premiere of Andrea Chénier with Gigli?

A few days after the premiere, Bruno and I were having supper with Caruso in his apartment, and he asked me how Gigli had done.  I said that I thought he had done very well, and that the audience had reacted very favorably.  I was never less than honest with Caruso—even at his expense.  One time, I asked him why he sang two and three phrases in one breath when it would be more artistic to take breaths in the appropriate spots.  Although Bruno probably wanted to strangle me for being so brazen, Caruso answered me by saying, “That’s emotion”—meaning, that’s how he felt when he was singing, and that’s how he conveyed in his voice what he felt emotionally.

As far as Andrea Chénier is concerned, keep in mind that Caruso had sung it in London at an earlier point in his career.  He was more than familiar with [the opera], and he was pleased that Gigli had done well at the premiere.  As I said before, Caruso liked Gigli, and had no reason whatsoever to envy him.

 

Do you have any idea how Gigli regarded Caruso?

Yes, he regarded Caruso as we all did—as the King.  In deference to him, we addressed him as “The Master” [Maestro] when conversing with him.

 

What do you recall of Gigli’s Met debut?

What I remember the most was how exciting it was to hear such an exquisite tenor voice!  The beauty of Gigli’s voice was almost beyond description.  I have heard most of the great tenors, the tenor “stars,” for nearly seventy years, and not one of them had a voice more beautiful than Beniamino Gigli’s.  Now, at that time he had a tendency to turn toward the audience in “Dai campi, dai prati” and other solo moments, which was acceptable in many Italian [opera] houses.  But Gigli’s voice was so inherently beautiful that his tendency to sing to the audience was not that objectionable, at least not to me.

 

Was Faust in Mefistofele his best role during his debut season?

No, not compared to his Nemorino, nor to his Turiddu in Cavalleria rusticana.  His Turiddu was better than his Faust, in my opinion.  It wasn’t the “Siciliana” [in Cavalleria] so much as the “Brindisi” and “Mamma! quel vino,” which he sang with complete abandon, yet without ever forcing his voice.

 

In what other roles do you recall hearing Gigli during the early years of his Met career?

I heard him in Tosca with Emmy Destinn [on December 10, 1920] but I would have to say that he was not up to her standards as an actor-singer.  He sang the music beautifully, of course—but unlike, say, Turiddu, he couldn’t convey the proper emotion for Cavaradossi during that early part of his Met career.  It wasn’t just that he was not an actor, and was not conventionally handsome.  I don’t know how to say it except that the role was “above” Gigli at that point in his career.  He didn’t have the demeanor of a painter, an artist, in that role.  By comparison, Lauri-Volpi had it in abundance.

I remember Gigli’s first Edgardo in Lucia during his debut season, and it was excellent in every way.  Edgardo is a vocal role, not really a dramatic role, although the last act requires at least a modicum of acting.  But one listens to Lucia, not watches it, because the roles are static and most of the music, especially the Sextet and the Mad Scene, is so familiar to audiences through recordings and radio broadcasts.

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[3] The film to which Morgana is referring is My Cousin, a 1918 comedy produced by Jesse Lasky, of Famous Players—Lasky, in which Caruso portrayed a world-renowned opera singer as well as a simple, peasant-like cousin. Although the film was not as commercially successful as Lasky and his partners had hoped, its special effects (in particular, a scene in which Caruso shakes hands with himself as the “cousin”) were commended in the press at the time, and in subsequent histories of silent film.  See Kevin Brownlow, The Parade’s Gone By (Secker & Warburg, 1968), an oral history of the silent era, and Martin M. Marks, Music and the Silent Film:  Contexts and Case Studies, 1895-1924 (Oxford University Press, 1997).

[4]  Letter from Enrico Caruso to Leo Slezak, 1910:  “You should know that I make caricatures of great men or friends….”

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© 2018 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved. Short excerpts may be quoted without permission, provided the source and a link to this posting are cited. All other use requires prior written consent of the copyright holder. Please e-mail Mainspring Press with questions, comments, or reproduction requests for the author.

Photographs from the Library of Congress’ Bain Collection are in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.

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Coming in Part 3 (Conclusion): Caruso and Morgana on tour, more recollections of the Met, and Morgana’s 1920 Victor test recording (MP3)