Born: March 20, 1890
Died: November 30, 1957
When John McCormack told his admirer on Caruso’s death, that the greatest tenor was dead, and the next one had not yet arrived,
I’m afraid that wasn’t quite true. The next one had indeed arrived and had already been singing for seven years.
All the great ranking tenors had been surrounded by others of great merit.
Mario had had Norite, Donzelli, Dupree and Tambourlick to contend with.
Deresce had Mascini, Stanio, Giarri and Tomganio.
Caruso had De Lucia, Bonci, Zenatello, Sobinoff and Venus and Beniamino Gigli, our next subject, had Martinelli, Pertile, Scipa and Lauri Volpi.
Today Gigli’s reputation is not what it once was, but I have never been, in the slightest doubt, that during my lifetime, it was he, who was the world ranking tenor.
I remember once, taking a poll among my colleagues in the office where I was employed, everyone had heard of Gigli, none had heard of Martinelli, Pertile, or Lauri Volpe. One had heard of Scipa, (through a film, if I remember correctly) and that was how it was.
To the general public Gigli was the world’s greatest tenor. Getting them to name another contender, usually produced John McCormick or Richard Tauber. Not surprising as these three tenors were the most popular of my generation. Although during the war, Jussi Bjorling’s name would certainly be mentioned.
I have been fortunate enough to see most of the great tenors of my time, when I saw Gigli, he was over 60, but he had to come on stage with his coat, hat, scarf, and gloves on, before we would let him go.
No other singer created quite the same electrifying effect as he did. I remember a wonderful moment, when a point was reached during an aria that called for a patriotic outburst. Taking a step forward and sucking in a huge amount of air, he let fly “fortissimo”, until his face was purple.
I thought that the Italians in the audience were going to bring the roof in.
He was born on the 20th of March 1819 in the little town of Riccinati near Ancona, in Italy. The youngest of six children.
His father was a poor shoemaker, who acted as sacristan at the old cathedral to have met his meager income.
As so often happens, it was helping his father in church, that led to his first musical experiences. And brought to his attention, his wonderful boy soprano voice.
In 1911, he won a scholarship for the Academy of Santa Sicilia in Rome. And studied there for three years under Catone, the great baritone, and then Enrico Rosatti, who became his main teacher and benefactor at this time.
Then came the famous international singing competition in the summer of 1914 at Parma.
105 participants took part, including 32 tenors. Merli was among them, you may remember.
Gigli ran off with first prize.
The judges including Alessandro Bonci triumphantly proclaiming that they had found the tenor, they were right!
The result of the competition in Parma, should have been an engagement at the opera in Chicago.
But the great war proved an insurmountable obstacle. However, many Italian opera houses competed to engage him, and on the 14th of October 1914, he made his debut in La Giaconda in Rovigo.
This performance took place on the very stage that Katonah, Tamagno and Starcciari made their debuts. And Gigli’s was an extraordinary success.
From this moment on, there were no setbacks for him, just a steady rise to the very top.
After his debut, Gigli was able to choose between a great many offers from many opera houses. He wisely chose, to Le Seraphin’s guidance, and sang under him in Genoa in Mano with Rosina Storchio.
Next came Palermo and Bologna, before his first San Carlo appearance at Naples, this was in Boito’s Mefistofele in November, December 1915.
He also sang in Cavalleria Rusticana, Tosca, Mano and La Favorita there, during the next year.
1916 saw him appear in Bergamo, Turin, and Verona before his debut at the Constanza in Rome, again in Mefistofele.
In 1917, he ventured abroad for the first time, to Spain, singing in Madrid and Barcelona. And although well received, the critics were of the opinion that he should have chosen something other than Mefistofele, as both Garri and Mussini had excelled in this role, in their own prime.
He sang in Mascagni’s Lodoletta, in the composer’s hometown of Livorno, under Mascagni himself, to great acclaim.
1918 was a red-letter year, first his La Scala debut, in Mefistofele under Toscanini and his first recordings in Milan for HMV, who had secured his exclusive contract. The first of 309 published sides.
1919 saw his first tour of South America. The Cologne saw him in Mefistofele with Muzio and then in Giaconda Lucrezia Borgia, and La Boheme.
The following summer he again returned to South America, appearing in Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Paolo.
At the end of that year, he was invited to New York.
The manager of the metropolitan, Gatti Casazza had of course, noticed the rise of the new star in the operatic firmament, and as he needed a tenor to share the burden with Caruso, he now engaged Gigli at the metropolitan.
