About this Recording
8.558148-51 - Gigli: Beniamino Gigli - A Life in Words and Music (KAY)

Beniamino Gigli (1890–1957)


I was born with a voice and very little else: no money, no influence, no other talents. Had it not been for the peculiar formation of my vocal cords, I should probably at this moment be planing tables or sewing trousers, or mending shoes as my father did, in the little Italian town of Recanati where I was born on March the 20th, 1890. I should still be poor, as my father was. But God gave me a voice, and that changed everything. I was good at singing, and nothing else. I enjoyed singing, and nothing else: what else could I do?

This is the opening paragraph of the Memoirs of Beniamino Gigli, published in 1957, the year of his death. Gigli’s was a story of not-quite-rags, to riches.

Gigli became the first tenor to span the modern history of recorded sound, from acoustic recordings cut in 1918, to stereophonic tapes made in the early 1950s. In the 1920s, Gigli followed in the footsteps of Enrico Caruso as the tenor mainstay of the Italian opera repertoire at The Metropolitan Opera in New York. Returning to Europe in the 1930s, after a row over money with the cash-strapped Met, Gigli secured a government contract to perform all over Italy, unattached to any specific theatre: he was free to make his reputation where he wished. As a servant of the state he attracted the attention of the Italian dictator Mussolini, and on tour in Europe with the La Scala company he impressed the German High Command: Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels became fans. In fact, Gigli’s association with the senior cadres of European fascism would lead to political embarrassment when hostilities finally came to an end. At the same time, Gigli began to make popular films. His embrace of the technology of mass entertainment was total: films would sell records; radio would sell records. At one point Gigli’s record company would require six people to handle his discs alone.

Gigli dedicated his Memoirs to the memory of his mother, and to all his audiences. His popularity, worldwide, was boundless. In a sense, Gigli invented the notion of ‘cross-over’: through his enthusiasm for performing and recording everything from grand opera to popular Neapolitan songs, he capitalised on the enthusiasm of Italian composers, and their adoring public, for the tenor voice. Gigli travelled widely both as a member of opera companies and as a solo artist enjoying nothing more than visiting a new place and quickly having an audience eat out of his hand. Gigli gave stadium concerts and was one of the founders of opera in the open air at the Baths of Caracalla, the Roman amphitheatre which in more recent times provided the launch pad for the ‘Three Tenors’ phenomenon.

But Gigli’s appeal was not just a matter of smart or even opportunistic marketing: at the centre of it all was the voice. A bootmaker’s son from the provincial town of Recanati in the Marche region of North-Eastern Italy, Gigli had an irrepressible urge to sing. As soon as he was able to climb the steps of the tower of Recanati Cathedral, where his unemployed father had secured a job as bellringer, Gigli lost no opportunity to regale the townsfolk with his singing. Joining the Cathedral choir brought discipline and provided a thorough musical grounding for the young man, whose public debut involved impersonating a soprano in a student operetta put on in a theatre in Macerata. A fortuitous encounter with an opera-mad seminary cook encouraged Gigli to take his chances with a precarious career in music and prompted a move to Rome. After months of living in conditions of penury straight out of Puccini’s opera La Bohème, Gigli eventually found a sympathetic teacher with the twin requirements of belief in his natural talent and a willingness to give him lessons for no payment. On two occasions Gigli was saved from front-line military service by opera-loving army officers, and eventually he secured a scholarship to the prestigious Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome—although the admissions board had to bend the rules to admit a student with little in the way of music skills, save for an outstanding and utterly glorious lyric tenor voice. ‘At last, we’ve found THE tenor’ was the cry of the jury at the Parma vocal competition of 1914—a kind of singing ‘Olympics’; it was Gigli’s first serious bid to gain attention and professional validation after graduating from the Academy. The jury’s verdict opened the door to a professional career for Gigli, just as World War One was breaking out.

In short order, the Italian cities of Genoa, Palermo, and Caruso’s birthplace Naples bowed to Gigli’s talent, as did Verona and, finally, Rome. Gigli’s reputation soon travelled abroad: his first foreign tour was to Spain, and after causing a run on the box office in the important operatic city of Buenos Aires in South America Gigli was looking forward to a restful sea journey back to Naples: the plan was to have a few peaceful days at home in Recanati, before starting his search for a suitable house to buy in Rome. It was not to be: out of the blue came a letter from Giulio Gatti-Casazza, general manager of the world’s greatest opera house—The Metropolitan in New York—, offering him a ten-week contract. Gigli did not hesitate, and boarded the first ship bound for the United States. Soon, it was his good fortune to be able to step into the shoes of Enrico Caruso, whose career as the Met’s top star came to an abrupt end when his health collapsed. Though dogged for years by comparisons with his illustrious predecessor, Gigli’s Met years secured his reputation and laid the foundations of a considerable personal fortune. Through recordings, a worldwide audience could enjoy the voice which one American critic described as possessing ‘peculiar warmth and mellowness in the middle register, and notable for the beauty of its timbre, remarkably elastic, exquisite in mezza voce, luscious in full-blooded emission.’

As the techniques of the recording industry developed, Gigli began to record complete operas on 78s. For many people his 1938 version of La Bohème, recorded at La Scala, Milan with Licia Albanese as Mimì, was the first opera recording they ever acquired—among historic recordings of Bohème it remains unsurpassed. As the storm clouds of World War Two gathered in 1939, Gigli, in just one month, made superb recordings of both Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Verdi’s Requiem.

Gigli’s war was spent making films and taking part in morale-boosting opera performances. When the war ended, he survived accusations of collaboration and resumed his international career. He was fortunate not to suffer the blight of ‘declining years’: right up until his last public appearance in Washington in 1955, as recordings attest, his voice remained in remarkably good shape. Indeed, for the last eight years of his career he set himself a punishing schedule intended to allow as many people as possible to hear and remember him, and among those tours were visits to the remotest outposts of the United Kingdom, a country in which Gigli had an intensely loyal following.

When Gigli died of pneumonia in Rome on 30 November 1957, aged sixty-seven, he was given the biggest funeral ever accorded to an Italian singer. In his ambition to be regarded as ‘the people’s singer of Italy’ he undoubtedly succeeded. For all the lingering criticism of Gigli’s generally wooden acting and habitual use of the tenorial sob which earned him the nickname ‘Mr Gihigli’, the sweet, glowing warmth and natural humanity of the voice is the quality that speaks to succeeding generations, which continue to buy and enjoy his re-released recordings. For us, Gigli’s recorded legacy offers a vivid and tangible link to the Golden Age of singing.

Graeme Kay

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