Caruso’s 25-year career, stretching from 1895 to 1920, included 863 appearances at the New York Metropolitan Opera before he died from an infection at the age of 48. His fame has lasted to the present day despite the limited marketing and promotional vehicles available during Caruso’s era. (He was, nonetheless, a client of Edward Bernays, during the latter’s tenure as a press agent in the United States.) Publicity in Caruso’s time relied on newspapers, particularly wire services, along with magazines, photography and relatively instantaneous communication via the telephone and the telegraph, to spread a message and raise a performer’s profile.
Caruso biographers Pierre Key, Bruno Zirato and Stanley Jackson attribute Caruso’s fame not only to his voice and musicianship but also to a keen business sense and an enthusiastic embrace of commercial sound recording, then in its infancy. Many opera singers of Caruso’s time rejected the phonograph (or gramophone) due to the low fidelity of early discs. Others, including Adelina Patti, Francesco Tamagno and Nellie Melba, exploited the new technology once they became aware of the financial returns that Caruso was reaping from his initial recording sessions.
Caruso made more than 260 extant recordings in America for the Victor Talking Machine Company (later RCA Victor) from 1904 to 1920, and he earned millions of dollars in royalties from the retail sales of the resulting 78-rpm discs. (Previously, in Italy in 1902–1903, he had cut five batches of records for the Gramophone & Typewriter Company, the Zonophone label and Pathé Records.) He was also heard live from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in 1910, when he participated in the first public radio broadcast to be transmitted in the United States.
Caruso appeared in newsreels, too, as well as a short experimental film made by Thomas Edison and two commercial motion pictures. For Edison, in 1911, Caruso portrayed the role of Edgardo in a filmed scene from Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor. In 1918, he appeared in a dual role in the American silent film My Cousin for Paramount Pictures. This movie included a sequence of him on stage performing the aria “Vesti la giubba” from Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci. The following year Caruso played a character called Cosimo in another movie, The Splendid Romance. Producer Jesse Lasky paid Caruso $100,000 to appear in these two efforts but they both flopped at the box office.
While Caruso sang at such venues as La Scala in Milan, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in London, the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, and the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, he was also the leading tenor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City for 18 consecutive seasons. It was at the Met, in 1910, that he created the role of Dick Johnson in Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West.
Caruso’s voice extended up to high C in its prime and grew in power and weight as he grew older. He sang a broad spectrum of roles, ranging from lyric, to spinto, to dramatic parts, in the Italian and French repertoires. In the German repertoire, Caruso sang only two roles, Assad (in Karl Goldmark’s The Queen of Sheba) and Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin, both of which he performed in Italian in Buenos Aires in 1899 and 1901 respectively.