His debut was in Mefistofle on the 26th of March 1920, with Alda and Dedua. His first performance was brilliantly successful, the audience welcomed him with ovations and the critics noted that Mr. Gigli had a fine voice, a fresh well delivered lyric tenor, which he used last night with excellent art and musical taste.
And that he had a voice of really fine quality, which he does not often force, still fresh and possessed of colour and he sings, not without finish and style. He was evidently at home in the part and indicated assurance, an experience on the stage.
Though his action rarely rose above the safe and conventional. He will undoubtedly be another valued asset to the company.
Gigli’s contract at the metropolitan was successfully renewed every few years, but the last one, which was valid for 1930 to 1935, Gigli himself renounced in 1932, the year of the Great Depression.
He’d already accepted a small cut in salary, when a further 50% was demanded, that was enough. He had spent twelve seasons at the Metropolitan and since they represent his most important years as a singer, we must take a brief look at some highlights.
He gave 369 complete performances on the Metropolitan stage, singing most often in Boheme 31 times, Giaconda 29 times, L’Africana 28, Andrea Chinai 27, and Mefistofele 24.
In his first season he sang with Emi Destine, for during the following seasons, his female partners were, for the most part, Bore, Alda, Ponselle and Muzio. In the Baritone parts, Deluca, Scotti, Ruffo and Donezzi alternated with each other.
And among the basses were heard principally, Dedua, Mardinez, Ludacris, and Chaliapin.
He arrived just as Caruso was succumbing to ill health. And he had to take over from him in Andrea Chinai. A role which was to become his favourite.
When Caruso died in 1921, Gigli found himself in the middle of a stormy and widespread debate, on which singer should be regarded as the great Neapolitan successor?
The newspapers interviewed all kinds of people from politicians to graphologists, about their opinions of The Three Tenors concerned.
Creme, Martinelli, and Gigli. So much so, that Gigli felt himself obliged to make a statement in Musical America, in which he declared that these arguments about Caruso’s successor was a sacrilege to his memory, and that instead, they ought all to do their best to carry on the heritage of Caruso in following his example of always aiming higher.
In 1922 he took part in two metropolitans firsts. Larose Lewaiyer and Catalonia’s Lorelei. In November of that year, he and Chaliapin fell out, about how he, Gigli, should sing Faust in Mefistofele. This was a Gigli War Horse, and no Russian was going to tell him how to sing it.
They made it up over a plate of spaghetti and became good friends thereafter.
Another remarkable event was Romeo and Juliet with Gigli, Bore and DeLuca, rave notices at every performance. But even more remarkable still, was his performance in Marta.
Since the days of Toscanini, no encores were allowed at the Metropolitan and Gatti Casazza severely maintained the tradition, but the audience went wild after Gigli’s exceptional beautiful la Paris, and no one could prevent the encore of the aria.
Gigli had received a letter from Giordano in 1922, thanking him for his singing of Andrea Chinai at the Met and expressing the hope, that he would sing Fedora and Tena del Apathy there.
The Fedora performances took place in 1925, with Yaritza. And the Tena del Apathy in 1926 with Alda and Ruffo.
Mignon was a tremendous success in 1927, with Bore. And one year later in 1928, he took part in the first American performance of Puccini’s la Renderer with Bore and Ludacris.
Not at all renowned as a Mozart singer, his performances in the Don Giovanni of 1929 with a Rydberg and Pinza, were very well received.
So was Mascagni’s Erice in 1931, which he sang with Edberg, Deluca, and Pinza.
In 1952 came the crash, Gigli sang in La Sambula with Lily Ponze, then in one special performance of Rigoletto and then he was off.
As a tribute to those glorious days, let’s hear him with those wonderful partners Elizabeth Edberg and Ezio Pinza.
Gigli’s 12 years at the Metropolitan were by no means, his only operatic appearances. Indeed, one of Lauri Volpi’s caustic comments about his rival’s enormous popularity, was that he sang everywhere, any day, and anytime, or words to that effect.
He constantly returned to South America singing there in 1921, 1925 and 1928.
He went back to Italy every summer, allowing himself only a short rest, before taking part in a large number of concert tours and opera performances there. He also sang regularly in other parts of Europe.
In 1924, he visited Berlin for the first time. Was a huge success in Marta, Boheme, Tosca, and Rigoletto there, establishing the immense popularity he ever-after enjoyed in Germany.
