Gigli was born in Recanati, in the Marche, the son of a shoe-maker who loved opera. His brother Lorenzo became a famous Italian painter.
In 1914, he won first prize in an international singing competition in Parma. His operatic debut came on October 15, 1914 when he played Enzo in Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda in Rovigo, following which he was in great demand.
Gigli made many important debuts in quick succession, and always in Mefistofele: Teatro Massimo di Palermo (March 31, 1915), Teatro San Carlo di Napoli (December 26, 1915), Teatro Costanzi di Roma (December 26, 1916), La Scala (November 19, 1918), and finally the Metropolitan (November 26, 1920). Two other great Italian tenors present on the roster of Met singers during the 1920s also happened to be Gigli’s chief contemporary rivals for tenor supremacy in the Italian repertory—namely, Giovanni Martinelli and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi.
Some of the roles with which Gigli became particularly associated during this period included Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Rodolfo in Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème and the title role in Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, both of which he would later record in full.
Gigli rose to true international prominence after the death of the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso in 1921. Such was his popularity with audiences he was often called “Caruso Secondo”, though he much preferred to be known as “Gigli Primo.” In fact, the comparison was not valid as Caruso had a bigger, darker, more heroic voice than Gigli’s honey-toned lyric instrument.
Gigli left the Met in 1932, ostensibly after refusing to take a pay cut. Giulio Gatti-Casazza, the Met’s then general manager, was furious at his company’s most popular male singer; he told the press that Gigli was the only singer not to accept the pay cut. There were in fact several others, Lily Pons and Rosa Ponselle among them; and it is well documented that Gatti-Casazza gave himself a large pay increase in 1931, so that after the pay cut in 1932 his salary remained the same as it had been originally. Furthermore, Gatti was careful to hide Gigli’s counter offer to the press, in which the singer offered to sing five or six concerts gratis, which in dollars saved was worth more than Gatti’s imposed pay cut.
After leaving the Met, Gigli returned again to Italy, and sang in houses there, elsewhere in Europe, and in South America. He was criticized for being a favorite singer of the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, and toward the end of World War II was able to give few performances. However he immediately returned to the stage when the war ended in 1945, and the audience acclaim was greater and more clamorous than ever.
In the last few years of his life, Gigli gave concert performances more often than he appeared on stage. Before his retirement in 1955, Gigli undertook an exhausting world tour of Farewell Concerts. This impaired his health in the two years that remained to him, during which time he helped prepare his Memoirs (based primarily on an earlier Memoir, fleshed out by a series of interviews). Gigli died in Rome in 1957.