In Hamburg for example, after a fine performance of Tosca, the public simply refused to leave the theater and Gigli was compelled to appear in the door of the safety curtain and calm the audience by singing O Solo Mio.
In 1925, it was the turn of Stockholm and Copenhagen, and during 1929, he was in Austria, Hungary, and Switzerland, in addition to Germany. And remember, that these visits were from Italy, after his Metropolitan performances, and before, or after, his Italian appearances – for example he was at the Verona arena in 1929, after the tour already mentioned.
In May 1930, he appeared in Paris and London for the first time. Covent Garden heard him in Andrea Chinai, Marta, Tosca and La Traviata. And he was back again in 1931 in Rigoletto and La bohème.
After he left the Metropolitan, the Italians, could at last, hear their great tenor during the regular Opera seasons and he was in constant demand all over Italy, despite the effects of the depression now reaching there. When he sang, it was a sell-out.
If there were any special centenary performances (and the Italians don’t miss a trick on these) Gigli was always first to be asked – for example:
1935, the centenary of Valines Birth, Palermo Operetta,
1936 Gomez 40th anniversary of his death il Gilani
1940 Mascagni 50th anniversary of Cavalleria Rusticana
1941 40 years since Verdi’s death in Rome, the requiem mass
1954 centenary of Catalan’s birth, performances at Luca and so forth.
And he was a great favorite at the open-air venues such as LeBas of Caracalla and the Verona arena, singing regular to crowds of 20,000.
Once after performance at the Venite in Venice, he left the theatre to find a large crowd who had been unable to get tickets for the sold-out performance and straight away arranged an impromptu concert in Saint Mark’s square, which lasted long into the night.
On another occasion in Verona, he was followed to the hotel by an insatiable crowd, and ended up singing from the window of his rooms until the day broke over the city
Gigli did not return to Covent Garden until 1938, when he sang in Rigoletto with Pagliughi and Tagliabue, and he was back in 1939 for Aida, with Camelia and Spiniani.
He returned to South America in 1933 and in 1935 for operatic performances, and to North America in 1938, for a long tour covering some 30 concerts in various cities including those as far apart as Vancouver and Havana.
Then on the 23rd of January 1939, he again stood on the stage of the Metropolitan and was greeted with tremendous ovations, he had not been forgotten there.
He sang firstly in Aida with Rydberg, Castagno and Talia buoy and then followed with Tosca, Lucia and Rigoletto and in another Aida, this time with Milonov.
Neither Martinelli, Pertile nor Lauri Volpi made any sound films, as far as I know. Gigli made over 20, yet another yardstick of his enormous popularity.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, he was confined to Italy, but as soon as hostilities were over, he was back at Covent Garden with the San Carlo company in 1946. This time with his daughter Rena, who had a short and relatively successful career.
Then began, the now famous Gigli tours all the world over.
South America again in 1947 after an absence of 12 years and again in 1948 and 1951.
Egypt in 1950. South Africa in 1951. Finland in 1954. Britain, Austria, America, and Canada in 1955 and so it went on, year in, year out, until his death in 1957. And the astonishing thing was that the voice was still so youthful and beautiful.
Looking at his biographical details and what I have mentioned here is only a fraction, I find it almost incredulous, that he could remain almost unimpaired for so long. Everywhere, the critics and public alike, were astonished at this longevity.
There he stands, the man is old, but the voice is young. One is listening to and witnessing, a wonder that no-one can explain.
Let the last words go to his biographers.
It is however, not only his golden voice and his unequalled art of singing that places Gigli in a class by himself among tenors, he is also a born musician, who sings in order to give out something of his self, to give everything from his warm heart.
He has a supernal gift of imparting to his singing that personal magnetism which always enthuses his audience, that indescribable something, in his personality as a singer, which condenses in itself, all talent and technique, and which excites and calms us, and gives us that thing of beauty which is a joy forever.
It is Gigli’s generosity in humanity, his irresistible charm, and unsparing-ness with his gifts in art and life which makes us not only admire his marvelous art of singing but also love the singer himself. Then he had been a Gigli’s artistic temperament as brim-full with the passion of song, he is a singer born, he is the incarnation of the music. It is said of him, that it is as if he were filled with song and could do nothing but sing.
Gigli himself was touched on this and words that could be written with letters of fire across the story of his life as a singer.
Let me sing and I am content.